Trenchless Q&A – A Look at Engineering in Canada

Since 1997, our sister publication Trenchless Technology, in its last issue of the year, has presented its list of the Top 50 Trenchless Engineering Firms. The list, organized by trenchless revenue, covers the work that firms complete across North America.

In the past, Trenchless Technology Canada’s last issue of the year was November. In 2020, we switched that up and moved the issue to December. With that in mind, we wanted to create a feature that could complement the Top 50 survey in Trenchless Technology’s November/December issue. To that end, we reached out to several firms that noted that they did work in Canada in 2019, or their most recent fiscal year. The goal was to gauge their thoughts on the trenchless engineering sector in Canada and across North America.

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Taking part in the Q&A are:

  • AECOM — Paul Nicholas, Vice President Operations Manager, Tunneling & Trenchless Technology.

  • Brierley Associates — Nick Strater and Jim Williams, Trenchless Practice Area Leaders

  • GHD — Bradley Marin, C.E.T., C.T., North American Tunnels and Trenchless Service Line Leader; and Aaron Bruce, C.E.T., rcji, Ontario Rehabilitation Team Leader

  • R.V. Anderson Associates Ltd. — David Crowder, C.E.T., C.D., Senior Associate, Trenchless Practice Leader and Manager of Field Services

To see where these firms rank as North America’s trenchless engineering leaders, visit

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What are the main drivers for trenchless work in Canada?

GHD – The market is driven by sustainability; the need to improve delivery and reduce impacts to the nature and built environments while providing elevated service for the public. One of the key advantages of trenchless technologies is that the physical and environmental footprint of these projects is typically much lower than traditional open cut and cover. Completing regular condition assessments, thoughtful advanced planning and implementing trenchless solutions has allowed many Municipalities to meet their financial objectives while being sustainable. Whereas at one time, large-scale replacement may not have been required to address these issues, now large infrastructure projects can be properly assessed, problem areas identified, and targeted rehabilitation can be successfully implemented.

How would you rate the state of the trenchless technology market in Canada right now?

R.V. Anderson – There is a lot of rehabilitation and new installation work going on everywhere. The trenchless technology market in Ontario is very busy, in fact we are seeing the use of trenchless technologies in remote parts of Ontario. Every day you will see examples of trenchless technologies being used across Toronto and most city centers due to the decreased impact on traffic, business, residences, etc.

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What are some of the challenges faced by specialist trenchless consultants?

Brierley Associates – Recruitment of talent that has a genuine interest in not only the design of trenchless methods but to be in the field to see how trenchless construction really takes place. That field experience makes for a better designer. Also, the evaluation of utility markets in the wake of COVID, where population densities, utility use and utility company revenues are subject to rapid change.

AECOM – The majority of trenchless projects are part of a larger project that may include pipeline assessment, hydraulic analysis and design, open-cut construction or non-trenchless means and methods. This makes it difficult for a dedicated trenchless consultant to qualify for these multi-faceted projects, and most larger consulting companies have in house experience and do not want to subcontract the trenchless part of the project. This can be seen in the Top 3 trenchless consultants in North America all being large multidisciplinary companies. Overcoming this is a consultant’s biggest challenge.

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How has the trenchless engineering market evolved over last decade or so?

GHD – Owners of large infrastructure system who are subject to the need for continuous improvements with smaller funding bases are enthusiastic to try new approaches and are experiencing success with key performance indicators such as schedule improvements, lower costs, higher efficiencies and lower risk. The industry has asked for “more to be done with less and the market has responded.” Over the past decade, the trenchless industry has evolved. The number, size and complexity of projects has grown dramatically. While tunneling and horizontal directional drilling projects were occurring all across the country, many forms of trenchless installation including rehabilitation were being tested as pilot projects and were starting to be completed successfully. The growth has been helped by education and the confidence in delivery. As the demand has grown, the industry provided answers in better material, equipment and trained personnel. Events such as the Trenchless Technology Roadshow and similar training events have permitted an opportunity for owner to connect and share positive experiences and improvements for the future.

What does a trenchless engineering firm need to do to stay competitive in today’s market and the future?

AECOM – As new techniques and records are being made and developed every year, keeping up with the rapidly evolving trenchless industry technology is vital to being successful. However, a trenchless engineering firm is at a disadvantage. The “real” knowledge of trenchless technology and how best to apply it lies with the manufacturers and suppliers followed by the contractors and lastly the consultants and their clients who are generally lagging behind in their knowledge of new techniques and therefore tend to be conservative in applying new technology. So, in order to stay competitive these firms must circumvent this and be at the forefront of trenchless industry technology advancement.

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Brierley Associates – Talent recruitment and knowledge transition as long-time trenchless professionals exit the work force will be key to one’s continued success. Also, maintaining a current understanding of contractor and equipment capabilities to ensure designs are cost-efficient and practical. Keep an open mind about how challenges can be solved, trenchless engineering and construction is a creative industry and new ideas are continuously being discussed and implemented. Some are successful and some need reevaluation. Think about lessons learned after every project.

How do you recruit trenchless engineers? What options are there for trenchless engineering training?

R.V. Anderson – We generally recruit by placing a targeted “Trenchless Design Engineer” position on our website. However, my most recent hire was a young PHD engineer who graduated from the University of Waterloo and worked with the Centre for Advancement of Trenchless Technologies (CATT). The biggest challenge we face is finding engineers who have knowledge and practical experience in the many different trenchless applications. One of the ways to do this is through training and networking. For example, the most recent hire I met while participating in CATT workshops and seminars and at the Trenchless Technology Road Show. So, you can really say networking does work. Internal training and development of staff – especially the junior staff – is key to staying competitive in today’s market and into the future. Doing so keeps the “trenchless experience” within the firm.

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Mike Kezdi is managing editor of Trenchless Technology Canada.

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