Hamilton brothers launch study to monitor overheated apartments

Two Hamilton brothers are trying to find out how record-breaking heat impacts low-income living spaces in the city.

Brothers plant temperature recording devices in downtown apartments

Matt Thompson, co-chair of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association, is trying to find out how the heat is impacting Hamiltonians' residential space by measuring temperatures in three downtown apartments. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Beasley neighbourhood activists Matt and Dan Thompson are using their own money to fund a study measuring just how much hotter a heat wave can be for low-income people without air conditioning.

Their motivation? Losing a member of their neighourhood association a year ago, when she died from a health condition aggravated by a heat wave.

"She was so fantastic, but the heat came along and it's not a good thing for a lot of people if you don’t have access to cooling and air conditioning,"  said Matt, co-chair of the association.

As a result, they have set out to measure how hot city apartments in their central Hamilton neighbourhood get in heat waves like last week's, which had the city under a heat alert for six straight days, with temperatures in the mid 30s C and humidex readings in the 40s C.

"We are doing this just as our mission, as part of our neighbourhood,"  said Thompson.

They placed temperature recording devices at three Hamilton homes in the downtown core since mid-June. Temperatures are being recorded throughout summer.

How hot at night?

The brothers are funding the experiment out of their own pocket to the tune of $500. Thompson said with a small sample size, their experiment is far from conclusive, but it is aimed at inspiring policy changes and pushing for more cooling spaces at night for people living without air conditioning.

Although the experiment is still in its data collection stage, Thompson said he hopes the recorded temperatures will back his thesis:

  • Homes are staying overly hot into the night due to their construction;
  • The very high overnight temperature is preventing any significant cooling;
  • Residential heat exposure is beyond the scope of Hamilton's three-stage heat response system.

"The 1-2-3 heat response system is a fantastic system that the city has and I appreciate it," said Thompson. "But if it's 35 degrees during the day and your house is being heated to 40 degrees, all of that is beyond the scope of the system."

The city's heat response system provides primarily daytime relief, offering public libraries and community centres open during day and early evening hours as public cooling centres. The brothers wonder where relief can be found at night if you live in an overheated apartment?

New Hamiltonian Stephen Heyerdahl has been living the reality the Thompson brothers are trying to measure.

Since moving from Toronto a year ago, he has occupied the second and third floor of a three-storey apartment in the Stinson neighbourhood with his fiancée. Without air conditioning at home during the heat wave, last week was very trying for the sound technician who spends much of his time at home designing music for commercials.

"It's impossible to do any kind of work at home, and sleeping wasn't the easiest thing," he said.

Heyerdahl estimated his brick home to be more than 100 years old and, like many local homes, it is designed for winter.

"They are designed to retain heat. In the summer time, it just keeps everything inside," he said.

That is a theory that the two neighbourhood activists are trying to confirm. They hope to put a focus on people in neighbourhoods like theirs where poverty rates are higher and air conditioning or escaping to the cottage is not an option.

Temperature recording devices like this one have been planted in three Hamilton apartments to measure the heat's impact on residential space. (Matt Thompson)

The three downtown homes chosen for the experiment reflect lower Hamilton's residential landscape: one concrete low-rise apartment and two older brick homes.

"They represent very dominant forms of the standard houses downtown. They are very common to the environment," Thompson said.

Serious Risk

The Thompsons' cause resonates with those at Good Shepherd, a social services organization that provides housing services for the city's homeless and those living with mental illnesses.

"The heat certainly presents a very serious risk to many of the people we serve," said Katherine Kalinowski, assistant executive director of programs, adding that those living in poverty are often on medications for physical and mental illnesses, and that makes them particularly susceptible to heat-related conditions.

Good Shepherd has been educating residents on beating the heat and informing them of the cooling places in the city. Part of its housing services also helps people access social benefits so they can purchase fans and air conditioning units.

The brothers' experiment is set to finish in September, and they plan to publish their data online for everyone to explore.