When Robinson Consultants Inc. formed in 1977, in Ottawa, Ontario, the term trenchless technology was not in the construction industry lexicon. While a lot has changed in those 40-plus years, the firm’s focus on total client satisfaction has remained the same.
Though trenchless was not a term that was widely recognized, that does not mean Robinson Consultants Inc. (RCI) was not involved in projects that used early forms of trenchless, namely auger boring or tunnelling, across Ontario. Many of those early projects served as a means for crossing major infrastructure like rail lines and highways. The clients were demanding methods that minimized the impact of the projects. Never shying away from working with new methods, RCI expanded into rehabilitation technologies in the early 1990s.
Growing with Trenchless
One of those engineers involved early-on with RCI’s trenchless work is Derek Potvin, who joined the firm in 1990 and for the last 10 years has served as its president. Potvin, who joined the company straight out of university, says that like most RCI new hires, his focus at the company was broad and touched on all facets of its consulting engineering work.
“At Robinson, you get trained in just about everything that the company does and you make your choices [of specialities] as your career develops,” he says. Those areas of expertise include – asset management, municipal infrastructure, transportation engineering, trenchless technologies, water resources, land development and construction services.
From his initially broad focus, Potvin’s career at RCI went the way of trenchless in much the same way of many of those in the industry – via attendance at an NASTT No-Dig Show. “It really took off after attending the No-Dig Show in 1995 [in Toronto],” says Potvin. “At that show, I was exposed to a variety of technologies. Shortly after attending, I received a call from a client about a problem they had with a large diameter watermain.”
After receiving that call from the City of Ottawa, Potvin recalled a technical session he attended at the show where the speaker discussed a similar scenario and the watermain was repaired using trenchless methods. “I contacted that trenchless person, Ian Doherty, and we [RCI] successfully completed the watermain lining project and that was the start of my trenchless career,” Potvin says.
The industry was in its infancy and that watermain relining project – the Gloucester Street Water Main Sliplining – in Ottawa received a Consulting Engineers of Canada award in the Water Resources and Supply category.
Today, RCI has more than 65 engineers, technicians and technologists at its offices in Ottawa, Hamilton and Kingston, Ontario. On the trenchless side, RCI’s clients are primarily municipalities and water/sewer authorities from small villages to the City of Toronto. They also provide trenchless engineering services to private clients.
Meeting Clients’ Needs
According to Kevin Bainbridge, A.Sc.T, manager of the Hamilton branch and RCI’s trenchless technologies leader, the firm’s work is split, close to even, on new installation and rehabilitation. Bainbridge, who is closing in on nine years at RCI, has spent 18 of his 22 years in engineering working on trenchless projects.
Speaking to the new installation side, Potvin adds, in recent years that fluctuation in work has changed as microtunneling has taken off in Eastern Canada. With that uptick in microtunnel work, the firm is consistently working on microtunnelling projects for its clients.
“I would say the only difference on the rehab side is that it is probably more consistent in work because a lot of our clients that have ongoing rehabilitation programs that are funded annually,” says Bainbridge. “The new installation work comes on more of a project-to-project basis and it fluctuates yearly.”
Clients who have annually-funded rehabilitation programs include the cities of Toronto and Hamilton in Ontario and Halifax Water in Nova Scotia. In these cases, RCI’s level of involvement vacillates between full-on program management – design, tendering and contract administration – to providing technical quality control support and testing on the completed projects.
“That is probably the newest trend that I am seeing. The development of programs vs. projects,” Bainbridge says. “They are more global, holistic programs, that operate on an annual basis that they fund with a certain level, prioritizing the work across the city on an annual basis.”
Overall Potvin and Bainbridge have witnessed a change in how RCI’s trenchless work is requested by the client. Initially it was one-off pieces that were parts of larger overall construction projects. Today’s projects are coming out as fully trenchless as the clients are becoming more comfortable with, and seeing the many benefits of, trenchless construction methods.
“I think the shift is primarily monetary. There is a lot of growth happening in a number of cities that is forcing them to install larger infrastructure. The climate change with floods and the like, Toronto has a big program now for flood mitigation and a lot of that is driving huge tunnel jobs,” Potvin says. “Municipalities are packaging a whole bunch of issues that they need solved in terms of fixing aging infrastructure. In the past, we were given assignments to do the engineering for a site or a few sites to deal with the issues. But now, we are seeing clients asking us to get involved with programming of trenchless repairs across the entire city as a large package rather than site-specific.”
As the system owners deal with population growth and aging infrastructure, they look towards projects that give them the most bang for the buck. Financially, in the dense urban areas, trenchless projects make sense whether it be rehabbing existing infrastructure or building larger infrastructure – below existing underground infrastructure – to accommodate the growth. This financial savings allows the owner to do more work and reduces the impact on the social and environmental end.
“In our primary marketplace, in Ontario, I have seen exponential growth in particular the last three years, in the number of projects coming out from municipalities and utilities that are either new installation or rehabilitation trenchless-focused,” Bainbridge says. “To put that into perspective for us, as a firm, in the last three years, we’ve doubled the volume of dedicated individuals working on trenchless.”
To keep a good handle on this work, and ensure clients are getting the best project, about 20 per cent of its staff is dedicated to trenchless work, and about 50 per cent of the company will touch on trenchless in one way or the other. Trenchless amounts to about 30 per cent of RCI’s overall revenue.
With the growing trenchless industry, RCI has completed more than 150 trenchless projects, including the Northwest Arm Trunk Sewer Rehabilitation in 2017 which is ranked among the most complicated rehabilitation project ever completed in the Canada. Their history in trenchless has also gained them national recognition with numerous industry awards, including Trenchless Technology Project of the Year runner up, Atlantic Canada Water Wastewater Project of the year and Consulting Engineers of Ontario awards.
“The reason we are so broad, in terms of all of those people beyond our trenchless specialists, is that a lot of our typical projects that involve buried infrastructure include open excavation, but will have a trenchless component to it,” Potvin explains. He adds that one important facet of RCI is having employees who are informed on many technologies available in the construction methods toolbox.
“If you are involved with the design of open-cut, you need to understand all of the available tools on the market [including trenchless] because you want to make sure you are using it where you can get a significant benefit to the client and the residents and businesses,” Potvin says. “We don’t want to have people proposing open-cut where trenchless will work and vice versa.”
Active in the Industry
Making sure the RCI employees know all of the benefits of trenchless, and where it can and should be used, requires open communication across the firm’s offices, training and involvement in the industry-related associations. In addition to in-house training, RCI encourages its employees to attend and become involved with industry conferences like NASTT’s No-Dig Show, Trenchless Technology Road Shows, UESI Pipelines Conference, as well as one-day seminars and webinars.
“The industry changes quickly with new techniques and products coming to the table on both fronts. Because of that rapid change, we stay up to date with the industry through sitting on boards, presenting at seminars, volunteering as conference committee members, etc. for industry organizations like NASTT, the GLSLA Chapter and CATT,” Potvin says. “We also support a lot of training programs through different groups within the industry. We’ve also trained our clients’ in-house inspectors on trenchless jobs. And we have our young engineers present internally about projects to our staff.”
For his part, Potvin was involved in the development of the NASTT Introduction to Rehabilitation Course and was an instructor of the course for many years. Bainbridge and Patrick Moskwa continue teaching the course today. Potvin and Bainbridge, along with Mike Willmets, NASTT executive director, authored the NASTT Introduction to Trenchless Technology Rehabilitation Methods Good Practices Guideline. In 2011, Potvin joined the NASTT Board and in 2013 became the Board Chair. He is still actively involved with NASTT, sitting on many committees.
“We keep our staff involved with the industry to some degree. It keeps our staff at the forefront because we are involved and connected,” Potvin says. “We try to have staff members involved with a number of different organizations and support them. It is rare that we miss too much about what goes on in this industry from that perspective.”
Training its current employees is key to retention and fostering their growth in the industry, as well as the growth of the firm. But, as with many industries, RCI is on the look out for its next batch of trenchless professionals.
“It is technically challenging and it’s an industry of inventors and creators. It is an exciting industry to work in,” Potvin says. “Some of these new grads have recognized that and are keen on working in it in the long run.”
To help increase exposure to trenchless technologies, RCI started an internship program more than a year ago. The goal of the program is to expose students to the industry before they graduate and garner some interest from graduating students out of traditional civil engineering programs. They have had three interns through the program and hired one of them following graduation.
And those who do not go through the program are coming in to interviews – and the firm if hired – better prepared thanks to university engineering programs that have a trenchless component. Those universities include the University of Waterloo and Queen’s University in Ontario and Concordia University in Quebec.
“Ten years ago, when a new grad came to us for employment and we mentioned trenchless technology, they had no idea what that was,” Potvin says. “I would say more and more so now, they understand what trenchless technology is when they come to our company and submit an application. They are either doing their research or the industry and universities are raising awareness of it.”