Meet NORM, Who’s Breaking all the Rules on Precinct Scale Water Treatment 1

Thursday, June 30th, 2016
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Right now, NORM (Natural Organic Recycling Machine) is hard at work processing and cleaning wastewater in one of Portland’s latest urban regeneration areas, the Lloyd EcoDistrict.

NORM is not hiding, banished to some dark basement area, like most precinct utility installations. Rather, NORM sits proud, among the landscape and public realm, across four city blocks. In fact, NORM is the landscape.

NORM is Portland’s own biomimicry showcase, learning from how nature processes water and waste and then replicating this treatment process through an exciting new neighbourhood development project called Hassalo on Eighth. This urban regeneration project is the first phase of a project that will end up becoming one of the most sustainable business and residential communities in North America.

The project has the usual attributes of a highly compact, sustainable neighbourhood, including:

  • LEED Platinum mixed use buildings
  • the largest number of bicycle parks in a development in the US
  • green roofs across all buildings
  • streetcar, light rail, and bus connections
  • local access to key amenities within or adjacent to the development (green space, supermarkets)
  • walkable 200-by-200 feet blocks
  • high quality public realm

What isn’t well known are the more hidden attributes, such as the project being part of a neighbourhood-wide governance structure that was created through a facilitated collaborative process in 2011. This process brought together a group of key stakeholders with interests in the neighbourhood, including public, private, and civic organisations. These stakeholders established, funded, and launched a non-profit organisation that would oversee the development of a neighbourhood plan that established a baseline and set of targets though which investment decisions would be made within the neighbourhood. The Hassalo on Eighth development, and NORM, were identified as one of the major catalytic projects for the neighbourhood. And that’s just the start.

Thanks to NORM, the neighborhood’s targets for potable water consumption reduction have taken a major step toward being achieved. Every used drop of water from the development – sinks, toilets, showers and laundry (black and grey wastewater) – is collected and stored by the machine. NORM then uses innovative treatment technologies to reduce nutrient loads and natural constructed wetlands to further process the wastewater. NORM creates the highest quality of reclaimed water at a level of clarity appropriate for residential reuse.

NORM treats 100 per cent of all wastewater generated from the development to create clean reclaimed water used to flush toilets, irrigate landscaping, and supply cooling water for interior climate control. The biosolids generated are reused offsite to make fertilizer and generate energy.


What once was an area dominated by surface parking lots, Hassalo on Eighth uses the street for water management by incorporating a series of tidal wetlands and woodchip wetlands, and polishing tidal wetlands. It then moves underground to the filtration and disinfection room. A series of groundwater recharge wells to allow infiltration have been installed throughout the development, allowing the project to have a fully self-contained water system onsite. This has resulted in a significant reduction in water use, less wastewater generated, and lower infrastructure costs.

And NORM is about to get a new friend, as this multi-block project continues to expand. A phase two development called Oregon Square will accommodate a further 1,000-plus housing units and mixed use development with expansive public realm and landscaping.

As North America’s largest functioning natural wastewater treatment system of its type within an urban neighoburhood, NORM is now on the global sustainable development site tour ‘must see’ list. As we continue to push ahead in Australia, inch by inch, trying to disarm the ongoing barriers to precinct-scale water treatment, we must remain positive and be inspired by others reaching great heights, like the Hassalo on Eighth project, who show us it can, and will be done.

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  1. kyle

    Thank you Adam for this article. We are very proud of the NORM system. It certainly takes a vision from both the public and private side to make infrastructure like this a part of the landscape rather than some buried nuisance you have to maintain. It is worth mentioning in this part of Portland the issue is compounded by the fact the site is surrounded by an antiquated combination sanitary and storm that overflows into the river during heavy rainfall that washes over asphalt. .