2021 Trenchless Q&A: A Look at Trenchless Engineering in Canada
It’s December, and that means that our sister publication Trenchless Technology has compiled its list of the Top 50 Trenchless Engineering Firms in North America. The list, organized by trenchless revenue, covers the work that firms complete primarily in Canada and the United States. Looking at this year’s list it’s clear to see that trenchless work – despite the pandemic – has carried on.
RELATED: Trenchless Q&A – A Look at Engineering in Canada
To complement that list, we’ve focused on engineers working in Canada and – included at the bottom of this Q&A – you will find our list of the Top Trenchless Engineering Firms in Canada. We reached out to some of the firms represented on that list to gauge their thoughts on the trenchless engineering sector in Canada and across North America.
Taking part in the 2021 Q&A are:
Marc Gelinas, P.Eng., PE, PMP – Principal Engineer, Infrastructure at Hatch
Paul Headland, PE, P.Geo., Senior Vice President, Aldea Engineering Services Ltd.
Dave Krywiak, Principal, Tunneling and Trenchless Specialist, Stantec
What are the main drivers for trenchless work in Canada?
Gelinas – From a project perspective, the main factors driving trenchless work include population growth/urban expansion and existing infrastructure reaching the end of its useful life. From an application perspective, the main factors driving trenchless work include the gradual movement to larger and deeper infrastructure, the pressure to maintain traffic flows. and the inability to disturb environmentally sensitive areas.
Headland – The continued population growth, urban development and expansion of major cities in Canada has resulted in increased need for water, wastewater and stormwater services to meet demand. The solutions for this new infrastructure and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure always require partial or total project trenchless solutions. A lot of pipelines in older cities are reaching the end of their design life which is also leading to a consistent need for rehabilitation.
Krywiak – In rural areas it is typically either environmental if you are crossing some form of waterbody or other sensitive area, or crossings of infrastructure for highways, railroads or pipeline corridors. In urban areas it is probably mostly public disruption, especially for high volume commuter routes, but more and more the congestion of underground utilities within the public right of way is resulting in trenchless installations to reduce or eliminate the need for relocation of existing utilities.
How would you rate the state of the trenchless technology market in Canada right now?
Krywiak – I would say the trenchless technology market is very healthy in Canada at this time. This is especially the case for horizontal directional drilling (HDD), cured-in-place pipe (CIPP), and conventional tunneling or microtunneling.
Gelinas – Very strong. While we still lack some of the variety that exist in other markets like the U.S. and Europe, we have a strong core of materials, methods and contractors. Owners have been extremely supportive of the use of trenchless, and many (if not most) regulatory agencies now insist on trenchless.
Headland – The market for both new construction and rehabilitation is very strong. Despite the effects of the pandemic, it appears that most people in the trenchless industry (consultants, suppliers and contractors) have been busy over the last couple of years. Given the number of proposals being issued by owners and developers the workload moving forward does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon. It will be interesting to see the impact of what the new normal looks like over the next 3-5 years. Maybe a repurposing of commercial real estate in cities to more residential use may increase the need for trenchless applications within already congested city right of ways. The increase in population growth of mid-size cities and new or expanded public transportation networks (road and rail) may also drive some additional increase in trenchless activity.
What are some of the challenges faced by specialist trenchless consultants?
Headland – A lack of experienced trenchless engineers available in the marketplace for hire is probably one of the key challenges facing trenchless consultants today. As the market has seen a significant increase in projects the number of trenchless engineers entering the marketplace has not kept pace. Academic institutions do a good job of providing courses in subjects relevant to trenchless disciplines but maybe in the future, due to demand, these institutions will offer more Master of Science degrees in trenchless technology. And maybe as need and demand increases further a Bachelor of Science degree in trenchless technology may not be unrealistic. Trenchless contractors also are increasingly hiring trenchless engineers to be part of their organizations and in some cases acquiring small engineering companies to develop in house expertise. As the markets evolve further over time and the use of alternative delivery of trenchless projects continues to emerge, competition for an already limited pool of experienced resources/talent is likely to increase.
Krywiak – Specialist trenchless consultants face several challenges number one of which is acquiring enough trenchless project work to stay focused on trenchless and not have to branch out into conventional trenched installation projects. This is more easily accomplished in the larger population centers.
Gelinas – One of the biggest issues I see is that many trenchless works are becoming commoditized. I see this especially on the rehabilitation side, where price dominates over qualifications. On the new construction side, the commoditization generally only exists in smaller diameter installations. For larger diameter installations, qualifications play a much more important role with most owners making qualifications the primary evaluation metric, and price a secondary evaluation metric.
How has the trenchless engineering market evolved over last decade or so?
Gelinas – Formal risk management is becoming much more prevalent, and owners are becoming more prescriptive regards what they want to see in terms of trenchless methods. Many owners have, by now, seen both good and bad trenchless projects. Building on this experience, many are starting to require the use of formalized risk management techniques to identify, evaluate and monitor project risks. In addition (and building from past experience), many are now starting to be specific when they want to see a particular trenchless method used.
Headland – The technology has continued to advance and has resulted in new and enhanced trenchless solutions entering the marketplace. Some of these advances include the advent of the Direct Pipe method for new construction, the ability to construct longer and curved microtunnels including hydraulic joints for tight radius curved microtunnels, and new large diameter pipe rehabilitation products entering the marketplace. Owners are becoming much more educated and experienced in the application of trenchless technology for rehabilitation and new construction. We are also starting to see owners of larger linear infrastructure projects looking to deliver these projects using alternative contract delivery mechanisms such design build. Impacts to public and third parties and associated social costs (e.g. increased traffic congestion) have been recognized much more and have become a more important component of project success by owners especially in large urban areas such as the Toronto. Complaints from the public and businesses result in complaints to elected officials and ultimately to the project delivery and engineering groups within owner organizations. The extent of trenchless construction on large linear infrastructure projects seems to be increasing, maybe in part because of issues associated with third-party impacts and social costs.
Krywiak – Over the last decade or so, more owners are becoming aware of the capabilities of the various trenchless technologies, and how they can take advantage of those capabilities for their projects. As a result, more consultants are entering into trenchless technologies, often as an arm of their overall business. That said, there is still an awful lot of education required for owners and the public to fully understand the capabilities and the risks that go along with trenchless installations.
What does a trenchless engineering firm need to do to stay competitive in today’s market and the future?
Krywiak – As the capabilities and technologies in the trenchless industry keep evolving, staying on top of what is available in the world market (which might attract attention for larger projects) and what are the strong contenders in the local market (for the day-to-day projects) is important. You need to be providing solutions that are the best fit for the project size, location, and a multitude of other factors. As with any consulting engineering firm, you need to be a trusted partner with the owner.
Gelinas – To my mind this still comes down to relentless attention to technical excellence and client focus. Trenchless is still a specialized field, and mistakes can be costly. Owners are looking for consultants who do their homework on the technical aspects of trenchless design and provide customized, project-specific solutions. However, that’s only part of the equation. Clients are also looking for consultants who will be responsive, take ownership, and provide a consistent level of service from the first design kickoff meeting to the final warranty walkthrough at the close of construction. A large part of that is making sure that there is staff continuity throughout the project lifecycle.
Headland – It is important to stay current with advances in trenchless technology and developments in the marketplace including guidance documents and design standards that offer value to owners and taxpayers while providing resilient long-term solutions to meet the design life of a particular asset. If more can be achieved with shortened construction schedules and lower costs then more infrastructure can be maintained, rehabilitated and constructed with the same budget and available funds. Competing for projects in a pure low bid procurement environment can be challenging and presents problems for both the consultants bidding design work and potentially for the owners trying to deliver construction projects on time and within budget. The use of the two envelop approach, independent evaluation of technical proposals, and pre-qualification of contractors is becoming more commonplace and will hopefully result in better project outcomes and benefit design teams with well qualified and experienced staff.
How do you recruit trenchless engineers?
Headland – Generally we recruit through existing relationships of company staff via individual contacts, links to academic institutions, company website careers page, and on occasion from other countries for senior trenchless positions. The recruitment of junior engineers with little or no trenchless experience and developing in-house talent has also been very beneficial.
Krywiak- There are several universities across North America that have trenchless programs, so participating in career fairs may provide for junior positions. Events like No-Dig where students have events and take part are another key event for recruitment. In terms of intermediate engineers, job boards like NASTT’s is a good resource. Also, membership and events put on by the NASTT Chapters is a good way to learn about the availability of Engineers in your region.
Gelinas – While we have had success recruiting trenchless staff, our best successes have always come from growing our own trenchless engineers. Key to this has been our investment in co-op students from local universities. Many of our best engineers started with us as co-op students and now manage co-op students of their own.
What options are there for trenchless engineering training?
Gelinas – While there are some good training programs and sessions out there, the best training I have found is to send young engineers out to site as inspectors on trenchless projects. The lessons learned on site tend to be very practical, and to embed themselves deeper than anything learned at a seminar. While a young engineer may not remember a presentation they went to, they will always remember the tough questions put to them by a contractor and lessons learned from seeing things built with their own eyes.
Headland – NASTT, CATT, UCT and TTC provide high quality courses and seminars for trenchless professionals on a regular basis. In addition, the Microtunneling Short Course, held for more than 25 years, provides a specific focus on good practices and the latest developments in the microtunneling world. In addition, the importance of trenchless engineers to visit construction sites on a regular basis and see trenchless construction taking place provide valuable lessons in what can and cannot be done. It is especially useful to work on a design and then go into the field to see the design take shape and be constructed. The ability to ask contractors and the folks building your designs and discuss issues they are having or what could be done to improve designs further in future is extremely valuable.
Krywiak – In addition to the universities that offer trenchless courses, there are training courses put on by NASTT, NASSCO and several other industry organizations. These courses are the best for non-sales influenced content. There are also a number of manufacturers and suppliers of trenchless equipment and/or materials used in trenchless installation projects also offer design courses geared towards their specific aspect of the industry, whether it be for pipe, drilling fluid, locating equipment, etc.
The Top Trenchless Engineering Firms in Canada
Since 1996, Trenchless Technology has presented its list of the Top Trenchless Engineering Firms in North America. Starting in August, the Trenchless Technology editorial team reached out to trenchless engineering firms across the continent to submit surveys to compile this list. This helps tell the tale of the size of the trenchless construction sector in North America.
The Top 50 list, which you can read in the December issue of Trenchless Technology or online at trenchlesstechnology.com/2021-top-50-trenchless-engineers-survey, ranks the firms by overall North American revenue. New for 2021, we asked the firms to also include separate revenue data for Canada, Mexico and the United States. We used this subset of data to create the list you see here of the Top Trenchless Engineering Firms in Canada.
Also included in the last column is where the firm ranks in our list of the Top Trenchless Engineering Firms in North America.
We realize this is not a complete list, but we hope that this is something we can build on in the future as more Canadian trenchless engineering firms complete the survey. Only firms that indicated revenue for Canada are included here.
Contributing editor Andrew Farr coordinates the survey for Trenchless Technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Kezdi is managing editor of Trenchless Technology Canada.