Four Greenhouses that Point to the Future of Urban Building

This summer I was lucky enough to teach courses in bio-inspired design at Schumacher College in Devon, England, and the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. At both institutions I saw what I think is the future of urban building, although it will not, I am quite sure, look anything like what I observed and discussed at these quiet, idyllic places.

This future will have, I believe, a large element of the past within it. Green ideas that were the stuff of hippie dreams 40 years ago have been given two gifts from Father Time: new relevance in the centers of capital, thanks to the urgency of climate change, and new feasibility in the centers of design, thanks to our advances in technology and industry.

The humble greenhouse appears to represent some of these trends, and why not? It is a building meant to support life in a context broader than a single, human species.

1. The Omega Center's Eco-Machine

Take, for example, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL). This is the first building in the United States to meet both the Living Building Challenge criteria and U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum standards. The 6,250 square foot building is a zero-net energy building, and actually feeds energy back into the grid over the course of a year. Solar panel arrays and a geothermal heat exchange system make this possible for a building that is used as a classroom during the milder times of the year.

The building and its constructed wetlands and dispersal fields process all the wastewater from the 195 acre Omega campus and return it to the local aquifer. No chemicals are used to treat the waste; plants and a special recipe of fungi, algae and bacteria in the soil and in tanks do the work.

Omega Center greenhouse

This so-called Eco-Machine, designed by John Todd Ecological Design, brings blackwater to potable levels in seven sequential steps over the course of 36 hours. These stations include a beautiful 4500 square foot greenhouse full of flowering tropical plants growing in tanks. Most of the water flow is gravity powered. Any energy used is supplied by solar power. The plant processes as much as 38,000 gallons per day and has a design capacity of 52,000 gallons per day.

It has been a long journey from the days of John Todd's New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts in the 1970's, but the OCSL is a very gratifying sight indeed.

So why do I think this small wastewater treatment plant masquerading as a beautiful building (by BNIM Architects of Kansas City, Missouri) heralds future trends in urban construction?

First: Closed loops. The loop that the OCSL closes is the hydrological cycle. Omega takes water from the local aquifer, borrows it for toilets, sinks and showers and then cleans it back up before returning it to its natural, underground holding tank. If we are to save our resources and energy, we will have to close all of these material cycles or loops.

Second: Making buildings work harder. In the future they will have to multi-task like the rest of us and go beyond shelter and interior climate control. They will actually have to improve conditions around them, including things like providing more oxygen, or storing heat, or educating people. The OCSL design only hints at some of this, but I believe that such enhanced functionality will be in this future and will be integrated increasingly into building design.

Third: the building / nature interface. If we are to close natural material cycles and solve challenges beyond the walls of individual buildings, as I believe we must, then we must inevitably come to this third trend: truly integrating the built environment into existing natural systems.

We can't afford not to take advantage of the free services that these systems provide, and can't afford, any longer, to screw them up.

Next page: Bringing greenhouse principles to greening the Sahara