Client: The Center for Discovery

Architecture: Guenther 5 Architects, PLLC

General Contractor: Storm King Contracting, Inc.

Structural Engineering: Dunne & Markis

MEP Engineering: Lilker Associates Consulting Engineers, PC

NYSERDA's MEP Review Engineer: Joseph R. Long and Associates, Inc.

Photography: David Allee

Completed: January 2003

Total Building Area (sq. ft.): 27,000

Total Construction Cost: $5,600,000

Cost/Sq. Ft.: $207

The Patrick H. Dollard Discovery Health Center is a newly constructed, 28,000-square-foot diagnostic and treatment facility in rural, upstate New York. It is the first licensed medical facility built by The Center for Discovery, a 350-acre residential school campus and nonprofit agency, and the largest employer in Sullivan County. The school is an oasis, nurturing both the livelihoods and lifelong needs of children and adults with profound neurological and developmental impairments. The new Health Center offers outpatient primary/specialty medical and dental services to residents, saving them the extreme discomfort of traveling elsewhere for routine medical care. Moreover, as a deeply humanitarian agency, it pushes one step further by welcoming the surrounding community, attracting local residents to drop by on a neighborly basis, whether for The Center's farmer's market to purchase fresh produce or the on-campus “bed-and-breakfast” for harvest-baked bread and planned social events. These programs provide meaningful work opportunities for adult residents of the school, as well as others living in Sullivan County.

The building has been designed to blend in with and honor its natural environment. It is registered LEED™ 2.0 and has completed the commissioning phase for pending certification. This design process enabled New York's grant-funding mechanism (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority [NYSERDA]) to award funding to the project. Since then, the Kresge Foundation has offered a sizable matching grant as part of its Green Building Initiative program.

To achieve NYSERDA compliance, Guenther 5 Architects planned and designed for a ground-source heat pump system and, to maintain quality efficiency in its rating, developed a high-efficiency building envelope. These became the bases for an alternative energy design that eliminates on-site combustion and rooftop evaporative cooling equipment.

The construction methods and technologies employed responded to a windswept and snowy winter climate, strong solar exposure, pastoral settings, a nearby agricultural community, and the need for human comfort inside. The design team chose materials that advance interior environmental quality by reducing toxic emissions, in line with the principles of sustainable design (for details, see sidebar, “Specifics of a Sustainable Design”).

The Health Center's site is directly off an exit ramp of Route 17 and was selected for its prominent and central location on the campus and in the wider community. As such, the building operates as both a physical and metaphoric “gateway” into The Center for Discovery campus and its service offerings.

Once the site was identified, important goals for its development included recapturing and restoring what was previously an industrial agriculture site (for large-scale chicken coops) and minimizing the impact of the development on water resources and streamflows. The site contours softly downhill toward the north, and a series of marshes and ponds (not classified as wetlands) recharges a fast-moving underground aquifer (figure 1). Downslope, The Center for Discovery operates a 600-acre organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm that depends on this aquifer. Absence of a city water system necessitates well drilling for potable water; this would have further taxed the site's natural resources if not carefully handled.

Another goal was to eliminate dependence on fuel-oil pricing and energy consumption. As this project began in the fall of 1999, concern mounted regarding the possibility of rolling blackouts and imposition of steep heating-oil price increases throughout the Northeast. The Center for Discovery, which operates approximately 75 small buildings, was completely dependent upon No. 2 heating oil (natural gas is not available in this region). Moreover, since these are relatively small-scale structures, large central plants and evaporative cooling towers are technologies foreign to the building maintenance staff. The Center favors radiant-slab heating systems in its buildings for superior comfort and lack of visible heating equipment in the wheelchair zone. The Health Center's high-performance envelope is sited to use passive solar heating in winter and allow for maximum daylighting, which minimizes energy demand (figure 2).

Design Highlights

The form of the building developed out of varied considerations: site energy and water flow, outdoor access, high altitude and solar gain, and available long-range, mountainous views beyond the adjacent farm. Minimizing energy requirements through building layout, human scale, and carefully planned volume contributes to a manageable two-level footprint and building envelope (figure 3). Guenther 5 determined that all occupied spaces (including medical treatment spaces) would have windows. Large glazed areas incorporate a bris-soleil—an exterior, architectural shading device that creates aesthetic appeal and eliminates direct solar gain during warm summer months (figure 4). The sealed building envelope was designed to exceed the New York State Energy Code's efficiency standards by more than 50% while still meeting strict Department of Health air-exchange requirements. A reflective metal roof reduces heat buildup and the corresponding air-conditioned energy demand (figure 5). Snow and rainwater recharge the lower pond and, in turn, feed a sprinkler-system reserve shed with ease.

While the CSA farm has long practiced organic farming methods, routine landscape maintenance practices on the residential campus and properties used conventional landscaping and yard maintenance, including heavy reliance on chemical insecticides. Now The Center for Discovery has shifted its landscaping approach to align with broader sustainability principles and design goals. It has reshaped landscaping and maintenance practices on campus and has launched an integrated pest management program in all buildings and on all grounds.

Structural Strategies

The entire 14,000-square-foot roof area encompasses essentially two long, single spans. The reflective, simple, planar shed roof optimizes storm water runoff and snowfall (figure 5). The client required exterior snow-melting capabilities, given the facility's high wheelchair occupancy; therefore, a ground-source glycol loop ties back into the ground-source heat system to provide highly effective snow-melting capability.

Although heavy wheelchair use might have predicated a single-floor structure, the steep slope of the site, in addition to The Center's desire for maximizing children's access to nature and minimizing unnecessary site disturbance, led instead to a terraced design. The narrow floorplate allows the lower level to receive daylight from the northern downslope side of the site yet retain at-grade access at the entry level (figure 6). Children and adults, wheelchair-bound or not, use large elevators to move between floors. At the upper (entry) level, direct solar exposure that would cause excessive heat gain or extreme discomfort to building occupants during certain times of the year is controlled through architectural assemblies, such as roof overhangs and the bris-soleil (figure 4).

The structural roof assembly offers superior insulating qualities and a handsomely finished ceiling assembly by exposing the wood decking to the inside. This permitted the elimination of suspended ceiling construction over a large area of the building. Structural wood decking can be salvaged for future use, as can the engineered lumber roof structure and metal roofing assemblies, should the building be torn down generations from now (figure 7).

The architects selected materials with a careful eye toward their environmental benefits—a range of low-emitting, recycled/recyclable, and rapidly renewable materials in structural fabrication, millwork construction, surface finish, and adhesive selection. Known asthma triggers, such as carpet and other substrates containing formaldehyde, were avoided to the largest degree possible. Likewise, the replacement of suspended ceilings with an exposed (wood) structure eliminated concealed plenums, increased warmth, and reduced demand for materials (figure 8).

Rather than use Acrovyn® (PVC) bumpers, corner guards, and wall-protection systems extensively throughout, the building uses natural sisal wallcovering to protect walls. Recycled aluminum corner and edge guards strengthen vulnerable outside corners. The translucent glass doors, with black frames and thresholds, maximize contrast at treatment area entrances for visually impaired users (figure 6). Low-VOC materials in flooring, adhesives, casework products, and cleaning products have reduced overall life-cycle impacts and provide improved air quality.


To preserve optimal indoor air quality and lessen the harm to the building occupants’ health, floors are maintained without waxing and stripping. Administrators have adjusted to the “dull” finish on the flooring materials. Staff members remark about the lack of odors and fragrances associated with conventional cleaning products and maintenance protocols. Overall, the building requires less maintenance than other community buildings with wax and strip maintenance protocols, and The Center is tracking its costs over a one-year period with confidence that they will demonstrate savings from this practice.

Water resources on the larger site footprint are noticeably improved. The area has had a record-high rainfall this year, which has been effectively directed through the site and into the pond system. Grazing areas and marsh areas are regenerating with natural grasses.

Potential energy reduction was modeled at 27% below the “conventional baseline” building, as defined by ASHRAE 90.1-1999 (LEED-referenced standard). The building has completed its first heating and cooling cycle, has performed without failure, and has exceeded the owner's energy performance requirements. Occupants note that HVAC operation is virtually silent; no heating or cooling appliances that need maintenance or adjustment are in occupied space. During a recent regional blackout, the emergency generator was not required during the initial daylight hours for lighting; staff continued providing services without interruption.

In terms of construction practices, this project was competitively bid on and awarded to a general contractor. Therefore, no preconstruction input or participation came from the contractor with regard to sustainable construction practices. Given the evolution of this field, the Guenther 5 architectural team believes it could have achieved substantially more sustainable results in the construction process with more comprehensive preconstruction services.

The modeling analysis projected payback of between 1 and 8 years for the range of strategies employed to reduce energy: one year payback for variable-speed drives and 7 to 8 years for the ground-source heat pump system. These paybacks are calculated at current energy prices. Although the client pays the lowest power rates in New York State ($.078/kwh), it anticipates that rising energy prices will reduce the payback period substantially.

The sustainable building process has already yielded substantial economic benefits for the client. First, the project has received grant funding from NYSERDA and the Kresge Foundation on the basis of its sustainable features. It has also generated considerable local and regional interest, providing an educational opportunity for the design and construction community. The staff and building occupants are thrilled with the environmental benefits of the building. They appreciate the greater attention to indoor air-quality issues, the daylighting and connection to nature, and the overall performance of the building. Finally, the building has manifested The Center's fundamental mission: to provide a high-quality life experience for its residents and, by extension, the larger community of medically fragile and developmentally impaired clients. HD