EDISON – Santa Monica students and teachers are longing for a cool sea breeze.

New solar chimneys at Edison Language Academy are doing what they were designed to do, according to school officials, but classrooms are still hitting temperatures in the mid-80 degrees.

“I visited my son’s classroom and 9 a.m. in the morning it was already 82 degrees,” Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre said at the Oct. 2 meeting. “You can see the teachers sweating and the kids all glossy.”

Edison got a brand new building thanks to funding from Measure BB, which provides cash from a bond approved by Santa Monica voters.

The district placed a high priority on sustainability when the buildings were designed, the district’s Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez told the board.

“We didn’t give them parameters to work with,” Maez said of the directive given to the design team. “We didn’t have a thermal comfort range that was expected and should be established for the passive cooling objectives that we had in the program.”

The passive cooling system relies on a natural mechanical process to cool indoor temperatures. It relies on cooler evenings.

In December of 2013, the district and a series of architects agreed that, to the best of their knowledge, the building was operating correctly. In January, when the school was opened, they started fixing “bugs,” which, Maez said, are common after major construction.

In May, the heat hit.

“No one’s questioning that there were uncomfortable temperatures experienced within the classroom,” Maez said.

The district – with the help of Stuart Sam, director of facilities improvement, and Kevin Daly, the project architect and also a member of Santa Monica’s Architectural Review Board – reprogrammed the cooling system to take maximum advantage of night time temperatures.

They installed three fans in every room and fans in the solar chimneys.

During the recent heat wave, Edison classrooms reached 83 to 86 degrees, Maez said.

Parents starting getting upset. During a September Board of Education meeting, parents and teachers voiced their complaints.

The high temperatures are similar or “even a little better” than those at some of the other district schools that don’t have air conditioning or passive cooling systems, Maez said.

“We believe our goal to maintain interior temperatures at or below outdoor levels was achieved,” she said. “We do believe this system is now and was actually doing what it was designed to do. But did we achieve staff and parent expectations for significant lower temperatures? I don’t think we can say ‘yes’ to that one.”

The district has brought on a mechanical engineering firm to try to remedy the heat. They’ll come back with suggestions for the board in December. One short-term solution, suggested by the district, involves placing temporary air conditioning units on the roof of the school. This won’t happen right away, as the district needs to evaluate the feasibility of the proposal.

“Part of the rub is that it’s a brand new school,” de la Torre said of the heat.

“Then what rubs people even a little bit harder is that there is air conditioning in Edison Language Academy,” he said later. “It’s just not in the classroom. We have them in the principal’s office and we have them in the library.”

He called this a bad precedent.

Boardmember Ralph Mechur, an architect, asked district officials specific questions about the problem. He noted that the district is grappling with an increasing number of hot fall days in recent years. He suggested addressing heat at other schools alongside Edison’s current issues.

Superintendent Sandra Lyon noted that the district would likely come back with an Edison-specific proposal at the next board meeting, which is scheduled for Oct. 16, and that the other schools will be addressed after that.

A group of parents showed up at the meeting to make clear they are upset with the new cooling system. They asked the district to tackle the issue sooner.

“As frustrating as it is to say please be patient while we continue to look for solutions,” said Boardmember Laurie Lieberman, “I really don’t know what else we can say because I don’t think we are capable of making a decision right now as to what we can do tomorrow to make things better, although we completely empathize. There’s no arguing with the fact that it’s not an optimal situation and it’s not what any of us thought was being built there.”

dave@smd.com

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