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Across the United States, and in many other countries, we have begun to feel the strain that our crumbling infrastructure has on our economy and daily lives. Replacing large, centralized infrastructure is costly, highly political, and frequently sees no payback. Many localities are incentivizing point-source reductions in water and energy consumption and production of waste. In the case of the latter, Living Machines are used to treat the waste water produced within a building’s envelope. When operating properly, Living Machines  can significantly reduce the total water demand by treating the waste water generated and recycling it throughout the building for non-consumptive uses.

Living Machines are, by design, a combination of aquaculture and constructed wetland systems. They combine and facilitate biological, chemical, and physical interactions between the wastewater and the ecologically engineered system. Within these systems are specifically chosen plants and micro- and macro-organisms that help break down and uptake pollutants within the water. The wastewater is a shared resource that enables the symbiotic relationships that allow each organism to co-benefit from the other’s function. At the end of the treatment process, these systems create a highly treated, ‘clean’ water source that can be reused within a building by both the human and biophilic residents – all of this, under one roof!

These ecologically engineered systems reacquaint us with power of nature and its ability  to clean and renew what is considered ‘waste’ and convert it into a desirable, precious resource. Historically, urban areas have made the conscious effort to expel waste in the most quick and ‘efficient’ means possible via underground culverts, concrete open channels, etc. These have proven to cause long-term environmental degradation, high-cost for replacement, and socially undesirable. Implementing systems like the Living Machine in the urban context can be cost-effective, highly resilient when maintained, efficient in pollutant removal, and socially valuable in public and private spaces. Case studies of implementing these types of systems include Oberlin CollegeCity of Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China and City of South Burlington, South Burlington, Vermont.


Ty Smith, Biophilic Cities Research Assistant

Ty Smith is a Dual-Master’s candidate at the University of Virginia studying Civil Engineering & Environmental Planning.