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Dan Hust | Democrat

RESIDENTS, LIKE THE one shown above, and staff alike, are called upon to keep the green growing at the Center for Discovery in Harris.

'Leading the Greening'

By Dan Hust
HARRIS — February 6, 2007 — Green is not just a color that surrounds the Center for Discovery in Harris.
Green exists in every living space, every piece of furniture, every polished floor, every kitchen, every window and every wall within the sprawling campus.
Green, indeed, is a state of mind.
“We’re trying to take a broad approach to ‘greening’ the entire agency,” explains Tom Burnham.
He’s the point man for the center’s massive efforts to become a model of harmony with nature, and he’s got the title to prove it: director of environmental policy.
Burnham spends a good chunk of his days researching magazines, trade publications and the Web for the latest in green technologies – all inside a building heralded for its groundbreaking implementation of those same technologies.
The Patrick H. Dollard Discovery Health Center on Old Route 17 in Harris has become the center’s focal point, showcasing not only its commitment to caring for the developmentally disabled but to caring for the entire community.
The first healthcare structure in the nation recognized as being built entirely “green,” the center received the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council shortly after it opened in 2003.
The $8 million, 27,000-square-foot building’s lighting, heating and water systems feature such innovations as geothermal-based radiant heat that evenly heats the floors (thanks to water circulated deep underground) while also melting snow on outside sidewalks, open construction that allows natural daylight into virtually every interior space, gutters that catch rainwater for storage in fire suppression and farming, and ultra-efficient LED and fluorescent lights that not only automatically respond to how dark it is but operate on electricity totally generated from faraway windmills.
“This is a zero-carbon building,” Burnham points out, meaning that no fossil fuels contribute to its operation.
But it’s not just the surrounding environment that has spurred the Center for Discovery to become the county’s – and one of the nation’s – leading “green” enthusiasts.
Through the health center’s construction, the staff discovered that the “green” philosophy was the true sister of the Center for Discovery’s basic mission.
“It makes perfect sense with the people we serve,” explains Vice President of Development Richard Humleker. “They don’t need to breathe another piece of bad air.”
Indeed, toxins in the environment may have caused some of the consumers’ disabling difficulties.
“If you have people with a compromised respiratory system living in a smog-filled city, that can’t be good for them,” says Burnham.
He cites studies showing that pesticides can cause premature births, that items made of vinyl release toxic gases and that even common cleaning agents may play a part in “endocrine disruption” – the theory that our genes may be mutating because of the combined effects of the chemicals in our lives.
Because of this, the Center for Discovery has spent millions of dollars on building green and retrofitting its nearly five dozen current buildings to meet as many green standards as possible.
“We’re going back and taking it out of our buildings as fast as we can,” Burnham says.
“It” is a wide variety of items, from replacing standard cleaning agents with non-toxic varieties to removing PVC piping and vinyl siding.
But efforts extend far beyond just the buildings.
Two center-operated farming facilities – one in Harris and one in Hurleyville – are USDA-certified organic and offer consumers the chance to work with the land in a pesticide-free environment.
The Thanksgiving Farm in Harris even is experimenting with the “closed farm” concept, said Humleker, which requires everything the farm uses to be produced or found at the farm itself.
Fruits and vegetables grown at these CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operations end up in the center’s eateries as well as on people’s plates both locally and as far away as New York City. What’s not eaten inside the center’s cafes is composted at the farms.
Down the road at the Center for Discovery’s new maintenance/
transportation/shop facility (the old county DPW headquarters), Burnham has spent time experimenting with biodiesel fuel with the center’s large vehicle fleet, and quite a few Toyota Priuses (gas/electric hybrid cars) sport the center’s logo these days.
Even buses dropping off visitors and consumers are asked to turn off their engines rather than idling in front of center buildings.
“They’ve been very good about it,” says Burnham, speaking of bus drivers and their companies.
Indeed, the center has enjoyed overwhelming support for its efforts – including the crucial financial aspect.
“Parents understand [the need for] this right way,” says Humleker, crediting such private donations with covering the majority of the center’s funding needs.
Organizations like the Kresge Foundation – which offers challenge grants that must be matched or exceeded by the receiving institution – have given the center hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well.
Government agencies, too, have provided the privately funded center with discounts and grants to “green” its 300-plus acres – and the surrounding community. For example, SUNY, the State University of New York, recently pledged $50,000 to the center and Sullivan County Community College to offer classes on purchasing, cleaning and living “green.”
Indeed, this is what Burnham and Humleker spend much of their time on, conceiving and implementing projects and grant applications that will spur both interest in and funding for the center.
It’s all so the county’s largest employer can fulfill its core mission of offering a relaxing, healthy, active, educational home for 235 residents, 100 day students, around 1,100 staff members, and over 1,000 outpatients every year.
That’s a mission that has remained the same since the Center for Discovery occupied a small building in Liberty after its founding in 1948. In the nearly 60 years since, the only thing that’s changed is how to implement that mission – and green technology is now leading the way.
Solar power is the next big thing to come to the campus, predicts Burnham, and the center is actively engaged in assessing its 400 computers to replace inefficient and environmentally harmful electronics.
And a biofuel station at the center’s maintenance garage isn’t long off, he adds.
“We’re really committed to reducing our carbon footprint,” Burnham says. “And we’re already seeing the payback.”
Though hard to quantify due to the varied uses each building sees every day, the center’s energy bills have dropped by double-digit percentages, and staff and users register better moods and morale from such a focus on their health.
“I’ve always been pretty amazed at how receptive the staff is to this,” remarks Humleker.
Burnham, a Roscoe native whose family has long been environmental champions and whose uncle was once the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is excited to be at the forefront of such amazing technology.
“We’ve not found a place that has taken as broad a look [at green technologies],” he says. “This is really progressive and pushing it beyond where it really is.”
It dovetails nicely, if not a bit unexpectedly, with his degree in economics.
“Economics is the study of satisfying unlimited wants and needs with a finite amount of resources,” he explains. “That’s what this is all about.”
He enjoys chances to demonstrate that concept and so welcomes calls at 794-1400, ext. 2154, or e-mail him at
For more information on the Center for Discovery, log on to For more information on green technologies, check out the U.S. Green Building Council’s Website at

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