Canadian Consulting Engineer

Herculean engineering and the paper straitjacket

Given some of the bad press that engineers have been attracting from the Charbonneau and Elliot Lake Commissions, the Canadian Consulting Engineering awards are a refreshing reminder that engineers have very much to be proud of (hence the proud...

October 1, 2013   By Bronwen Parsons

Given some of the bad press that engineers have been attracting from the Charbonneau and Elliot Lake Commissions, the Canadian Consulting Engineering awards are a refreshing reminder that engineers have very much to be proud of (hence the proud peacock on this issue’s cover).

Perhaps it’s because there are many more winners this year – 20 as opposed to 12 in previous years – that I have been struck more than ever by the sheer scale and complexity of engineers’ work. As I pore over the descriptions provided by the companies, it’s always a struggle to decide what must be left out for the articles in this issue. There are so many amazing aspects to each project. When I hear about Associated Engineering’s formidable steerage of the Deh Cho Bridge project in the NWT, or Dessau’s Herculean task of organizing, designing and managing the construction of the SIEPAC power line across six countries in Central America, I am left “gobsmacked” as we used to say in the U.K.

It’s not just the scale of the engineering that is astonishing, it’s all the issues the engineers must navigate through. There are the myriad technical decisions both large and small; there’s dealing with government rules, environmental sensitivities, extreme weather, difficult terrain, community groups who want to stand in your way, not to mention keeping clients and stakeholders happy. Engineering today is as much about dealing with people as about dealing with physical phenomena.

This year there are five special award winners (three new ones in addition to the Schreyer and Tree for Life Awards). All five exhibit extraordinary complexity, whether it’s the W12 sewer tunnel built deep below downtown Edmonton, the long-awaited remediation of the infamous Sydney Tar Ponds, the Allain Duhangan hydroelectric project built high in the Himalayas, or the work of a team of structural engineering experts in B.C. producing guidelines for retrofitting schools to make children safer. Golder’s charitable initiatives also involve coordinating a diverse range of programs across the globe.

On the individual building scale, the engineering gymnastics that went into converting Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens into a retail store were so complicated they are compared to building a ship in a bottle, while having to dismantle a ship that was already inside. And at the Surrey City Centre Library and the Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, we find structural engineers applying painstaking care and invention to create extraordinary architecture.

The brief descriptions on the following pages only brush the surface of the effort involved in the projects, and the short list of credits given at the end is also only a tiny fraction of the true picture. Movie-makers can let the credits roll for 10 minutes, listing everyone down to the people who trained the dog and brought the coffee. No such luck with the printed word. Given the straitjacket of the printed page, we have to impose strict restrictions on who the winning firms can mention. But we all know that behind the handful of names and companies listed, and the few faces that were able to be gathered for the winners’ photographs (p. 70), stand whole armies of engineers and people who made the projects a success.

Bronwen Parsons

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