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Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA

Perched atop a fragile cliff shelf on California’s Pacific coastline, the Esalen Institute is an internationally known, non-profit, educational organization focused on the exploration of human potential. Stretching across 120 acres of spectacular Big Sur, the facility’s buildings and gardens have welcomed more than 300,000 permanent residents and guests. One of the institute’s primary philosophies is a strong commitment to sustainability, a theme which has permeated all aspects of its life for almost 50 years. In 2007, Esalen chose the Living Machine® as the perfect solution to upgrade its wastewater facilities and integrate a functional ecosystem into the site, while protecting natural water cycles and conserving resources. 


The Living Machine® processes the wastewater from the institute’s laundry and lodging facilities and then reuses that water to irrigate the landscape and recharge the local aquifer. Reusing the treated wastewater has also greatly reduced freshwater removal from the famous local Hot Springs Creek. The pre-existing sewer line is used to feed wastewater into the Living Machine® System’s primary settling tank. The wastewater then enters the Living Machine’s tidal wetland cells, which were built using custom curvilinear concrete to complement the coastal sightlines and the site’s existing buildings. The water flows through the wetland cells in periodic drain and fill cycles and is then stored underground and reused for landscape irrigation. 


  • The Living Machine has helped the Esalen Institute achieve its goal of sustainability. 
  • Regularly exceeds target effluent requirements. 
  • Uses only a quarter of the energy of comparable water treatment systems. 
  • Serves as home for local fauna. 
  • Enhances the spectacular landscape.