Canadian Consulting Engineer

Canadian Consulting Engineer   

HUMAN EDGE City Making

Companies & People Engineering

Peter Halsall, P.Eng. is Chairman of Halsall, a Canadian building and infrastructure engineering company that he has directed since 1996. Peter has a strong interest in sustainable design issues for cities and buildings and has served on design...

Peter Halsall, P.Eng. is Chairman of Halsall, a Canadian building and infrastructure engineering company that he has directed since 1996. Peter has a strong interest in sustainable design issues for cities and buildings and has served on design review panels for several years. CCE spoke to him in September.

Q. How did you get involved in design review panels?

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Waterfront Toronto started one in about 2004 and the city of Toronto started one in 2005 as a pilot project. I was invited in both cases because of my “green” work.

Each panel only had one engineer, which is interesting in itself. There were 12 on the panels: planners, architects, landscape architects – and one engineer.

What I am interested in is the idea of measurable outcomes in city building. I think engineers have that quantitative approach that planners and architects are less prone to bringing to a design.

So when they were considering buildings the panel members would express an interest in things like energy consumption, but at the site planning level they didn’t. I was surprised that in most of the submissions for planning we didn’t even see a topographical description to show how water and sewage would be dealt with, or how groundwater would be dealt with. If you don’t have those kinds of quantitative measures, then you cannot define the outcomes that you are going to create with a plan. This is where engineers ought to be more engaged in the planning process, in my mind.

Q. So what was the panel looking at?

It was about form, adjacencies, fit with neighborhoods — in a non-quantitative way — street facing uses, sidewalk widths, landscaping. And in the city the planners are struggling with conflicts between planning principles and political and developer interests, so the discussions tend to get bogged down in different interests, rather than in real outcomes. A lot has to do with a focus on “economic” drivers.

Q. Why aren’t there more engineers TAKING PART on design review panels? We are, after all, talking about infrastructure.

It’s the other way round. They won’t be invited to the table if they’re not seen as creative thinkers. In general, architects and planners are going to be seen as creative, people who make something where there is nothing. Engineers – and again this is a generic observation – are seen as the people you go to once you have decided what you want to do and they fix the nuts and bolts on it: compliance rather than creativity.

Q. Would you be an engineer again, or a planner?

I’d be an engineer, but I think the time has come for engineers to change their reputation as number crunchers and to become ingénieurs again. This is the time when engineers have the opportunity, with global warming, with resource scarcity, with energy scarcity, to make a difference.

This is the era of engineering if we do it right. And if we screw it up we’ll be blamed for sending the Earth someplace we don’t want to go. If you want to have the biggest impact these days, be a creative engineer. cce

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