Routine maintenance gone wrong at one of Montreal’s biggest water filtration plants spurred the largest boil water advisory in the city’s history Wednesday, forcing schools to tape their water fountains closed, cafés to boil water for six minutes and water-based businesses like fruit-drink maker Liquid Nutrition to close up shop for the day. In total, 1.3 million of the island’s 1.8 million residents were affected.
Officials with the City of Montreal’s water department said the 24-hour boil water advisory was just a precautionary measure, as the contamination was likely limited to non-toxic sediment in the water and probably wasn’t tainted with bacteria.
This is the second major infrastructure issue that Montreal has faced in under 24 hours, the National Post states that the previous evening, the city’s metro system suffered a complete shutdown at the height of rush hour because of a computer problem.
Infrastructure issues can happen anywhere and there are safeguards in place for most issues, (the boil water advisory is likely just a prudent cautionary measure), but these current events add to the already long list of critical infrastructure issues that Montreal faces:
Engineers seem to love rituals, but one unspoken engineering ritual that I love to partake in, is to view the greatest examples of engineering, great buildings, bridges, tunnels, canals and even sewer systems are all possible candidates worthy of reflection. But in my mind, and for many Civil Engineers, dams are an important pilgrimage ritual akin to a shrine on the side of the road, where one petitions the gods for safe travels – they may not be the purpose of the journey, but provide a suitable place for reflection. For Civil Engineers, the alchemy of earth, rock, steel and concrete formed by man to hold back and harness that most powerful force of nature, water; is an awesome sight to behold, worthy of photographing, inspiring the young and old to imagine the weight of the wall of water behind the stark grey walls, wondering at the cold, murky depths below the calm surface.
On a quiet day, the dam can seem tame. The moving parts are hidden away, only a faint hum or vibration may be evidence of the great transformation from potential to kinetic to electric energy taking place below your feet. Looking downstream, the flow of the river continues, thousands of cubic meters of water that have unwittingly aided in powering this computer.
But as the need to release water increases, the dam transforms from a tame animal into a furious unforgiving beast. Water, as though in slow motion, thunders down spillways, buildings vibrate and a mist hangs around the valley. The noise is deafening up close, and even from across the valley one can hardly imagine the power of the water being discharged.
This video is from 2012, and shows the first time in many years that BC Hydro had opened up the Revelstoke Dam spillways. The flow reached an estimated peak of 679.6 cubic metres per second, or roughly 10 per cent of Niagara Falls’ flow, for about three days, drawing crowds of locals and tourists alike.
Having moved to Revelstoke in the fall of last year, the dam has been closed to visitors all winter, just opening up for the May Long Weekend.
So, this weekend I was finally able to make my pilgrimage into the belly of the concrete beast, walking through the cool, tomb-like tunnels, ascending by elevator to the observation lookout perched on the crest of the concrete dam. From there, with a wide view of the Columbia River Valley, I was able to share with my wide-eyed kids the wonders of dams, rivers, structures, turbines and potential energy. I highly recommend the self guided tour that is available for the historic and educational components for children and adults alike.
We’ll be back to see Revelstoke Dam again, and I’m sure it won’t be the last dam we pilgrimage to as a family either.
Since moving to the interior of British Columbia back in 2007, I have had many discussions with engineering types about the benefits of the alternatives to the curb and gutter / catchbasin paradigm. Interestingly, even six years later there really isn’t that much good knowledge out there on the cost of installation and maintenance of these systems, particularly in areas where heavy snowfalls or road sanding requirements might change the maintenance and operation requirements.
I’m convinced that in lower density residential areas, swales can be an appropriate design, and in the right conditions, may be supplimented with intentional infiltration devices. But the concerns that keep coming up from operations staff have not changed over the years:
ditches/swales get infilled by homeowners
driveway culvert inlets and outlets are not maintained by homeowners
road sand clogs the infiltration capacity of the swales
road sand will build up, requiring heavy equipment to remove
road edges are more difficult to preserve and maintain without curb and gutter
ponding can promote mosquito breeding
Despite these challenges, (many of which have relatively simple solutions), the benefits of swales are hard to ignore:
most studies estimate that the installation cost of swales is less than half of conventional curb and gutter costs.
I shared the following article with my wife Robyn this week, and she shared many of the same frustrations as Scott just that very night at the local supermarket. Yogurt in multiple aisles, the loyalty cards, the self check out…
When I’m ready to pay, I see long lines at the human checkout stands and short lines at the self-checkout. I know from experience that using the self-checkout, which was designed by a crack team of practical jokers, sadists, and monkeys that have been abused by their trainers, will bring me to frustration. I know I will inadvertently move my bag before the system believes I should and it will proclaim to all nearby shoppers that I might be a shoplifter. I will feel humiliated, incompetent, stupid, and shamed.
Every business decision needs to be made with respect to the decisions that precede it:
My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don’t live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I’d rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.
and what a waste of brain power!
Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn’t simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren’t thinking about solutions to real problems.
If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway’s marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.
Applying problems like this to Civil Engineering and Urban Design is what gets my creative juices going, but recently I’ve been looking at the way municipalities (including internal departments) communicate with their customers, whether planning and engineering departments about the development process, or IT departments about the software issues that a staff member might be having. I call it obstructive complexity.
Complexity in the supermarket setting may add value to the company, (by increasing sales and reducing overhead), but it tends to treat the customer like a consumable, another product to be moved. In the office environment, any added complexity to a task or process, even if it has some intrinsic benefit to management or another department, should be avoided until it is proven that the organization will suffer without the process, software or equipment that adds complexity. And when such a decision is made, someone must review the cost of the cumulative effects of complexity, whether it is employee satisfaction, additional time taken, or inefficiencies in the process.
So, what works? Here’s an example that doesn’t apply in our current small town, Revelstoke, but did apply in Langley – Starbucks made my life easier when they combined the loyalty card, payment method and rewards for loyalty all into an iOS app on my iPhone. Instead of potentially three items to facilitate a purchase, I could use my phone.
Anyone else have examples of either obstructive complexity or organizations that have simplified processes to reduce complexity?
Just an update, I've changed the commenting form to be livefyre powered. This allows for deeper social media engagement on posts and allows you to sign in for commenting through social media website logins.
Additionally, I made some repairs to the contact form page, as it was sending emails but not giving the sender any visual cues that the email was being sent. Sometimes I was receiving 10 copies of the same email!
Just a reminder to readers, comments are appreciated, as are emails. I'm always looking for relevant guest posts too, just pitch your idea to me.
The urban experience is helped or hindered by elements that are ulitmately the responsibility of Civil Engineers. Despite this somewhat obvious statement; many of the urban-form frustrations we experience day-to-day in our travels about our neighbourhoods or cities are the result of decisions made by engineers or those in municipal or utility organizations that act under the authority of engineers; decisions made sometimes by error, sometimes by omission and occassionally on purpose. From a personal perspective, some examples that stand out:
Fire hydrants and telephone poles in the middle of sidewalks,
un-syncronized traffic signals,
parking stalls that are too narrow,
four-way stops at busy intersections,
useless stop signs, and
road designs that don't reflect the speed limit.
I'm sure there are many more examples of designs that frustrate in the built environment, (including in some people's minds the design of roundabouts!) My point is that engineers must take some time to focus on the details of how the design will be used, not just the geometric design on paper or an assumption that someone else will review the details – the placement of a hydrant, sign post, streetlight or powerpole may have a huge impact on the usability of the designed works. This isn't just about wheelchairs or strollers, it is about walking with children beside you, or even with an umbrella in the rain.
One tool that has been particularly useful in design and construction projects that I've been involved in has been the practice of incorporating an audit into the workflow, mainly used for safety purposes, but also on general usability for pedestrians and drivers alike. This is usually done at several stages during design and construction, but should always include a pre-commissioning site visit/audit. The greatest pushback I've seen from this process is that developers and contractors believe that it offers the client or approving authority an unfair opportunity to “change the design” after the works are constructed. My comment has usually been that, “if it was design right in the first place, there won't be a problem”, and that, “the design sign-off by the municipality does not infer that the design as presented will meet all requirements”. These may seem like pat answers to serious questions, but considering that the design cost usually accounts for about 1% of the lifecycle costs, (and construction for about 10-15%), with approximately 85-90% of the total lifecycle cost being for maintenance. Also, for average municipal civil works, the design and construction phases as a portion of the lifecycle is often less than 1%; mistakes made in these stages have a long lifespan, every effort should be made to improve the user experience at this stage, as the cost to remedy is less during design (or even construction) than after the work is complete.
Is it unreasonable to have high standards on these issues of usability as an engineer approving designs? Should we really care where the pedestrian signal button is placed? Engineers have an obligation to be “design stewards” of these elements to enhance the user experience, not detract from it.
Does this mean that we should be designing roads to accommodate as high speeds as drivers desire? Not at all! In fact, this principle must be met in conjunction with other urban design principles for integrated design.
Here's a takeaway:
The design of every obstruction, interaction, hazard or access for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike should be considered at a detailed engineering design level to ensure that for the majority of reasonable uses, access is not unnecessarily obstructed, slowed, deviated or stopped (outside of parameters designed to achieve these goals).
What are your thoughts? What frustrates you most in the built environment?
Our backyard in Langley had a fence, a tall fence. It wasn’t just a backyard either, it was a side yard and even fronted the street on one section. The fence was imposing, and as added protection, there was a hedge on the street side of the fence. The fence, in this instance was really a defence, a way to keep out invaders and increase privacy.
Our previous home, (in Castlegar) on 3/4 of an acre in the suburbs of a rural town had a 4′ wire fence designed to keep dogs in (or out) and deter other wildlife. Our neighbours were part of our life, during harvest we would regularly see each other out in the yard picking peaches, apples, vegetables or maintaining the yard. The fence was a delineator, defining ownership, but permitting community.
The trouble with a high solid fence is that you never see your neighbours. Now you might consider that to be the ideal situation for you, but consider that if you were in an emergency situation, and needed help, or there was a natural disaster – you may be forced to work together with your neighbours. So, wouldn’t it be a good idea to share more than just a wave as you drive down the road? Break down those fences, (whether physical or literal) and get to know your neighbours. Strong communities are resilient communities.