Canadian Consulting Engineer

Missing

No-one likes being left out of the party. But that's often what happens to consulting engineers on building projects."I would say that maybe with half of our projects we have been involved from the beginning," says Martin Roy, ing. "But with...

March 1, 2010   By Bronwen Parsons

No-one likes being left out of the party. But that’s often what happens to consulting engineers on building projects.

“I would say that maybe with half of our projects we have been involved from the beginning,” says Martin Roy, ing. “But with the other half we have had a call from the client at the last minute.”

For Roy, the last-minute invitation means they lose opportunities to improve the building. “It is always a problem because we cannot give our voice to the way they develop the design — the orientation, the size, the volumetrics. If we had been involved at first, then maybe the architect would have designed the building differently.”

Roy is the president of Martin Roy & Associés of Montreal. He is an award-winning engineer who designs the mechanical and electrical systems — the energy systems — for buildings. Roy’s firm also specializes in green buildings, which is why they do manage to have a seat at the designers’ table in the early stages of projects at least some of the time. Most consulting engineers don’t enjoy that privilege. “If we were doing traditional engineering,” Roy says, “then we would be involved only at the end.”

For decades, anyone embarking on a large building project has asked an architect first to come up with the preliminary design. While it’s possible that the structural engineer will be brought in early, the mechanical and electrical engineers — the ones who are putting in the unseen infrastructure, the pipes and conduits, boilers and chill ers, all the infrastructure that makes the indoor environment comfortable — will not be asked for their input until the form of the building is decided.

“This situation should change,” says Roy. “I think it will change. But clients, architects and developers need to understand what the integrated design process is and how they should involve everybody at first.”

What is an “integrated design process”?

As more developers want their buildings certified through programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), they are adopting the integrated design process. Ideally, this approach means that the full complement of architect, engineers, as well as the owner and the contractor, work together on the project from the outset.

In the hands of this multi-disciplinary team, the building is designed holistically. All the components work together and complement each other. The heating and cooling systems, for example, are selected and sized to work in concert with the building’s spatial organization — the architecture. The structure, roof and wall materials, the number and size of openings, etc. all have an impact on how much energy the building needs. So the designers collaborate and make decisions together, sharing their expertise.

Without such collaboration at the beginning of a project, an engineer faces difficulties in trying to make the building engineering systems work at their optimum level. For example, once the architectural plans are decided, the mechanical engineers may be forced to locate a chiller in the bright sun, or in a space that is too enclosed. Or they may have to integrate systems that they know are not really compatible.

In comparison, a building designed by an integrated team has a much more careful and precise evolution. Mark Lucuik, P. Eng. of Ottawa, who is director of sustainability at Morrison Hershfield and also chair of the Canada Green Council LEED management committee, explains: “It basically requires the whole design team. It’s the architect sitting down with the mechanical, electrical, structural and civil engineers, and other specialists and stakeholders — everyone around the table. It involves brainstorming over a series of weeks or months and testing different variables, then coming back with the results, changing the design and testing a new set of variables.”

Naturally, this refining process takes extra time. And it can be expensive for the owner or architect to pay a full team of consultants to attend early meetings. Nonetheless, organizations such as the Canada Green Building Council, which runs the LEED rating system, Natural Resources Canada, and CMHC advocate integrated design, saying that the approach means that ultimately the building will operate more efficiently and provide a better environment.

Why are engineers not at the table?

Budgets are one of the big obstacles to owners choosing an integrated design team approach.

John Souleles, an architect with Marshall Tittemore Architects in Calgary, says that: “If the clients value the sustainability objective, I think they understand the need for it.”

But while Souleles tries to encourage building owners to bring in an integrated design team, “the difficulty is that the capital costs for all the consultants need to be borne up front. That’s a major obstacle in some client sets.”

A skilled engineer proficient in green design and modeling will command a higher fee than some less experienced engineers. Building owners and their architects are not always willing to pay for these special skills.

Lucuik explains why: “I don’t think most stakeholders understand integrated design, and as such in most cases they’re not given enough time or money to perform it.” He continues, “The mechanical-electrical engineer is probably the one who most greatly influences the energy of a building, yet they are usually awarded the contract on a low-cost basis.”

“I would argue that there is a major flaw there,” Lucuik continues. “If you want the best person, then you want to pay $200 or $250 an hour for the mechanical designer because they’re the ones who are making the decisions that you have to live with as a building owner for the rest of the building’s life.”

Personal relations

What might also stand in the way of owners and architects using an integrated design approach is that it can create an uneasy situation among the players. Talks around the table can be a delicate affair. Sharing ideas can depend on who is paying the piper. If the architect has hired the engineer to be part of his team, then the engineer is reluctant to speak up and differ with the opinions of his paymaster. The engineer will adopt his or her traditional supportive role and stay quiet.

On the other hand — as is happening more frequently with the integrated design process — if the building owner has hired the engineer directly, the engineer feels more at liberty to contradict the architect’s opinions. Then architects may feel they are being undermined, leaving them in an awkward position: “Our clients typically want strong direction from the architects,” says Souleles, but when the engineers have a contract directly with the building owner,” There’s always a veto looming.”

For their part, engineers feel that even when they’re invited to the table they’re not always heard.

Laurier Nichols, ing. of Dessau — another Montreal mechanical engineer who has won the highest technical awards from ASHRAE — was not impressed after participating in one integrated design team. The design session was for a computer data centre.

“The owner was a government agency, so there were many owners in this meeting,” Nichols explains. “But the architect chaired the meeting and the contractor was there.”

“We were present, but we were quite disappointed about the participation we had in the decision. It was very important to have a continuous electrical supply for the equipment, but they didn’t seem to realize what the importance of this was, and the discussions were mostly on the entrance and the fenestration — the ‘walk-through’ of the building and the architecture.”

Makes a better design

Still, many architects and owners are enthusiastic about the integrated team approach.

David Dow, an architect with Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto, welcomes more input from engineers: “The integrated design process gets the consulting engineers invo
lved in the process very early in the design and gives them a bigger voice than they’ve had in the past. It both empowers them and also teases them to speak a lot more openly to the design team. The integrated design process has been something that has been spurred very much by the green agenda. But, frankly, it’s a good process regardless. Just having the engineers involved helps to produce a better design.”

From the building owner side, Lee Gavel sees great advantages to an integrated design approach. He is the university architect and chief facilities officer at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., a campus that currently has $130 million in construction under way. “Absolutely there is a need for earlier and more conceptual input from the engineering profession than perhaps there has been in the past,” Gavel says. “Increasingly in the business of getting a building created, the integration of architecture and engineering and all the other specialty technical knowledge bases is paramount.

Particularly when you are moving into sustainability issues, whether it’s LEED or Green Globes, or any of the green building rating systems, the input and consideration of the basic mechanical, electrical, power and civil infrastructure systems need to come in much earlier and need to be fundamentally part of the process.”

Guy Pocock of Kasian Architecture’s Calgary office has been focused on building large hospital projects. Pocock says: “I’m very much in favour of having the engineers on board from almost Day One. The architects often think of the design from the aesthetic side and functional aspects. But when all the information is there and you are sitting with the client and trying to figure out a solution to a particular problem, then the engineers are there at the table giving out ideas as much as anyone else.”

Problem of the reluctant green engineers

It has to be said, however, that many engineers are reluctant to use unconventional green technologies, which means their views are not always popular among the other design team members.

Cameron Blair, P. Eng. is a manager of sustainable building practices for the eastern division of the giant construction company, EllisDon. “I attend a lot of early design meetings,” says Blair, “and I see eyes rolling when the discussion turns to environmental enhancements and sustainable design. The engineer does not want to be on the “bLEEDing” edge and so discourages the owner from the same.”

But Blair believes designers should be willing to try alternative technologies. “Certainly engineers, through standards of care, must safeguard owners from costly unproven technologies,” he says. “But there must also be a willingness to research, learn, and accept some degree of risk, or progress will stagnate.”

John Souleles’ experience is similar: “Not all engineers that we’ve worked with are interested in exploring sustainable design. If their clients aren’t requiring them to bring sustainability to the table, then they won’t.”

Consequently, architects like Souleles who favour green design prefer to work with engineers who are proactive and will bring forward new ideas: “There are certain types of engineers we work with who are on the same page as us,” says Souleles. “They will bring initiatives to the table that we’ve never considered — such as innovative ways to use stormwater to supplement cooling systems, that kind of thing.”

What architects want from engineers

What these architects want from engineers is for them to come to the table bursting with new ideas and well versed in the latest technological innovations: “Sustainable design has great potential and there are lots of different technologies out there,” says Guy Pocock. “I would suggest that the engineers have to keep up with what’s on the cutting edge of design and what are new ideas. They need to know how to apply those ideas in new situations — for a new building type or for a new client.”

David Dow agrees: “Where we want to see a good engineer excel is at the front end of the construction cycle. Speaking selfishly as an architect, that is where we want to see the interaction, and where we can benefit from their input. Their ideas, their opinions — they can really make the project a lot better.”

But first engineers have to be invited to the table. And that’s not happening enough now. Sustainable design has the potential to empower engineers, giving them an influence over the design that they’ve never had before. Sustainable design is not just about materials or ordering new equipment, it requires a delicate balance of myriad physical forces that only engineers can calculate, analyze and manage. It’s for that reason that green design requires an integrated design process with engineers at the table from the beginning.

Asked whether he sometimes finds it difficult as an engineer to get a word in edgewise at design meetings, Mark Lucuik answers: “When there is integrated design going on and you have the right individuals at the table, then, No, it’s not hard at all.”

He continues, “It’s not hard — But usually it’s not an integrated design process, so you’re just not there. It’s hard to get a word in when you’re not there.”

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