from a Street
NREF’s distinctive mechanical
penthouse and the west side’s “curtain
visible from 116th Street. The use of natural light
and wide open spaces are two key features of the new
home for Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Mining
and Petroleum Engineering.
The University of Alberta has
officially opened an engineering facility that’s been
on the books for decades. Despite being tapped for two other
high-profile faculty completions,
alumni, industry, government and other supporters came through
for the Natural Resources Engineering Facility.
BY GEORGE LEE
Those who thought they’d never live to see it happen
can be forgiven for their skepticism. There was, after all,
a long history of the University of Alberta’s proposed
civil engineering building being sidetracked, in spite of
an acknowledged need going back at least three decades.
But against plenty of odds, a nine-storey, $65-million home
for some of the university’s cornerstone engineering
disciplines will, indeed, welcome students and staff in January – on
schedule and slightly under budget.
The key challenge we had to overcome at the front end was
demonstrating that this was real, that this project was actually
going to happen,” says Dean of Engineering Dr. David
Lynch, P.Eng. True to his and his project team’s word,
on Oct. 1 Dr. Lynch officially introduced the new Natural
Resources Engineering Facility to about 1,000 supporters
To acknowledge two critical, early supporters, the full name
is a mouthful: the Allan P. Markin/Canadian Natural Resources
Ltd. Natural Resources Engineering Facility. Called NREF
for short, it will house the faculty’s largest department,
Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as the Department
of Mining and Petroleum Engineering. NREF will provide consolidated
space for natural resources development, including petroleum,
mining, environmental, geotechnical, water resources, structural,
and construction engineering.
Dr. Lynch calls the disciplines crucial to the faculty, Alberta
and the world. NREF is beautiful and functional, he says,
with a design and location on campus that will generate teamwork
between, within and beyond engineering’s disciplines.
A Long Look Back
It’s been a long time coming. In the 1960s and ’70s
the faculty knew there was a need to centralize what was
then called the Department of Civil Engineering. In fact
by 1979 civil was on the books as the faculty’s number
one building priority, with its classes, offices and research
scattered around campus in about 10 sites.
“The project was so large, it was just never moved forward,” says
Dr. Lynch. “It was clearly needed – our growth
in teaching and research had already occurred – yet
year after year, it didn’t happen.
“The faculty under past deans completed lots of great
projects. I’m not criticizing what they’ve done at all.
But this one just didn’t happen.”
The Ah-Ha Factor
Two other projects grabbed the spotlight in recent years:
the Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex, and the Electrical
and Computer Engineering Research Facility. Although largely
funded from outside of Alberta, the new National Institute
for Nanotechnology also joined the mix. It’s slated
to open next fall.
All this other construction meant that, as the new century
dawned, the fate of civil’s new home was far from certain. “Perhaps
there was a belief that because these other projects were
so large and dramatic, the community’s ability to support
engineering was exhausted for the time being,” says
Dr. Lynch. Alumni, the provincial government and corporate
partners had all been tapped, so “there was, justifiably,
A $6-million Jumpstart
Nothing like a big cheque to boost spirits. Alumnus Allan
P. Markin, P.Eng., and his company, Canadian Natural Resources
Ltd., came calling in late 2001 – with $6 million.
The province and other donors began joining in.
“That $6 million enabled my team and me to go forward
and say, look, we have people who believe in this,” says
Dr. Lynch. “Six million dollars is significantly large
enough that it can’t be ignored.”
The team wasn’t about to be frivolous, however. In
fact, relying on the industry expertise of alumni, great
teamwork and aggressive fast-tracking, the faculty was cost-effective
while it created something innovative and beautiful.
“We started construction literally six months before
design was complete. Structural design was sort of finished.
and electrical took many more months. And we saved millions
of dollars by doing this,” says Dr. Lynch. In fact,
a full design-bid facility would have come in at around $90
|Facts and Numbers
• 330,000 square feet
• Nine storeys, including two below grade
• Mechanical penthouse with a distinctive roofline
• 78 research laboratories
• 26 undergraduate laboratories
• Laser, drilling, rock fracture mechanics, hydraulics and other labs
• 325 graduate student spaces
• Nine undergraduate classrooms
• High-speed wired and wireless Internet throughout, but also enough data
cable to reach from Edmonton to Calgary
Key Construction Partners
• Prime Consultant and
Structural Engineering: Cohos Evamy
• Construction Management: PCL-Maxam, a Joint Venture
• Electrical Engineering and Project Management: Stantec Consulting Ltd.
• Mechanical Engineering: Hemisphere Engineering
• Programming: RMC Resource Management Consultants
• Landscape architect: Carlyle and Associates
“But it gets even better. A building like this, with
its wet labs, its technology, its exacting standards, is
a real challenge
for the design team. You would expect a change-order rate
of six or eight per cent of budget.
“This project came in at less than one per cent change
orders. That’s unheard of.” A traditional design-bid
project expects change orders of up to about five per cent.
“It’s unprecedented in my experience,” confirms
alumnus Howard Kerr, P.Eng.,
senior project manager with
construction manager PCL-Maxam. Fast-track has advantages
when done properly, says the 1990 civil engineering graduate.
“It’s becoming more and more recognized that if there’s
going to be a construction management approach, the earlier
the construction management team is involved, the better,” says
Mr. Kerr. “We’ve been at the table since the
start of design. We commented and advised on economics and
constructability as we went along.
“As the architects came up with ideas, as the engineers
put together systems and approaches, we drew on our own and
expertise and experience.”
Teamwork and Ownership
Also, the engineers – many of them alumni – were
motivated to make their building a showcase. “We know
this is a building that everyone is going to be looking at
closely. And it’s our peers and our future peers we’re
talking about,” says Mr. Kerr. “Over the next
70 years, we want this held up as an example of a good design
and a well-engineered facility.
“I think we all took a little more ownership than usual,
because of where it is.”
Says Dr. Lynch: “I can go on record as saying this
is one of the best project teams anywhere – not just
in Alberta, anywhere. And in large part this has been accomplished
by University of Alberta graduates. The expertise demonstrated
here is what puts Alberta engineers in such high international
demand. They have by far exceeded the extremely high expectations
put in place.”
Many elements of NREF were, in fact, designed to generate
that same kind camaraderie and inspiration among students,
researchers and teachers. “One thing we learned from
the Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex is that people
love open and welcoming spaces,” says Phil Haswell,
director of facilities for the faculty. He looks out over
an atrium that begins on the second floor and shoots up the
Mr. Haswell points to suspended staircases on the sides of
the atrium, where students and professors can’t help
but meet informally. Perhaps a chance meeting will lead to
a great discussion about shared research or to a coffee break
later on in the atrium, with its natural light and comfortable,
That kind of setting and situation ultimately results in
better research, better learning and more inter-disciplinary
success stories, Dr. Lynch believes, particularly in these
times when disciplines are blending and can’t afford
to isolate themselves. “Unless you’re running
into people almost by chance, you don’t have the opportunity
to hear about the exciting things they are doing. This closes
loops and allows the great things to happen that can only
come out of something that’s almost serendipity.”
The faculty employs about 170 professors. There are also
3,300 undergrads and 1,050 graduate students. “That’s
a lot of things going on at one time,” says Dr. Lynch.
The Heart, The Platform
A pedway system links NREF within and beyond the faculty,
which is practical but also symbolizes the interconnectedness
of modern engineering and research. And engineering now has
a defined home with students at its geographical and philosophical
heart, Dr. Lynch says.
The effects are already being noticed. With a building thrust
worth $200 million now complete, the faculty has more than
one million square feet of new teaching, research and learning
space. Enrolments are already on the rise in the NREF disciplines.
In fact U of A ranks from second to fifth in North America
in civil, environmental, mining and petroleum engineering
The faculty “won’t be resting on our laurels,” says
Dr. Lynch. However, the platform is solidly in place for
greater and greater successes. “We are becoming the
mecca for engineering.”