Getting to Know…Melissa Sokolowsky

May 15, 2014

At WQA Aquatech USA this year, keynote speaker and bestselling author Charles Fishman quipped that water is one of the only industries that hasn't changed …

At WQA Aquatech USA this year, keynote speaker and bestselling author Charles Fishman quipped that water is one of the only industries that hasn't changed much in the past 50 years. Despite increasing demand and dwindling supply in many areas, Fishman believes consumers haven't changed their lifestyle and mindset in significant ways and those within the industry are still relying on many of the same energy-demanding technologies for commercial and municipal water treatment.

But, Fishman added, that "the revolution is finally coming to water." Globally, people are starting to invest in sustainable water infrastructure using the latest technology to save energy, money and water at the same time. 

One innovative project thriving right now is the 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville, Wash. The Center's website describes 21 Acres as "a nonprofit learning center and living laboratory focusing on organic agriculture, sustainable living and green building technologies."

The building is a 12,000 square foot LEED Platinum-certified structure fully integrated with a bio-diverse, certified organic farm.

Melissa Sokolowsky is assistant facilities manager for the Center, and describes it as "a place to grow, provide and learn about food, and a living laboratory for sustainable living."

"We are doing things differently based on a multi-systems approach," she explains.

Growing up green

Sokolowsky’s background primed her for her current position in more ways than one. Growing up in the Rocky Mountains of Utah, she was an outdoor enthusiast from a young age, lamenting as the open land she saw as a child was “swallowed up by industry and development,” along with a “dramatic air quality decline.”

“I developed a keen passion for environmental sustainability,” she says.

Working as a web developer, Sokolowsky moved to Seattle in 2003, where she encountered a strong local organic food movement that positively affected her health. Through that experience, she developed an interest in preserving the integrity of our food supply and became an active member in her local food co-op. She also began experimenting with solar energy for personal use. All of this culminated in Sokolowsky deciding to go back to school for Energy Management to pursue a career involving conservation and alternative energy.

“I really began to understand the direct connection between food, water and energy. I realized how much energy is used to ship our food and treat our water, and that the choices we as a society have made regarding energy have resulted in the destruction of our environment,” she remembers.

So when a facilities management position opened up at 21 Acres after she graduated, Sokolowsky couldn’t pass it up.

As 21 Acres’ assistant facilities manager, she helps to oversee the operations and maintenance of the LEED Platinum building, as well as maintaining the front three acres of the grounds. Those acres include a network of rain gardens, bioswales and a wetland, all part of the Center’s innovative system of treating stormwater while also preserving wildlife habitats.

“As a non-profit, we have a small but dedicated staff, and we all wear many different hats,” Sokolowsky explains. “As such, I am also working to build our volunteer program and to foster community interest and potential partnerships. As a living laboratory, we are constantly seeking collaborators to help us learn and grow.”

A grassroots effort

The 21 Acres project began as a discussion among friends. This particular group of friends wanted to provide local, wholesome, year-round food for their own families while supporting local agriculture and creating a permanent home for their community farmer’s market.

Regulatory obstacles made themselves known right away. A full time staff worked to purchase the land from King County for three years, and original plans for water reuse had to be modified throughout the process.

As the team researched green building technologies they saw the potential to become an educational center on sustainable living and how energy and water tie into wholesome eating. Funding came from King County, individual and corporate donors and through the HumanLinks foundation.

When the building was in development, organizers had planned to include rainwater harvesting as part of the water system. During the design process in 2005, however, regulations precluded using rainwater for potable water supplies in commercial applications. The building was originally designed with two large cisterns to collect rainwater for non-potable uses, but the high cost of the system led to it being phased out of the project.

Since that time, regulations have loosened on rainwater use thanks in part to Seattle’s Bullitt Center, the first completely self-sustaining commercial “living building” in the world. Organizers at the Bullitt Center worked to create regulatory change, and Sokolowsky believes that increased awareness of and demand for rainwater reuse products will bring down costs and allow more people to adopt the practice in the future.

The final product: Sustainable water use

Despite a handful of challenges, the 21 Acres Center has a fully integrated water use system that saves an estimated 38,000 gallons of municipal water per year and keeps 46,000 gallons of stormwater from being sent to sewage treatment plants, thereby saving substantial energy and carbon output.

“Most people don’t think of water as energy,” says Sokolowsky, “but in this regard it certainly is.”

The building’s water, which is 100 percent municipally supplied, is filtered POE, and POU at food prep stations. The filtration system was design by a local company and primarily uses ion exchange. Activated carbon is also used as a pre- and post-filter, and the spent carbon is used in the Center’s food composting system.

All wastewater is treated on site, with no building outlet to the municipal sewer system. Gray water is treated anaerobically in a series of septic tanks and then aerobically using a Nibbler water treatment system. It is then fed into Glendon bio-filters as an alternative to a traditional septic drain field, because of the high water table on the property.

A Clivus composting toilet system is also used, which only takes three ounces of water per flush compared to the 1.6 to three gallons of a regular toilet. Low-flow fixtures and water-saving sensors throughout the building add to this water savings.

In addition to reducing the amount of municipal water used and reducing energy use through the wastewater system, the Center makes use of the stormwater Washington is famous for.

The stormwater is treated naturally using biofiltration. A living roof filters rainwater while also insulating the building, and has the potential to provide edible plants for use in the kitchen in the future. Horizontal surfaces including the parking lot and patio also filter rainwater with permeable pavers that prevent runoff.

“The water is then channeled into our system of rain gardens and bioswales, which contain water-loving, naturally filtering native plants, such as rushes and sedges, that serve to filter pollutants from the water and slow the flow back into the water table. Instead of using energy to treat the stormwater in a wastewater treatment plant, the filtered water recharges the aquifer, from which we draw our irrigation well water for the farm,” explains Sokolowsky.

This stormwater treatment system allows the Center to take 100 percent of its irrigation water for the on-site farm (located on the back 18 acres) from an aquifer recharged in part by the bioswale system.

“It still is a community-based project, making the connection between agriculture and climate change,” says Sokolowsky. “We try to keep in mind clean food, alternative energy, water use and conservation on multiple levels as the guiding principles of everything we do.”

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