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.”

How efficient is your home?

Would you like to know more about the air quality in your home?

We are undertaking a research project to explore the impact of high-efficiency filtration on particle concentrations in residences. Funded by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), we will be conducting yearlong measurements in 18 Toronto residences in order to develop a complete picture of how filters influence indoor air quality in residences. This project is unique because of the depth and the duration of the measurements and it should provide considerable details about the benefits and costs, as well as the real-world performance of filters in residences.

In order to complete this work, we need to recruit homes that are willing to participate. The benefits for the research subjects include free filters for a year, a very detailed report on particle concentrations in your home, and cash incentive ($20 after completion of first measurement site-visit, $50 after six-months of participation in the project, and $80 upon completion of the project).

The criteria that we need from all test homes are:

  • A central forced air conditioning system that is used for both heating and air conditioning and that uses a standard size filter and that is accessible for all testing.
  • Within a 30-minute commuting distance from the University of Toronto St. George campus.
  • Ability to access the house (and furnace area specifically) for field tests nine times over the course of a year (more details below).
  • Allow for the installation of monitoring equipment for the duration of the study.
  • Have no current plan to change the furnace/air-conditioning system over the course of the year.

This will be a field-intensive project which means that we are conducting many measurements including a physical characterization of the house and the heating and cooling system, continuous monitoring of furnace operating run-time and particulate matter concentrations, and periodic monitoring of carbon dioxide levels, size-resolved particle concentrations, filtration efficiency, and other related parameters. We will also analyze dust collected on study home filters to better assess filtration performance and its relationship to exposure.

All houses that are accepted into this program will be tested nine times (every 1.5 months) over the course of the year. The initial visit will be approximately 4-6 hours in length and subsequent visits will be shorter. A few of the tests will involve leaving equipment overnight and returning to pick it up the next day. None of the equipment or testing will affect the operation of your house or changes in normal activities with the potential exception of additional operation of the furnace blower (not the furnace itself, just the fan that moves air). All visits will be done by myself and/or trained graduate students.
If you meet the criteria above and are potentially interested in participating, please contact Masih Alavy at masih.alavy@mail.utoronto.ca or 416-300-7325 and indicate your interest. We will schedule a short visit where we can check the suitability of your system/house for the project, show you the equipment that we will deploying, discuss the schedule in more detail, and answer any of your questions. Once we have a list of candidate homes, the project monitoring subcommittee at  ASHRAE will approve the list and we anticipate beginning testing in December 2016 or January 2017. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at jeffrey.siegel@utoronto.ca or 416-978-7975 if you have any questions.

Going for Gold: Donna Vakalis races for Gold in the Modern Pentathlon

Donna Vakalis

It’s an understatement to say that Civil Engineering PhD student Donna Vakalis, supervised by professors Heather MacLean and Jeffrey Siegel, has a busy couple of weeks ahead of her. The Toronto native who received her Master’s degree from U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture in 2009, will be one of 36 athletes competing in the modern pentathlon at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

After finishing 29th at the 2012 London Olympics and then 4th at last year’s PanAm Games in Toronto, Vakalis will be fencing, riding, swimming, shooting and running her way towards the gold medal.

Watch Vakalis compete on August 18 and 19

About Donna Vakalis

About the Modern Pentathlon

Vakalis on CBC: On what it takes to be an Pentathlete

Support her Rio-bound journey 

Previously published stories about Vakalis: 2012 London Olympic Games | 2015 Toronto PanAm Games | 2016 Rio Olympic Games

CivMin’s Grads to Watch

Grads to watch: Ernesto Diaz Lozano Patino, Gege Wen and Bishnu Gautam
This is an excerpt from a longer story, originally posted on Engineering News.

For these U of T Engineering students, the short walk across the stage at Convocation Hall marks both the end of one journey and the beginning of another. This year’s “Grads to Watch” are just a few of the talented Engineering graduates who will receive their degrees at Spring Convocation on June 8. Selected by their home departments, each of these remarkable future Skule™ alumni has made their own unique contribution to enhancing the vibrant community in U of T Engineering—watch their next steps.

Ernesto Diaz Lozano Patiño (CivE 1T5 + PEY)

Leaving a legacy of inspiration

Ernesto-Diaz-Lozano-Patino-sizedDiaz Lozano Patiño grew up in Mexico City, in a family where his father, uncle, great-uncle and great-grandfather were all engineers. He sums up his U of T experience in one word: inspiring. “It is incredible to see young, motivated people working hard to solve some of the most complex problems of our world,” he says. “We have people working on cutting edge treatment for cancer, innovative transportation systems, renewable energy sources and much more.”

During his undergrad, he joined the Engineering Society as a representative from Civil Engineering, and pioneered the use of focus groups to foster effective communication between students and the Faculty. He served as president of the Engineering Society for 2015-2016. He was also a founding member of the first chapter of the Canadian Electrical Contractors Association. Following graduation, Diaz Lozano Patiño will begin his MASc with Professor Jeffrey Siegel (CivE), studying building science and indoor air quality. He also plans to to work with other engineers to further develop leadership in the profession, so that “engineers can be more active in shaping the future of our world.”

Shout out: “I’d like to thank all my professors for having been inspiring role models, who have challenged me to think critically and made me reflect deeply on the importance of the Engineering profession.”

Gege Wen (MinE 1T5 + PEY)

Deep thinker

Gege-Wen-sizedWen completed her PEY internship at Husky Energy, where she first heard of deep well injection to dispose of wastewater. She soon learned that deep well injection has also been proposed as a means to store CO2 underground, reducing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is still much that is not known about the long-term stability of the method.

When she returned to U of T, Wen worked with ProfessorJennifer Drake (CivE) to undertake a detailed analysis of the risks and opportunities for deep well injection and CO2 sequestration. Wen plans to continue this research next fall, when she begins her MASc at Stanford University, working with Professor Peter Kitanidis on an inter-disciplinary project that combines CO2 sequestration with enhanced oil recovery.

Shout out: “I want to thank Professor Jennifer Drake. She is a great mentor and her guidance through my research was immensely helpful to my future as a researcher.

Bishnu Gautam (CivE PhD 1T6)

The concrete doctor

Bishnu-Gautam-sizedGautam studied with Professor Daman Panesar (CivE), where he looked for new ways to prevent damage to concrete structures. In particular, he focused on a process known as an alkali-silica reaction. “It is a chemical reaction that causes expansion and cracking in the concrete,” says Gautam. “Once it occurs, complete cure is almost impossible.”

Gautam built a system that could simulate the three-dimensional stresses on various concrete structures and investigated the damage caused by the alkali-silica reaction under these stresses. His research could help civil engineers understand the damage caused by alkali-silica reaction in the context of real structures, and take the appropriate actions before it’s too late.

Gautam, who came to U of T from Nepal, wants to use his degree to bridge the knowledge and technological gap between developed and developing nations. “I hope to promote precast and pre-stressed concrete in developing countries like mine, where such technologies are in their infancy,” he says.

Shout out: “I would like to thank Prof. Panesar for her support, encouragement and most importantly the confidence she put on me. I appreciate the support of my supervisory committee and exam committee members and I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with them.”

The link between air quality and human health

Jeffrey Siegel
Jeffrey Siegel

Among other things, Professor Jeffrey Siegel (CivE) studies air filters to get detailed, quantitative information about exposure to environmental contaminants in offices and homes. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

This story originally published by U of T Engineering News.
When it comes to air quality, most people think car exhaust, industrial emissions and smog pose the biggest dangers. But Professor Jeffrey Siegel (CivE) says it’s the environment inside our homes and offices that should concern us most.“We spend about 90 per cent of our time indoors,” says Siegel. “And in a place like Toronto, the air inside is generally dirtier than outside.”Siegel and his team regularly collect air filters from furnaces in both private homes and commercial buildings and analyze what they find stuck to them. “It’s a very rich history of what you’ve been exposed to in the air: metallic particles, flame retardants, plasticizers and more,” he says about this process, which he has dubbed “filter forensics.”

Siegel and his team care about the kinds of pollutants they find, but they’re even more interested in measuring how much of each type is present in the filter. Based on the size of the house, the amount of time since the filter was installed, how often the furnace runs and other parameters, they can use those concentrations to estimate the levels of pollutants in the air over the life of the filter, and by extension, the effects on human health.

So what are the biggest concerns? “It’s an amazingly long list, but number one would probably be particulate matter,” says Siegel. These are solid or liquid particles that range in size from visible motes of dust to stuff that is so small it’s hard to see even with a microscope. The particles can be small pieces that broke off of something large — skin flakes or drywall dust — or they can form as aggregations of chemical compounds, such as volatile organic molecules from paint.

The health effects of these particles vary greatly depending on what they’re made of, their size and concentration. The link between smoking and lung cancer is well known. For other materials, such as the particles that come from cooking on a gas or electric stove, the subtle effects are still being teased out by scientists. Still, the general weight of evidence is that the more particles floating in the indoor air, the more likely people are to experience negative health effects.

So how do we keep our building air clean? The air filter in your furnace can do a lot, but only if you buy the right kind. “The average air filter does nothing for your health; it’s there to protect the equipment,” says Siegel.

Although they are slightly more expensive, better filters that have higher efficiency ratings or contain activated carbon are effective in combatting chemical pollutants such as ground-level ozone, which goes straight through traditional filters. One of Siegel’s recent studies has shown that for commercial and some residential buildings, the benefits of these filters justify their higher cost.

Some of the things that are often perceived as improving indoor air quality are not effective at all. Office plants, while nice to look at, offer almost no protection from indoor air pollution. “The average room exchanges its entire volume of air about once an hour,” Siegel says. “The amount of air that flows through a plant is tiny compared to that.” In other words, you’re better off changing your air filter than cultivating a small garden of ferns.

Another branch of Siegel’s research looks at the various bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that can be found in indoor air. A growing body of evidence points to the importance of maintaining a healthy diversity in the microbial community that lives inside our own bodies, and the same principle might also apply to buildings. “We try and understand why the community in this building is different from the community in that one,” says Siegel. “The ultimate goal, and frankly this is far in the future, is to see if we can take advantage of this to improve the health of indoor environments.”

Siegel describes the world of indoor air quality as “amazingly unexplored” and says that’s a big part of its appeal for him. “What’s kept me in it is that it’s just so diverse,” he says. “I really love buildings, and I want to make a difference. For me, that’s a great fit.”