As an active member of the community and professionally involved in building design and construction, I have attended with great interest many of the school visioning and design presentations. It’s clear that the process dictated by the school board includes an aggressive time line that has not adequately considered less ambitious options. And, so far at least, it fails to consider the fiscal effect on taxpayers.

It bothers me that most of the new school construction examples visited by the board are in Massachusetts, which, unlike Vermont, provides significant construction funding to schools through the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Is it realistic to expect that South Burlington residents and businesses can financially support constructing two new schools and infrastructure that Massachusetts schools with larger populations would have difficulty supporting without this fund?

Champlain Valley Union High School and Middle School underwent a major renovation and addition about 20 years ago and has also been a possible model for South Burlington. After construction of the new middle school wing, existing portions of the building were reprogrammed and designed to support new functional requirements. Was this model ever seriously considered by the South Burlington School Board? It is interesting to note that this solution came about after the first bond vote for a more expansive plan was voted down.

Is it necessary to construct a new middle school? Too much emphasis seems to be placed on the need for daylighting as a reason for new buildings. While good daylighting is important, Vermont lacks an abundance of sunny days during the school year. The frequently cited Daylighting in Schools study by the Heshong Mahone Group was conducted in southern California and Nevada, and the documented improved test scores of the first study have not been replicated in schools in other climates.

A number of highly innovative companies have created artificial lighting systems that meet the circadian lighting needs of people, even in winter months when sunny days are in short supply. For a thorough understanding of circadian lighting, refer to the website for the Lighting Research Center at Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute. There, world-recognized researchers study the health benefits of high quality artificial lighting, including improved spectrum LED sources. These light sources (not the typical lowest cost LED options) provide the quantity and spectral distribution of light that is important not only to our visual needs, but also to other non-vision-related receptors in the eye. These special receptors help coordinate our sleep cycles and are important to maintaining good health. Hence the term “circadian lighting.”

You can also Google “circadian lighting in schools Norway” for an innovative approach in a climate where there are very few hours of daylight in the winter. Here designers provide higher levels of lighting that mimics the changes in color spectrum and intensity of daylight. This approach is increasingly being adopted in the U.S. and studied by the U.S. Department of Energy as a cost effective alternative where rebuilding schools and office buildings is not realistic.

Security and energy concerns, as well as glare and the need for privacy, also tend to defeat efforts at effective daylighting through windows. Look at buildings and see how many shades are closed in the daytime. This is hard to control even in the best designed buildings.

Meeting new space requirements in South Burlington schools with flexible additions and renovation needs to be further investigated not only as a more cost effective approach, but also in consideration of lower embodied energy costs. Even if new buildings are designed to have net zero energy consumption, how many years will it take to overcome the substantial energy cost of a complete rebuild? By that time, 2050 will have long since passed and the worst of climate change may be a reality.


Donna Leban is a licensed architect, educator and principal of Light/Space/Design, a lighting design consultancy doing business for over 20 years in South Burlington and throughout the Northeastern U.S. She also volunteers as a member of the SB Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee.

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