Is UW campus prepared for climate change? A residence infrastructure case study


Throughout the entire year, the only consistency is the inconsistent daily temperature. This winter has been green and mild on some days and a flurry of snow with snow storm warnings on others. What’s causing this uncertainty? Climate change.

Climate change broadly refers to the long-term shifts in weather patterns and temperatures.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established in 1988, states human activities have been driving climate change since the 1800s. The burning of fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and gas generates greenhouse gas emissions which trap heat and drive global rising temperatures. 

According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2023 was the hottest year on record, and this continued as January 2024 was recorded as the hottest January. Rising temperatures are a serious concern as they pose health risks, disrupt natural systems, lead to loss of species, and hurt food production. 

Individuals and institutions both have a role to play in addressing these crises, which raises the question: is the UW campus prepared for climate change and all its potential effects? 

One area of campus operation where students on campus feel climate action is needed in particular is the improvement of campus housing infrastructure and its readiness for rising global temperatures.  

UW declared a climate emergency in May 2021. The declaration is centered on four key pillars and outlines 10 key commitments to advancing climate action on campus. 

“Aligning institutional practice and policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including in operation of the campus and in the university’s investments” is the third pillar in the declaration. 

“I think the biggest thing will be more extreme heat and also more extreme heat fluctuations. [Last] year, we had an especially hot summer and a dry summer with all the wildfires and smoke,” said Michelle Angkasa, a Village 1 (V1) campus housing don. 

“In September, it was really hot and I would get complaints constantly from students because there was no air conditioning in V1. It’s very evident these buildings were built at a time when they probably didn’t have to deal with extreme heat like we do now.” 

V1, built in 1966, was the first residence constructed at UW. Other subsequent campus housing buildings such as REV, UWP, and MH are included with V1 in the list of residences that do not have air conditioning. Collectively, these residences house over 4,000 first-year and upper-year students. 

“Close to 70 per cent of our residence buildings were built around or before 1970. The buildings are 50 plus years old now, and so we have been building out a strategy on how to renew or rebuild all of our spaces and sustainability is going to be an important principle as we consider a proposal and plan for that type of work,” said Glen Weppler, director of housing at Campus Housing. “There’s a balance that we have to strike between providing things like air conditioning and the cost and how it also contributes to global warming.”

Weppler also shared that they hear comments from students on concerns of the lack of air conditioning in residence, especially in the warmer months. Campus Housing shifted core occupancy for spring term from V1 into CMH, where there is increased access to air conditioning. 

“I’m glad this topic is coming up and we will be looking for opportunities for student input. I know we’ve done that over the last few months with the new residence project,” Weppler said. “If students have advice that they want to offer after reading this article, then they can certainly follow up and share that with our team.” 

Addressing concerns about living in campus housing residences during predicted heat waves is part of cultivating a climate ready campus. 

The 2023 Environmental Sustainability Report, prepared by the UW Sustainability Office, reports on the progress made towards the objectives outlined in the 2017 Environmental Sustainability Strategy. In the Governance and Benchmarking section of the report, the Net Neutral Building Guideline is listed as one of the internal policies used to support university sustainability efforts. 

The General Principles section of the guideline acknowledges the projected temperature increase in subsection 5.7, Resiliency, stating that “Waterloo will support building resiliency, maintaining some functionality during utility disruption and minimizing impact of outdoor temperature extremes on indoor thermal comfort, which are expected to increase over time.”

This guideline is being used in the development of the new residence building scheduled to open in fall 2026. The project is being worked on in partnership with Indigenous-owned architecture firm Two Row, alongside the Office of Indigenous Relations, the Sustainability Office, Campus Housing, and Plant Operations at UW. 

The new residence aligns with the Campus Housing Facilities Strategy, the long-term plan that informs the revitalization of all campus housing facilities. It is a guide for new projects as well as currently aging buildings to improve environmental sustainability and accessibility. 

So, is campus ready for climate change? The answer changes based on which residence you live in and where your sustainability focus is. At V1, the necessary infrastructure changes are being worked into the strategic plan. At other residences, air conditioning is a non-factor in their question of climate readiness. Residence infrastructure is one of the focus areas of climate change readiness. Grounds maintenance, transportation access, food and water, waste management, research and education, and responsible investing are other climate change readiness factors at work on campus. These are all strategy areas with target goals reported on in the campus Environmental Sustainability Report. 

To ensure a climate-ready campus for all, look around at your part of the UW community and ask yourself, “Are we prepared for climate change?” Then take action, do research, send an email, connect with others, and help encourage the university to continue pursuing bold climate actions and sustainable change. 


Calls to action for climate change readiness 

  1. If you live in residence, either in Campus Housing or one of the university colleges, look for ways to get involved in sustainability in your residence community — residence green teams, Sustainability Office Green Residence Ambassadors, taking initiative by creating space to talk about climate change, and exercising a green thumb whenever possible. 
  2. Get involved on campus. Engage with the Sustainability Office, with student forums, and with campus groups related to sustainability and climate change. Bridge your residence sustainability actions with campus knowledge. By joining the conversation you strengthen our climate aware community. 
  3. Stay informed. Read the UW Sustainability Report, Climate Emergency Declaration and other environment related publications. Seek out news related to climate change and sustainability. Talk to your friends, your classmates, your professors about current events and how they impact our UW community, then use this knowledge to take action where you can.