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.”

Ancient microbes could offer insight on better mining wastewater strategies

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

Wastewater from a mine doesn’t sound like a cozy habitat, but for untold numbers of microorganisms, it’s home sweet home. A new research project led by Professor Lesley Warren (CivE) will examine how these microbes make their living by studying their genes — an insight that could help further reduce the environmental footprint of the mining industry. The $3.7-million endeavour is funded in part by Genome Canada through the Large Scale Applied Research Projects (LSARP) program.

Extracting valuable metals such as copper, nickel and gold from rocks, which typically contain only a few weight percent metals, requires substantial amounts of water. All wastewater generated must be cleaned to strict federal guidelines before it can be discharged back into the environment. It is these wastewaters that the microorganisms studied by Warren and her team thrive in.

“These wastewaters contain a variety of sulphur compounds that certain bacteria can use for energy,” says Warren, who holds the Claudette Mackay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering at U of T. “Their ability to do so evolved billions of years ago, long before more complex life arrived on the scene. If the history of Earth were a 24-hour clock, they have been around for over 23 hours, while we humans have been around for only 17 seconds.”

However, our ability to investigate these bacteria and most importantly how they are cycling these sulphur compounds, which will influence the quality of mining wastewaters, has been very limited until now. If these sulphur compounds become too concentrated, the company has to implement costly chemical treatment systems to make the water acceptable for release and avoid toxicity problems in lakes or streams downstream from the mine.

Dr. Lesley Warren is the Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering within the Department of Civil Engineering.

Dr. Lesley Warren is the Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering within the Department of Civil Engineering.

Warren believes that genomics can help. She has spent years travelling mine sites from Canada to South Africa to better understand the sulphur geochemistry of their wastewaters and how bacteria are implicated. “I have always preferred dirty water to clean,” she jokes.

For this project, Warren and her team will apply genomics directly in tandem with comprehensive geochemical analyses and modeling to wastewaters. She will collaborate closely with Professor Jill Banfield, a trailblazer in environmental genomics at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Christian Baron, a microbial biochemist from the Université de Montréal, and Dr. Simon Apte, a research scientist in analytical chemistry and geochemical modeling from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Land and Water in Australia, to unravel the role played by these sulphur-loving microbes in important geochemical processes affecting mining wastewaters.

“Mining companies know that microorganisms are driving these reactions, but its still a black box” says Warren. “The lack of available technologies has meant that there has been little research to determine which bacteria are doing what, which ones could serve as early warning signals, or those that could actually be used as the biological treatment itself. Most importantly, mining companies don’t know which levers to pull to control the system.”

Those levers are what Warren and her colleagues aim to identify. Informed by genomic and geochemical insights they plan to develop new tools that can help mine managers make better decisions about how to manage their wastewater. “Once we understand the microbes and how they affect wastewater geochemistry, we can pinpoint the drivers of their behaviour: Which wastewater compounds are they using? Do they like it hot? Do they like it cold? We can adjust those drivers to design new processes that do what we want them to do. Essentially we are mining the bacteria that already exist in these wastewaters as a biotechnology resource.”

With this new knowledge, mines could ensure conditions that encourage the growth of organisms that break down toxic compounds, or prevent the growth of organisms that produce those toxic compounds in the first place. The team is collaborating with three Canadian mining companies, as well as two engineering consulting firms, Advisian and Ecological and Regulatory Solutions. In addition, the Mining Association of Canada, the Ontario Mining Association and CSIRO are further supporting the project.

The project also has the endorsement of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), the leading not-for-profit technical society of professionals in the Canadian minerals, metals, materials and energy industries. CIM National Executive Director, Jean Vavrek, commented: “CIM are in full support of this exciting new project.  While genomics itself is relatively new to the mineral resource industry, it has the potential to provide significant returns and generate new areas for investment in the sector.  We consider this a flagship project and will continue to follow Dr. Warren and her team closely as they pioneer genomics research for mine wastewater characterization and possibly treatment.”

“The mining industry has driven this project from its inception because they want to reduce their environmental footprint. Harnessing the biological potential of their wastewaters will facilitate the development of such strategies to achieve this goal,” says Warren. “So many of the organisms we’re finding are new to science. The chances that we are going to find organisms that are capable of doing creative things that could be useful are very high.”

U of T Engineering student team competes at Green Energy Challenge finals

The University of Toronto student chapter of the Canadian/National Electrical Contractors Association (CECA/NECA) is one of three finalists to compete at the 2016 Green Energy Challenge in Boston this weekend.

The students from U of T Engineering are the only Canadian team, and will compete against teams from Iowa State and the University of Washington. The final three were selected from 14 proposals.

“We selected UTS because it is an aging building that uses older lighting systems and could benefit greatly from an upgrade,” said Dmitri Naoumov (CivE 1T5+PEY), the team’s project manager. “The school is also planning a major renovation, so our proposal could help to inform the energy needs and improvements.”The U of T team partnered with University of Toronto Schools (UTS), a Grade 7 to 12 university preparatory school in downtown Toronto, to design an energy efficiency upgrade, including a small-scale photovoltaic system that would serve as a teaching and learning tool for students.

Competing alongside Naoumov are Matheos Tsiaras (CivE 1T5+PEY), Ernesto Diaz Lozano Patiño (CivE 1T5+PEY, MASc Candidate), Greg Peniuk (CivE Year 4 + PEY), Arthur Leung(ChemE Year 4), Claire Gao (ChemE Year 4 + PEY), Mackenzie De Carle (CivE Year 4) and Nataliya Pekar (CivE Year 4).

“The lighting in the rooms was below the recommended levels for classroom learning,” said Naoumov. “By increasing the light in classrooms, we are helping to create an environment more conducive for students and teachers.”Their design includes detailed technical solutions for classroom lighting retrofit, integrated window treatments and the design of a rooftop 4kW photovoltaic solar array, which all meet the unique needs of the building and the climate in Toronto. By upgrading the lighting system to use lower wattage bulbs, using occupancy sensors and installing light shelves that regulate daylight, the team determined that UTS could reduce its annual energy consumption by up to 125 MWh, or enough to light 10 typical homes.

UTS is eager to incorporate the students’ energy efficient and technologically savvy infrastructure into its daily operations. Because many Toronto public school buildings are showing their age, this could serve as a model for future upgrades across the city.

“UTS is an Eco School and we aim to reduce our environmental footprint and energy costs,” said Philip Marsh, vice-principal of UTS. “The team’s analysis and understanding of how to improve the efficiency of our building was impressive. We see the proposed roof solar array as a viable design option for the future.”

Competing for the first time at the Green Energy Challenge in 2015, the U of T team placed fourth with its lighting and back-up power retrofit proposal for the Good Sheppard Ministries shelter in downtown Toronto. Although the project did not win them a spot at the convention, Good Sheppard Ministries is currently implementing their design throughout its facility.

CECA/NECA brings together electrical contractors across the country to share experience and advice. Established in 2014, the U of T chapter extension is the first of its kind in Canada. Its goal is to bridge the gap between contracting and engineering and engage students with first-hand, applied experience. In addition to pitting their design savvy against groups at other North American universities, the group hosts networking and social events and connects students with scholarship and job opportunities.

Profile: The Institute for Water Innovation

Water plays a critical role in our lives. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) “the total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is 200,000 km3 of water, which accounts for only 0.01 per cent of all water on earth.” By 2050 global water demand is projected to increase by 50 per cent due to growing manufacturing, thermal electricity generation and domestic use.

As global water scarcity and stress persist, solutions are needed to reduce pressure on freshwater assets. Now, more than ever, a focus on innovation is necessary to combat water challenges.

The newly established Institute for Water Innovation (IWI) at the University of Toronto is poised to address these challenges. According to Mandeep Rayat, Manager of IWI, the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering has over 30 principal investigators from all the major engineering disciplines with research interests related to water. Seven of these researchers are in the Department of Civil Engineering.

The Department of Civil Engineering is playing a key role in addressing water challenges that affect human health, economic development and political stability.

Drinking Water Research Group: Clean water for cities

The Drinking Water Research Group (from top left: Profs. Robert Andrews, Susan Andrews and Ron Hofmann) examine all aspects of drinking water, from distribution optimization to new treatment technologies.

10593281256_44f81c99b1_k (2)“People in the water industry are very passionate about public health and that’s always at the forefront of any water treatment experiments,” explains Andrews. “What we do every day affects millions of people. Our research is done quietly but it’s really important. There are strong researchers in Canada working really hard who are truly focused on the health of Canadians and those around the world.”

With over 25 ongoing projects, the DWRG typically undertakes collaborative projects examining treatment, distribution, compliance and innovation to meet future water needs. By partnering with municipalities, a broad range of issues can be examined and knowledge transferred directly to utilities, regulators and policy-makers.

Jennifer Drake: Permeable pavement, rain gardens, green roofs

Drake-photo-2Prof. Jennifer Drake is looking forward to the future when her urban-based research on permeable pavements, rain gardens and green roofs will benefit from the collaboration at the IWI. “We know that these [technologies] work, but if you put them all in one neighbourhood, how do they work together? Do they interact? Can they mitigate the impacts that urbanization traditionally has on our water resources? This is long-term research where we can see how sustained small changes can make a huge impact on urban living.”

Plans are already underway to increase opportunities for research investment and collaboration with industry partners to focus on water-related needs of private firms, whose primary issue is water remediation; mining and oil sands production require a lot of water and produce a lot of pollution, which makes water-based innovation necessary.

“We need to conduct research that looks beyond remediation and maximizes water usage,” explains Drake. “We’re trying to build U of T as a leader in water technology and sustainability and now we have something that can unite us and give us a bigger presence. We’re highlighting the water expertise by connecting mechanical, chemical and civil engineering so that we increasingly work together.”

Elodie Passeport: Harnessing wetlands to purify our water

Prof. Elodie Passeport’s research focuses on understanding the behaviour of water contaminants and testing passive water treatment system designs that optimize contaminant removal. The belief that environmental quality is a cornerstone of ecosystems and human health, helps drive her research.

14150843628_b92fe2f37e_k (2)Why are wetlands important?

Natural wetlands are important ecosystems that help control flooding, improve water quality and provide multi-species habitats. Engineered wetlands are a low-cost, low-energy alternative to conventional water treatment systems.

Is it true that wetlands help to purify water systems?

Constructed wetlands can be engineered to enhance wetlands’ natural ability to remove pollution. By using natural energies from wind, sun, soil, plants and microorganisms living in the wetlands, the water is cleaned of contaminants. Early designs used single treatment units, often a pond with plants, but resulted in varying efficiency as not all chemicals could be removed in a single unit. A wide range of conditions are required to eliminate multiple chemicals, e.g. different pH, redox or plant densities.

Current approaches use multiple treatment units, each dedicated to one removal process, such as photodegradation in open-water ponds, or biodegradation in vegetated wetlands.

What are the applications for your research? 

This research impacts storm water systems as well as municipal, industrial and agricultural wastewaters. By better characterizing the hydrological, physical, chemical and microbial processes governing contaminant levels in various passive water treatment systems, we can propose efficient, affordable and low-maintenance designs.

Brent Sleep: Cleaning up contaminated soil

Across the Canadian landscape sit thousands of forgotten sites that once housed industrial operations. These places, known as brownfields, suffer a tainted legacy of contaminated soil and groundwater that prevent their re-use and can threaten the surrounding environment.

14153165189_4ab1ceeeb6_kMost sites are contaminated by chemicals like chlorinated solvents, hydrocarbons, creosotes and coal tars, which can be difficult to remove. Just one litre of trichloroethene, a common industrial cleaner, can contaminate three million litres of groundwater. The worst aspect – these pollutants can persist for centuries in underground water sources.

Prof. Brent Sleep and his Innovative Technologies for Groundwater Remediation research team work with the Institute for Water Innovation to address this challenge. Like a medicinal cocktail designed to defeat an aggressive infection, the group is investigating the enhanced effect that combining two or more different remedial technologies can have on contaminant removal.

Individually, innovative technologies like chemical oxidation, electro-kinetics, thermal remediation, and bioremediation can remove large amounts of contaminating particles. Real-world contamination, however, is highly complex. “Partnering complementary technologies addresses site complexities,” the group writes, “targeting both areas of very high contaminant concentration and areas of low – but still toxic – concentration.”

Sleep’s work aims to make brownfield cleanup more efficient, more cost-effective and more wide-spread.

Lesley Warren: Aqueous and microbial geochemistry

The largest workforce in mining isn’t found in any field camp or office tower. They aren’t wearing safety gear or business suits. They won’t be seen or heard, but their effect on mining operations can be profound. They are naturally-occurring microbes, and they are constantly influencing the water and soil environment.

Lesley-Warren1“Bacteria are present in every aspect of mining, but we don’t fully understand the impacts they can have on water quality,” says Prof. Lesley Warren, an aqueous and microbial geochemist with the Lassonde Institute of Mining and Dept. of Civil Engineering.

Warren aims to determine the identities and roles of microbes in order to gain an understanding of the bacteria’s beneficial—and detrimental—processes. Her research enables the development of effective biological tools for water quality management with industrial applications.

“Acid mine drainage is the number one priority pollution issue for the mining industry on a global scale,” said Warren. “It refers to the creation of acidic water. When sulfide minerals are exposed to water and air, sulfuric acid is generated through a natural, microbial-driven chemical reaction.”

Better understanding of the ecology of the microorganisms that are taking part in this process will help industry alleviate – or even prevent – polluting processes from occurring in the future.