Plans withdrawn to install air conditioning in residence halls

The common room of Stearns Hall at Occidental College. Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Alvin Edhitjia Siagian/The Occidental

In an email sent to the student body April 11, Dean of Students Rob Flot announced that plans to install air conditioning in remaining residence halls will be postponed for the foreseeable future. Flot initially announced plans to install air conditioning in Stearns Hall in July 2018. According to Flot, other priorities, such as repairs to the Norris Hall of Chemistry and increasing financial aid, emerged since the initial announcement and the money originally set aside for Stearns was reallocated to address them.

“At this moment, things like repairs to the chemistry building, which are quite costly, needed to take priority,” Flot said. “The academic experience of students needed to be first and foremost.”

Flot said that although the postponement was a difficult decision to make, he believes it is in line with the college’s values.

“One of the college’s values is to make sure that we’re accessible for students who come from somewhat limited means,” Flot said. “If given the choice between providing financial aid support for students and putting air conditioning in the residence halls, I’m probably almost always going to support additional financial aid for students.”

Stearns Hall resident Tyler Ivy (junior) said he was frustrated with the fact that the decision was reversed after being announced.

“All of a sudden you don’t want to add what you promised,” Ivy said. “It’s just like, what is your role in our college and what actual influence do you have?”

Staircase leading towards the main entrance of Stearns Hall at Occidental College. Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Alvin Edhitjia Siagian/The Occidental

According to Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein, the estimated cost of installing air conditioning in Stearns was between $2.5 and $3 million with an additional cost of around $50,000 to $60,000 every year for maintenance. Himmelstein said these recurring expenses were taken into account when making the decision, especially for residence halls like Stearns, which was built in 1983.

“To go into these older buildings is very difficult,” Himmelstein said. “That’s the cost, they’re built without air conditioning in mind. It gets very complicated.”

In addition, Himmelstein said it was important to consider whether it would be more cost-effective to install air conditioning in already existing residence halls or to construct new buildings altogether.

“You don’t want to spend a few million dollars and find out the rest of the building is falling apart,” Himmelstein said. “What I could see happening is taking a dorm down and rebuilding it with air conditioning. If we rebuild anything, it will have air conditioning.”

According to both Himmelstein and Flot, another reason the installation of air conditioning is not currently a priority is the relatively short amount of time during the year that it would actually be used.

“In terms of the time that students are at the college — in August and September — it can be uncomfortable,” Flot said. “I certainly understand that, but then the remainder of the year it’s almost perfect weather.”

Himmelstein said he does expect the heat to get worse in the coming years and that finding ways to cool residence halls will become increasingly important.

“I think it’s getting very hot, that heat is lasting longer and I don’t see that going the other direction, so I don’t think we can ignore it,” Himmelstein said.

According to Ivy, the heat and overall design of the hall is already a significant issue.

“You’re already putting people at such a disadvantage because they already have to walk up all those stairs,” Ivy said. “The rooms are already smaller and then it’s 10 times as hot.”

According to Flot, he has received only one email from a student expressing irritation with the decision and no in-person complaints.

Staircase leading to the second floor of Stearns Hall at Occidental College. Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Alvin Edhitjia Siagian/The Occidental

Maeve Clayton (sophomore) is another Stearns resident. She said that although she was somewhat annoyed with the decision not to install air conditioning, it has not significantly impacted her.

“Honestly, it’s not that bad,” Clayton said. “I understand people’s frustration with the off and on, but there are a lot of bigger problems than air conditioning. As someone who has, at this point, lived in two halls with no air conditioning, I can say it’s really okay. There are a lot of other places you can go if you really need to have air conditioning.”

According to Himmelstein, air conditioning has been added to the common rooms of some residence halls and temporary cooling units are provided to college residents during the hottest months of the year. He said he recognizes that these are not permanent solutions. Himmelstein added there has been some pushback to increasing air conditioning installation for environmental reasons.

“We have some folks on campus who don’t want air conditioning because of the sustainability issues. They’re concerned about the college’s electrical use and the emissions and what it means to add air conditioning,” Himmelstein said. “That’s something we might want to look into and I’m open to suggestions.”