Building is Believing

View from a Street
NREF’s distinctive mechanical penthouse and the west side’s “curtain wall” are 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.


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 and well-wishers.

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, some skepticism.”

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. Mechanical 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 million.

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 PCL-Maxam’s 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 building’s centre.

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, non-instructional seating.

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 enrolments.

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.”

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