Leila Touati | Mustang News Credit: Leila Touati | Mustang News

The Mathematics and Science Building 38 at Cal Poly has had severe problems with air circulation and quality, according to research from mechanical engineering professor Jennifer Mott-Peuker.

Mott-Peuker is currently conducting a study on thermal comfort and CO2 levels on the older buildings of the university. 

The CSU system sets regulations for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, requiring them to be on from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., as well as set-point temperatures. 

Her preliminary data from last fall shows that in Building 38, CO2 levels increased throughout the day and HVAC air systems were turning off at 5 p.m., when students and faculty were still in the building.

While this data may have changed from previous years, Building 38 was built before 1960 and thermal comfort is still a problem for students and faculty today. 

Staff working in the Grants Development Office have reported that on the left side of Building 38, temperatures are too low for comfort, while the rooms on the right have issues with warm temperatures.

Dianne Dotson is a grant analyst and has worked inside Building 38 for 24 years. 

In Dotson’s case, her room is usually on the colder side, and the office has access to open windows and air conditioning. Dotson and her colleagues have previously been in “a war with the university” due to the low temperature in their office in the colder months.

“They will not substantiate the cost of what it would be to keep the temperature at a higher level but they think that 68 degrees is the ideal temperature in a working environment,” Dotson said.

Heat rises, and with Building 38’s two floors, inside temperatures are noticeably warmer in the second floor classrooms and hallways. This heat can cause students to lose focus and provide a difficult study and working environment, according to Mott-Peuker.

“Especially during finals week, we should be much more attune to make sure our buildings are comfortable for exams because there is research that [shows] poor learning and testing conditions do affect you,” Mott-Peuker said. 

Mott-Peuker found a 5% difference in test scores when comparing outdoor conditions to indoor conditions during an exam, pointing to data in Building 38 for 15 years of Calculus courses, accounting for difficulty of class and professor.

“I’ve been in a classroom where I look at the students and I’m sweating and I’m like, ‘How can you think through this? How can you do your best when you’re sweating from not being stressed but from the room conditions?’” Mott-Peuker said. “That’s my concern, it’s just the people.”

The uncomfortableness of a classroom is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Mott-Peuker’s research. With the increasing CO2 levels, this becomes a cause of concern for the spread of airborne diseases, including COVID-19. 

“You can see that it builds up over the day, so even though maybe the classroom is being open every hour and people are moving in and out, it doesn’t clear the CO2 out. Only when you see that the classroom is empty, does it go down,” Mott-Peuker said. “The later in the day the class you have, the more likely you’re going to have some type of COVID-19 or other airborne diseases in the classroom unless it’s being ventilated well.”

Mathematics senior Lindsey McMahon took more than six courses in the Mathematics and Science building over the past three years.

“Mathematicians are partial to chalkboards so we’re a big fan of the chalkboards in there,” McMahon said. “Because of all of the chalk, you can notice an air about the building towards the end of the day.”

Cal Poly Facilities deals with many different projects with varying priority levels. Cal Poly Facilities did not respond to Mustang News’ request for comment. 

There are many ways to bring change and create a better learning environment in Building 38 that wouldn’t overload the budget, according to Mott-Peuker’s research. 

She proposes one solution to create a better learning environment that wouldn’t overload the budget: creating a “flush-out” of the building — opening all doors and windows for the indoor air to be recirculated and for fresh, cool air to enter the building at night. 

According to the Cal Poly Thermal Comfort Report by Solar Decathlon, it is required that “outdoor air must be brought into the space during the heating and cooling seasons when it is not advantageous with respect to energy usage,” in order to meet indoor air filtration needs.

Software engineering freshman Sanaia Pierre said the flush-out would be quite beneficial for comfortability in the classroom.

“I know they don’t like keeping the classroom doors open, especially when classes are over because it gets really loud in the hallway,” Pierre said. “At night that doesn’t really apply when no one’s in the building.” 

Bringing outdoor air into Building 38 is more complicated due to the age of the structure. The building has certain windows that are inoperable or unable to open when rooms get uncomfortable for students and staff, according to McMahon.

“For the most part, people don’t even attempt to do things for the windows,” McMahon said. “Maybe all the professors have tried in the past and learned that they don’t open or close, but I’ve had professors comment on it being stuffy, and then don’t even go to open a window, but maybe they can’t.”

Switching to operable windows in older buildings can bring in outdoor ventilation and would capitalize on San Luis Obispo’s mild weather. 

“I’m an engineer but I like thinking about how people are affected by stuff, and this is really something that I jumped on and said ‘Okay this is more important to me’ — personally and professionally,” Mott-Peuker said.