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.”

Two new faculty are cross appointed with CivE and MIE

Two new faculty members join Civil and, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July. Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits. Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems. U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T: Fae Azhari Could you explain the focus of your research? My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making. Why did you choose U of T? Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things. Marianne Touchie Could you explain the focus of your research? My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost. Why did you choose U of T? U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings. I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds.

Two new faculty members join Civil and, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July. Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits. Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems. U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T: Fae Azhari Could you explain the focus of your research? My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making. Why did you choose U of T? Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things. Marianne Touchie Could you explain the focus of your research? My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost. Why did you choose U of T? U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings. I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds. Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July.

Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits.

Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems.

U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T:


Could you explain the focus of your research?

MT: My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost.

FA: My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making.

Why did you choose U of T?

MT: U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom.

FA: Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career.

What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

MT: With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines.

FA: I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers.

As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students?

MT: Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation.

FA: At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering?

MT: Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings.
I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds.

FA: I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things.