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