By Peter J. Suter
Dysfunctional indoor comfort controls in City College’s aging buildings have left students and faculty enduring suboptimal room temperature conditions during San Francisco’s coldest months.
“There are days when it’s an icebox, and days when it’s way too warm,” Visual Media Design Professor Tim Harrington said about the Visual Arts Building.
City College spokesperson Connie Chan attributed the problem to aging infrastructure, the need for capital upgrades and an underfunded building and grounds department meant to cover 2.2 million square feet between all of City College’s properties.
“At Ocean Campus alone, 70% of its facilities have been identified as poor facility condition,” said Chan.
The buildings at City College’s Ocean Campus — most of which were built before 1970, the Science Building dating back to 1940 — are some of the oldest among community colleges in the nation, said Superintendent of Facilities, Buildings and Grounds, Jimmy Kirk. Their facilities run on antiquated systems that need complicated maintenance fixes to address indoor comfort controls, he added.
“The older the building, the greater the difficulty of mitigating the circumstances,” Kirk said.
Since the beginning of the semester, faculty in the Visual Arts Building have experienced difficulties regulating the temperature of rooms.
The building’s aging infrastructure includes a complex set up of at least four different heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, installed in 1961. Each system requires individual care, Chief Engineer of Buildings and Grounds Mike Wilkins said.
“A majority of the HVAC systems [at Ocean Campus] have exhausted their lives,” Vice Chancellor of Facilities, Planning and Construction Dr. Rueben Smith said.
Visual Media Department’s Production Manager Colin Hall said that during his 14 years at City College the room temperature has never been consistent, which was the most common complaint from students. He then added that building and grounds engineers and staff have always been responsive and do their best to accommodate their situation.
Complicating matters, some professors have turned to space heaters for warming up cold classrooms, stating that a request to resolve the problem would take too long to fulfill. But according to the Buildings and Grounds Department, those heaters can trigger classroom temperature sensors, causing cooling systems to turn on even in the middle of winter.
Student Corinna Witt stated at the last board of trustees meeting that she was forced to take a year and a half off to fix health issues caused by a preexisting condition, but also suboptimal furniture set up at the college. And, now she felt she was being derailed again by the suboptimal room temperature conditions.
In a facilities research paper, “Heat and Learning,” from The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University done in May 2018, studies show that hotter school days in the year prior to the test reduce learning, with extreme heat being particularly damaging and larger effects for low income and minority students.
Complaints of the classrooms in the Science Building being too hot are due primarily to the old boiler room that has to be either all the way on or off, Kirk explained.
The boiler located underneath Cloud Hall– which supplies steam to the campus– isn’t traditionally meant to be shut off, Wilkins said. Because the college closes and the buildings and grounds department are only staffed for a day and swing shift, so there is no graveyard shift to keep the boiler running, he added.
Kirk and Wilkins said that when a problem occurs in a room, an engineer must enter to troubleshoot it — which is difficult to do during the school day, especially when class is in session. When a problem extends beyond what the Building and Grounds Department can fix, the job is put on a “deferred maintenance” list.
According to a City College capital plan update from 2016, the college has racked up at least $450 million in deferred maintenance costs.
When asked if the college had plans to address these costs Chan replied “The Chancellor [Mark Rocha] and the Board have been discussing a possible facility bond that could fund capital upgrades and renovations that will likely to mitigate the deferred maintenance issues”
Despite the larger obstacles City College regarding indoor comfort controls, students and staff have remained resilient, “we don’t let it get in the way of the task at hand,” said Hall.