Heat, housing and health: Marianne Touchie and the complexity of multi-unit residential buildings

Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) is working with Toronto Community Housing and The Atmospheric Fund to better understand how changes to energy use affect indoor environmental quality in multi-unit residential buildings. Toronto Public Health is collaborating to use their data to inform policy. (Photo: Kevin Soobrian)

Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) is working with Toronto Community Housing and The Atmospheric Fund to better understand how changes to energy use affect indoor environmental quality in multi-unit residential buildings. Toronto Public Health is collaborating to use their data to inform policy. (Photo: Kevin Soobrian)

Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) is working with Toronto Community Housing and The Atmospheric Fund to better understand how changes to energy use affect indoor environmental quality in multi-unit residential buildings. Toronto Public Health is collaborating to use their data to inform policy. (Photo: Kevin Soobrian)


This story originally appeared at U of T Engineering News

This story is a part of a  five-part #RisingStars series, highlighting the work of our early-career professors.

In cities from coast to coast, condominium towers are being constructed at an unprecedented rate, with 30,000 new units added in 2015 to the Toronto market alone. This is driven both by recent advances in the design, engineering and construction of tall buildings, and a stark increase in demand for these multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs). “More people are moving downtown,” says Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE). “There’s very limited space, so we need high-density housing options and MURBs provide that.”

With a background in building science, Touchie studies the relationships between energy efficiency and indoor environment quality parameters, such as thermal comfort, in these high-density buildings. In Toronto, one of the largest suppliers of MURBs is Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which owns 50 million square feet of residential space and houses 110,000 residents. Many of these are older buildings without air conditioning.

“A lot of these buildings rely on ventilation through the building envelope, which is not terribly effective. At the same time, we need to reduce our energy consumption and energy use,” she says. “But reducing energy usage has implications for occupants, and that’s what I’m interested in studying.”

Touchie is currently collaborating with The Atmospheric Fund (formerly the Toronto Atmospheric Fund) on a large research project—one that she has been involved with since her role as their Building Research Manager from 2014 to 2015. She and her colleagues are collecting data on energy consumption, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide concentration in more than 70 apartments spanning seven different TCHC buildings.

“It’s probably the most comprehensive MURB monitoring project in North America, if not the world,” says Touchie.

They are also working with Professor Jeffrey Siegel (CivE), who is examining concentrations of formaldehyde, particulate matter and, through a partnership with Health Canada, radon concentrations. Touchie says that collaborations, such as those with TCHC, The Atmospheric Fund and Siegel, are critical to creating a comprehensive picture of the MURBs she studies. “Buildings are so complex,” says Touchie. “I have training in one particular area, but I’m not an indoor air quality expert. When we make changes from an energy perspective to the ventilation system, or the heating and cooling system, it has an influence on the air quality. Working with other experts, like Professor Siegel, we can gather data on all sides.”

Touchie’s findings with The Atmospheric Fund and TCHC have drawn the interest of Toronto Public Health. The agency is interested in the health impact of extreme heat, and the study has found that these TCHC buildings are often overheated, especially in the summer.

“Extreme heat is a health problem, especially for the most vulnerable populations,” says Sarah Gingrich, a Health Policy Specialist at Toronto Public Health. Very young children, the elderly and people with illnesses or taking certain medications are most at risk. “This work is providing evidence that excessive heat is a problem in older apartment buildings in Toronto. The research is showing that although the temperature cools down at night outside, in these buildings it rises during the day and they stay hot all night long.”

Touchie and her collaborators are finding that a major culprit for the inefficient heating and cooling performance is uncontrolled air leakage. These leaks often occur around windows, doors, exhaust fans and elevator shafts. But inefficiencies aren’t just a building issue: she adds that “because people can do whatever they want in their own homes, like open and close their windows, MURBs combine the complexity of high-rise buildings with the occupant wild card,” which makes managing the indoor environment even trickier.

“The study provides valuable information on Toronto apartment buildings that will help to inform policy development,” says Toronto Public Health’s Gingrich. “It fills a very important gap by providing up-to-date data that highlights some of the challenges in this type of building, and points to potential solutions.”

Next, Touchie hopes to expand her research to newer condos, where data is even scarcer. “They’re going up so quickly, and we really have no information about the quality of the indoor environment or their energy performance,” she says. “I am very curious whether their energy consumption matches the performance level promised at the design stage.”

Preventative Engineering: monitoring the health of water systems

Preventative engineering

The city is a living organism. People are its cells, and water is its lifeblood. This is the analogy Prof. Bryan Karney uses as the philosophical underpinning of his work in water infrastructure. Like any other organism, things get complex fast. “We have infrastructure systems that are highly deteriorated,” he says. “The challenge is, how do you detect the deterioration of systems efficiently, effectively and accurately?”

The deterioration of systems shows up as pipes that break, as systems that leak and as pumps that perform inefficiently. Systems can fail slowly, or they can experience acute catastrophic damage.

“We are trying to develop strategies to listen to systems more effectively, understanding what they are telling us about their own performance.”

In the past, Karney argues, we have paid attention to the average performance of water systems, reacting only after they experience acute damage the way an ER doctor might respond to a sudden heart attack or stroke. Contemporary computer sensing and processing abilities have grown immensely, giving researchers the ability to actively monitor the health of water systems, as a cardiac specialist might track heart health as a preventative tool.

In the ideal future, engineers and technicians will run continual, complex diagnostics that quickly pinpoint the smallest disruptions, inefficiencies and even unauthorized access to infrastructure systems, stopping small problems before they become big. It’s this kind of technology Karney and his team are helping to develop. The stakes are high.

Mohamed Ghidaoui (CivE 8T9 MASc 9T1 PhD 9T3), now a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, provided a vital connection to one of the world’s densest cities. There, the unexpected failure of infrastructure can cost billions.

“He has been the leader for us to put together an initiative that is responding to Hong Kong’s opportunities,” Karney says. “We chose to work in Hong Kong because they take their infrastructure very seriously. The failure of any single system can be particularly catastrophic. Because of the intensity of land use, repairing systems is incredibly difficult.”

The strategy Karney and his team are employing is best described with another analogy. “What we are trying to do in Hong Kong is develop something like a SONAR system for pipes,” he explains. “We’re introducing high-frequency acoustic noise, sending out waves and getting impulses back that tell us about blockages in the system, leaks or unauthorized usage.”

The project’s approach is informed by additional work that Karney is undertaking through an NSERC Strategic Partnership Grant with the University of Waterloo. There, researchers like Bryan Tolson have developed a base method for introducing innovative diagnostics to existing infrastructure systems.

Such partnerships greatly enhance research capabilities, enabling researchers at multiple institutions with different areas of expertise to participate on a single complex project. In this case, the team is approaching Hong Kong’s challenges from structural, data acquisition and geotechnical angles. Karney notes, “we are looking for correlations between various physical parameters and the deterioration and performance of assets, like pipes.”

The capital costs of a typical urban water system range around $8,000 per person – in Toronto, that would be a valuation of around $25 billion system-wide. Approximately 70 per cent of that cost is in the pipes, Karney says. That’s a large investment to bury and forget about, which is why the assessment of performance and deterioration are so important.

Inefficiencies in water systems have important economic and environmental repercussions. Better diagnostic tools being developed will allow for significant changes in operations, such as improved pump maintenance and scheduling. These new technologies have the potential to drastically lower costs and emit fewer greenhouse gases.

“No system lasts forever,” Karney muses. “They will break down. We have to develop diagnostic tools that can anticipate when our systems are going outside their zone of operation. We need to be pro-active instead of reactive.”

Karney sees a future in which we will constantly pay attention to the performance of our systems. “We are developing the technology to understand turbines, to understand pumps, to understand conduits and conveyance systems, so that they can tell us what they are doing and how well they are performing.”


Prof. Bryan Karney is a Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and is the Associate Dean of Cross-Disciplinary Programs in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering.

Resilient cities need to be financially resilient too: Sandford Fleming Forum

The dining hall in the Faculty Club hosting the Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2 | Future Proofing: How Resilience Planning Supports the Future Functionality and Value of Fixed Assets and Infrastructure

Exploring the financial aspects of resilience, The Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure hosted its twice-annual Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2. Tania Caceres (Senior Real Estate Expert at RiskNexus), Lisa Prime (Director of Environment and Innovation at Waterfront Toronto) and Michael Kosturik (Regional VP for Intact Insurance) weighed in on the risk, reward and responsibility of building resilient infrastructure.

Previous Forums concluded that resilient communities have five key components; community focus, community identity, balanced infrastructure, strategic framework and confidence in leadership. When all of these characteristics are present, a community can withstand various shocks and stresses, whether natural or man-made, like the 2013 floods in Calgary’s downtown.

The May 2 Forum discussed resilience in Toronto, the costs of funding resilience and insuring communities that have not resilience planned.

The dining hall in the Faculty Club hosting the Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2 | Future Proofing: How Resilience Planning Supports the Future Functionality and Value of Fixed Assets and Infrastructure

Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2 | Future Proofing: How Resilience Planning Supports the Future Functionality and Value of Fixed Assets and Infrastructure

In Toronto, the focus for resiliency is on affordable housing, flood protection, major event infrastructure, green space, accessibility, multi-use/future uses and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Furthermore, all proposed developments require design excellence, green building standards and link to sustainable transportation links. Planning for the future is achieved through intelligent communities and innovative, integrated systems in Toronto.

One challenge for GTA policy makers is to remedy past infrastructure mistakes, like the early diversions of the Don River, whereby straightening the curved waterway causes flooding near the mouth of the river.

But there is a cost associated with achieving resiliency. The cost to update infrastructure for resiliency cannot always be justified based on the risks of catastrophic events associated with the community. And without resiliency, the costs to insure a community can be just as large.

The frequency and severity of natural catastrophic losses have appeared to be worse because more events occur in areas of high concentration of people. More people means that they own more belongings, which need to be insured. In 2015, there was $66.5 billion in damage from catastrophic events, of which only $35 billion was insured. Insurance premiums will continue to rise to accommodate the increased cost of loss.

Read more about the Sandford Fleming Forums, the speakers and the Centre for Resilience and Critical Infrastructure

 

*Operating under the Chatham House Rule, the Sandford Fleming Forum facilitates open dialogue by ensuring the anonymity of all speakers. It is for this reason that no ideas or quotes in this article are attributed.

Clean air map from U of T Engineering researchers helps cyclists avoid air pollution

Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

This story originally appeared on U of T News.

Cyclists face a difficult dilemma: on one hand, cycling is good for your health and the environment; on the other, cyclists are more exposed to risks such as accidents and air pollution. New research from U of T Engineering is helping cyclists map cleaner routes to minimize this exposure.

“In general, the benefits of cycling certainly outweigh the risks,” says Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE). “If you are a healthy person, you are better off to continue cycling than stop.” Nevertheless, when it comes to air pollution, cyclists are at a disadvantage.

“Studies have shown that the concentration of air pollutants tends to be higher inside vehicles than outside them,” says Hatzopoulou. “However, cyclists have a higher breathing rate, which means that they inhale more of these pollutants, and they go deeper into the lungs.”

Such pollutants include ultra-fine particles, as well as nitrogen oxides. Hatzopoulou cites studies associating increased exposure to these pollutants with respiratory problems and certain types of cancer. Her own research has shown that they can even have immediate, measurable effects on the cardiovascular system.

To help address this challenge, Hatzopoulou has created a tool called the Clean Ride Mapper for both Toronto and Montreal. It is essentially a Google Map with an extra layer representing the average concentration of pollutants in a given area, as measured by her team and collaborators. Using this data, algorithms can be constructed to work out not only the shortest route between two points, but also the one that exposes the cyclist to the lowest levels of air pollution.

Hatzopoulou and Anowar outfit a bicycle with equipment to detect the concentration of pollutant particles in the nearby air. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Hatzopoulou and Anowar outfit a bicycle with equipment to detect the concentration of pollutant particles in the nearby air. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Hatzopoulou intends to further refine the maps — for example, by incorporating real-time pollution concentrations instead of static data — but lately she has been pondering another question: are such tools actually useful to cyclists?

“There are a lot of factors that influence the choice of a cycling route besides pollution,” she says. “For example, there is safety, separation from traffic, elevation, distance, etc. Which ones would cyclists be willing to trade off in order to decrease their pollution exposure?”

Sabreena Anowar (CivE), a post-doctoral researcher on Hatzopoulou’s team, is working on an answer. She’s designed a survey that proposes several different cycling routes and asks cyclists to choose which one they would prefer.

“No route is perfect,” says Anowar. “They all vary in terms of traffic volume, pollution, elevation, travel time and other attributes.” By measuring which routes people would choose for either a recreational ride or a commuting ride, Anowar and Hatzopoulou hope to better understand how cyclists factor the risks of pollution into their activities. This in turn can help improve the design of tools like the interactive maps.

The survey was launched in Toronto, Montreal, Orlando, Austin, New York in collaboration with researchers in those cities. It will be open at least until June, and Anowar and Hatzopoulou are hoping to get at least 3,000 participants. In addition to their own research, Anowar says that the data could also be useful for city planners. “It will help identify how people value road infrastructure like separated lanes or signage,” says Anowar. “If we build more infrastructure like this, perhaps we can encourage people to cycle more.”

To help Hatzopoulou and Anowar in their research, complete the online survey for either a recreational ride or a commuting ride.