Indoor climate control measures at SFU need an overhaul

Inhospitable temperatures in classrooms aren’t helping SFU reach its emissions targets

Walking from one hall to another is like teleporting through climate zones. Illustration: Tiffany Chan/The Peak

By: Connor Stephenson, Peak Associate

Why is it that people feel the need to travel to the sands of the Sahara or the glaciers of Antarctica for a change in climate, when they could save themselves the arduous journey and visit our campus here in Burnaby? Walking into a classroom at SFU is like opening a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. It seems as though, from building to building and classroom to classroom, there are significant variations in temperature that make for an uncomfortable experience on campus. This leads to windows being opened and space heaters being summoned, and an unnecessary amount of energy wasted. 

This huge range of temperature differences between classrooms is concerning since SFU has as one of its goals the conservation of energy — specifically with a target to reduce total emissions by 2% from year to year. To be clear, SFU has taken measures to address its impact on the climate. These include replacing halogen bulbs with LEDs to reduce the need for climate control devices, and installing carbon dioxide sensors in some classrooms that adjust the climate based on the presence of large numbers of students, according to Bernard Chan, Energy Manager. However, given that many classrooms still feel inhospitably intemperate, the issue of classroom temperatures versus climate impact seems to be presented as a false dichotomy; i.e. SFU can either reduce emissions or students can learn comfortably. In reality it is not unreasonable to ask for both. 

The automation of climate control in classrooms — even with the best carbon emission intentions — just isn’t working. Walking into any classroom that has its windows open to release some of the stifling heat proves that. By just keeping rooms a consistent, comfortable temperature, or allowing people to adjust temperatures on their own, the university could save all that energy which is currently being vented out the windows.

Chan states that SFU’s classroom temperatures are set based upon a “central control system.” This system is adjusted through “a preventive maintenance program” that “requires space temperatures to be checked diligently and regularly.” In addition, he also recommends that “students and staff [ . . . ] report temperature issues to [the] Facilities and Services desk.” This will then prompt a member of the Facilities Services team to “first check the temperature to see if it is meeting the target settings” before any adjustments are made. 

The obvious flaw in this system is that information regarding the need for students and staff to report inconsistent temperatures is poorly disseminated in classrooms around campus, let alone information on who to call at what number. This entirely nullifies the reporting aspect of the classroom climate control strategy. 

Furthermore, the “diligence” of the maintenance program itself could be called into question considering the magnitude of temperature variations felt by students. All of this culminates in students and staff looking for alternative strategies for regaining control of classroom climates  — such as keeping windows open, bundling in too many layers, or furnishing offices with space heaters This opens the door to an incredible amount of wasted energy, as well as wasted time.  

We are quick to call out politicians when we feel they are not making the best decisions in terms of climate action. As climate concerned students, we should also hold SFU accountable for the ways it needlessly wastes energy on inefficient classroom climate control systems. If the university is serious about mitigating the effects of climate change, it should look to better integrate students and staff in addressing the sweltingeringly warm and numbingly cold classroom environments.