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Light Fantastic: A school facility shows off a variety of daylighting techniques

Barba + Wheelock with Winter & Company
February 2009

By David Sokol

When Portland, Maine– and Boulder, Colorado–based studios Barba + Wheelock and Winter & Company were tapped to design the school facility Brewster Hall, the architects struggled with a peculiarity of sustainable education buildings. “Striving for high performance was in direct conflict with the notion of bringing in balanced light and trying to make a perfect visual learning environment,” says Nancy Barba, AIA.

A school facility shows off a variety of daylighting techniques
Photo Nic Lehoux
Barba + Wheelock and Winter & Company used a variety of daylighting techniques to generate passive heat in a school building—without saturating it with an overbearing amount of sunlight.


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Barba, whose firm takes on one school commission per year, explains further. Brewster Hall, located in Falmouth, Maine, was intended to hit LEED Silver status, and “the easiest points have to do with getting as much sun into the building to help with passive solar heating.” The 10,600-square-foot building’s $1.8 million budget required grabbing that low-hanging fruit. And yet blasting the interior with daylight would prove distracting, if not outright detrimental, to students. Especially these: Brewster Hall is an expansion of the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the 70 kids attending school there rely particularly on their sight to learn. 

In order to maximize daylight without overdoing it, the architects deployed a veritable textbook of daylighting strategies. In Brewster Hall’s library, a corner room overlooking Casco Bay, a series of birch-ply light shelves bounces daylight off their mirrored plastic-laminate tops and into the room; mirror-image exterior shelves serve as awnings protecting the library from high-angle summer sun. Although the client could not afford this exact setup in the classrooms, the same reflective plastic laminate was applied to the tops of casework installed immediately beneath exterior-wall clerestory windows. “Most secondary education venues for the deaf are under-funded, so there was just one chance to use this money as wisely as possible,” Barba says of the double-tasking casework. In lieu of awnings, Venetian blinds were installed post-hoc in the classrooms to shun sun.

Throughout the building, eight light monitors convey daylight into the interior. Light enters each of these rooftop volumes via a pair of south-facing windows, and then strikes the mirrored tops of baffles suspended underneath each monitor. (The underside of each baffle is wrapped in acoustic-dampening fabric.) On my mid-January visit to Brewster Hall, I perceived that abundant daylight had coaxed all of the building’s sensor-controlled lamps to sleep without shrinking one’s pupils to pinpoints—a contrast to the snowy, blinding glare outside. In person, too, the design reveals poetry behind its pragmatism, with Brewster Hall’s light monitors evoking the canted volumes of the famous Haystack Mountain School of Crafts further up the Maine coast.
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