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Board asks for $200,000 to fix VUES building

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — Voters in Vergennes, Panton and Waltham will be asked on Town Meeting Day to approve a loan of up to $200,000 to fund energy-efficiency upgrades, structural improvements and new roofing for two portions of Vergennes Union Elementary School. 

VUES officials propose to do the work to the wings added to the 60-year-old school in 1954 and in 1966. They originally planned on a smaller project that might have cost around $60,000, one that would have tightened up the two additions to save energy costs and prevent ice dams from forming on roofs and causing leaks.

But an architect who visited VUES in June uncovered other issues, including what he said was a more serious structural problem in the 1966 addition, to the left rear of the school. Fixing that and other problems quickly exceeded the roughly $80,000 line item in the VUES budget for capital improvements. 

If approved, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union business manager Kathleen Cannon said paying for the full $200,000 loan would add about a penny to the tax rate in each town in the first year of payback, which would be the 2010-2011 school year, the most expensive payment. Common level of assessment (CLA) adjustments could add a fraction of a cent to that figure, she said.

VUES board members and administrators will be available to discuss the project — and any other school issues, including their proposed 1.7 percent spending increase to roughly $3.54 million — at the VUES annual meeting, which begins in the school library at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

The good news, Cannon said, is that architects estimate that sealing the many air leaks and properly insulating the two additions — which make up about a quarter of the school’s 25,000 square feet — should save at least $14,000 a year in energy costs.

That figure translates to a roughly 14-year payback of the $200,000 face value of the note, not including the 3 percent annual interest.

PROJECT DETAILS

The school’s 1966 addition includes four first- and second-grade classrooms off a central area with a cathedral ceiling. It is accessed by a corridor that was added along the building. The problem, according to a report filed by the Burlington firm Duncan-Wiesniewski Architecture, is that the ceiling spans are too long.

“The roof structure of the 1966 addition appeared to be severely understructured under current codes; improving energy efficiency could increase snow loads possibly leading to failure,” the report read.

Cannon put it more bluntly. Now, snow melts off the poorly insulated roof and forms the ice dams. Simply insulating the roof structure, as VUES officials first intended to do, could lead to the snow piling up on top of the gently sloping roof, and it could collapse.

“You want to be more energy-efficient, but if you’re more energy-efficient, the roof might cave in,” Cannon said. “That’s the issue.”

The report noted also there is a “slight swale in the center of each classroom indicating excessive deflection,” a statement that translates roughly to: The addition’s roof is beginning to sag. 

“There’s evidence it’s already happening,” Cannon said.

The solution proposed by the architect and adopted by school officials is to add an interior structural beam in each room, supported at each end by a column. Doing so will cut in half the spans supported by roof structures alone, the report said.

Other problems in the 1996 addition include the lack of proper insulation and air sealing in the area’s roofing; the report noted the air exchange rate is “less than half” of what the architect would like to see. He also questioned whether a membrane to help prevent ice dams was installed under roofing materials during the 1997 project, an opinion that led officials to decide also to budget for reroofing the two additions.

Given that the roofing is now leaking, Cannon said the architect suspects strongly it lacks that membrane.

“They’re not sure if low-slope procedures were followed when the roof was installed,” she said.

As well as adding new roofing, workers will spray in cellulose and pack in fiberglass insulation wherever needed in the area.

The 1954 addition includes the library, computer lab and teachers’ lounge. As well as the same question on the roofing as on the 1966 addition, the central problem in this addition is the many small air leaks that allow an exchange rate between the exterior and interior of the structure that the architect called unacceptable.

“Typically we like a rate less than one-quarter of that,” the report stated.

The report referenced another report from Efficiency Vermont, written by that agency’s Neil Curtis (also the city’s planning commission chairman). Curtis wrote that there were so many small leaks that the energy loss was like “death by a thousand cuts.”

The recommendations for the 1954 addition boil down to adding insulation wherever possible and sealing off the many leaks, plus adding a catwalk in an attic area to allow workers to move around without disturbing insulation.

Even in a worst-case scenario, Cannon does not foresee the project causing a burden on voters greater than its face value — officials can use the $80,000 line item in a pinch.

“The school does have some capital improvement money set aside, but we don’t anticipate digging into that,” she said.

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