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Uniting wellness and sustainability

November 1, 2008
by Jeffrey Aron
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Fountain House's green initiative dovetails with its emphasis on member wellness

Fountain House is a clubhouse for people with major mental illnesses in New York City. Known for its professional self-help approach to employment, education, and housing, Fountain House has created a complete system of community supports for its members by partnering with psychiatrists for psychiatric and medical services, while Fountain House provides all of the other supports a person needs for recovery.

Fountain House practices a model of positive environmental intervention. In some ways, it is the distant descendant of the “moral treatment” approach of the 1850s, which also regarded the environment as crucial to mental well-being. The upkeep of our large space (60,000 square feet, consisting of six joined brownstones and a Georgian-style main building joined to them) is a constant labor of love. At any time, somewhere in the building something is being replaced, cleaned, fixed, and/or renovated.

In 2006, Fountain House realized it needed to replace its 40-year-old heating and cooling system. As part of thinking about options for the boiler, clubhouse member Norman Feldman led the community in evaluating the impact of all of the building systems on both the immediate and the larger, societal environment.

The Board of Directors' Building Committee evaluated several options for renewable energy, including a geothermal solution and combined heat and power (CHP). The committee consulted with Steven Winter Associates, Inc., who helped with the energy modeling, and it chose to replace the HVAC systems for all of the buildings with a microturbine CHP system, which will generate all electricity on-site (see sidebar). The system will be operational next year. The committee plans on pursuing the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED-EB Gold certification, a voluntary rating system for existing, high-performance buildings.

Fountain house's new wellness center, opening in 2010, will be built on top of its existing buildings
Fountain House's new Wellness Center, opening in 2010, will be built on top of its existing buildings. Image by Elskop Scholz

“Fountain House is a unique space in both its mission and its design,” notes Steven Winter, president of his firm. “The age of the facilities and wide variety of systems used throughout has challenged the organization and the design team to seek more cost-effective, manageable, and efficient systems, but also to create a space which will be comfortable and useful for the occupants and will be viewed as a hallmark of environmentally responsible design.”

This emphasis on greener operations at Fountain House is complemented by a parallel initiative on wellness. Eight years ago, the Fountain House community was stunned when four of its members, all under age 40, died of health-related reasons within one month. These deaths galvanized the entire community to begin a dialogue on what we could do to help our members address their health issues.

In 2004, Fountain House formed its Wellness Initiative to take on this crisis by analyzing members' diet, exercise, and lifestyles. As we studied these issues, we realized that these deaths of Fountain House members are part of an epidemic of premature deaths among people with major mental illness. Life expectancy for people with bipolar illness, schizophrenia, and major depression is 19 years less than the general population. The Wellness Initiative's mission is to introduce members to healthy foods and nutritional education, encourage exercise and fitness, lead integrative health classes, and organize smoking-cessation and many other wellness practices. The initiative also gathers statistics on improved health, increased life span, and weight control through on-site and off-site pilot programs.

As this issue gained momentum, Adam and Peter Lewis contributed an extraordinary capital gift for our Wellness Renovation Project. Our new $3 million, 5,000-square-foot, two-story addition, designed by Elskop Scholz, will open in 2010 and will include:

  • A training gym for fitness and ergonomically sound physical practice

  • Men's and women's lockers/showers with restrooms

  • Four classrooms for training and private consultation

  • A health bar offering nutritional food and beverages

  • A kitchen for cooking classes and dietary coaching

  • A research library with video and Internet access

  • A conference room

“As architect for Fountain House, Elskop Scholz has worked with the organization for over eight years during which more than half of the clubhouse buildings have been renovated,” says Christopher Scholz, AIA. “At the same time we have sought to upgrade and rationalize many systems and practices throughout the complex to meet rising standards in support of Fountain House's mission.

A rendering of the new wellness center; note the green roof visible from the exercise area
A rendering of the new Wellness Center; note the green roof visible from the exercise area. Image by Elskop Scholz

“The requirement that mechanical systems be replaced, the decision of the Fountain House community to pursue an environmentally conscious path in the future, and its desire to address the physical health of its members through the creation of the new wellness center is an exciting opportunity for Fountain House to build significant new space,” Scholz adds.