Architect Richard Olcott Talks with Middle School Students About the Science Behind Sewage Treatment

In keeping with this year’s Middle School Assembly theme of Curiosity, Parent of Spence Alumnae (PSA), a former Trustee and renowned architect Richard Olcott was a guest speaker at the Middle School Assembly to talk about what happens to the sewage and wastewater produced by toilets and give students a chance to ask questions about the topic. 
 
Olcott’s lecture was also part of a series of learning experiences to support the Project Home curriculum, which relates engineering to the themes of home and water. Grade 6 students will get to see wastewater treatment in action on an upcoming trip to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, one of 14 plants serving the millions of people who live, work and flush toilets in New York City. In all, the plants treat 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily. Olcott happens to be an expert on the subject, having been a lead architect for Newtown Creek. 
 
A design partner at the Ennead Architects and former Commissioner of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, Olcott was introduced by Middle School Science Teacher Maya Falck, who shared with students that the full range of his projects includes the design of the Clinton Presidential Center and Library, the redesign of Rose Hall Public Space at Lincoln Center and the expansion of the Museum of the City of New York, among many others. 
 
Falck then shared a quote about architecture from Olcott’s website: “Architecture is about creating an organism, a holistic three-dimensional framework in which human beings live, learn and interact.”
 
“When I read that…I thought about how you wouldn’t think of a hermit crab without thinking of the shell as part of the organism of the hermit crab,” Falck emphasized, comparing its shell to the spaces in which people live and work. “In a way, you inhabit your home and the building you’re in so much, that they become a part of us.”
 
After Falck’s introduction, Olcott delved into the science behind the vital but often forgotten processes for keeping the City’s water clean. After flushing a toilet, “you probably walk away and don’t think about where that went, right?” Olcott asked students. “So, I’m going to tell you where it went.”
 
Olcott began by mapping the journey that New York City wastewater takes from the bathroom, through our sewers and all the way to a wastewater treatment plant like Newtown Creek, where it then undergoes numerous processes to remove pollutants before being released into the city’s waterways.
 
“All the water gets treated very carefully,” Olcott shared. “The sewage goes in and it comes out as almost fresh water and is completely rejuvenated by those tanks."
 
Olcott explained that the Newtown Creek plant features 150-feet tall digester eggs, which work by heating to around the same temperature as the human body and “using bacteria, just like your stomach,” to ferment and break down sewage. 
 
Construction of the Newtown Creek plant began in 1989 to address issues with the old treatment plant. “Those tanks were open to the air and it stank a lot,” Olcott shared. “People in Greenpoint were very unhappy.” Now, three decades later, construction of the seven-building Newtown complex is nearly complete. 
 
“How do you design seven buildings over the course of 30 years? The way we did it was in parts,” Olcott emphasized. “We replaced these buildings one by one.” 
 
Olcott further explained that, because you can’t ever turn off a sewage treatment plant, the process of building a new one is “like a game of musical chairs.” “You have to build a new building and take the old one down.”
 
The Q&A period that capped the lecture gave Middle School students a chance to ask a range of questions. 
 
Many students wanted to know “Where does toilet paper go?” 
 
According to Olcott, toilet paper and other items that get flushed down the toilet go into the wastewater treatment facility and get “screened out” before being “put in a barge and taken away.”
 
Another student asked Olcott “Where did you get the inspiration for the exterior of the building?” 
 
The design of the plant was “dictated by the process,” Olcott told students, noting that the digester eggs “have a specific shape that have to do with how things break down in there” and “with materials that are intended to be maintenance free and last for a very long time,” such as glazed brick and stainless steel. 
 
“What would happen if the plant shut down?” one student asked. 
 
“Your toilets would start backing up,” Olcott shared to a chorus of “ewws” and giggles. “You don’t want to think about that.”
 
Other students were curious about the construction process. “Did you run into any problems while you were building?” one student asked.
 
Olcott responded that, throughout the process of building the plant, there were some challenges in the form of community opposition, so hearings were held to keep the community involved and informed. 
 
Despite some difficulties along the way, today Newtown Creek “is a lot cleaner than it used to be because of this plant,” Olcott emphasized. “This is the change now.” “People are actually canoeing in Newtown Creek, which no one would have ever thought of doing 20 years ago.”
 
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Richard Olcott is a Design Partner in Ennead Architects. He received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning and spent a year in Cornell’s Program in Urban Design at the Architectural Association in London. Complementing his professional practice, Mr. Olcott is a member of the Board of Directors of the Municipal Art Society and a member of the organization’s Preservation Committee. Mr. Olcott served as a Commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1996 to 2007. He is the recipient of the American Academy in Rome’s Founders Rome Prize Fellowship for 2003-04. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
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