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Processor Profile: Stantec waterman Ryan Roberts provides a peek behind the curtain


July 10, 2016  


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Ryan Roberts is no stranger to water. As Calgary-based vice-president, discipline leader of water for international design and consulting powerhouse Stantec, he, and his company for that matter, has seen a bit of everything when it comes to how water infrastructure can be built from the ground up.

In addition to spending some time with Western Canada Section – American Waterworks Association in various capacities, Roberts is currently president of Western Canada Water, which brings together seven organizations representing more than 6,000 members who work in the industry and for the cities, towns and governments in Western Canada.

He is also one of the many people behind the much-talked-about ambitious upgrade of the Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment Facility in Calgary, which, at 1,390 megalitres per day, is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world.

PROCESSWest recently sat down with Roberts to discuss everything from how engineering companies like Stantec are managing increased adoption of alternative project delivery to how one of his company’s most recent projects hit close to come. Here is what he said:

PROCESSWest: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Roberts: I’ve been with Stantec for 15 years – always in the water division. My current role is as vice-president, water discipline lead for Canada. For us, discipline can be used interchangeably with delivery. So it’s really overseeing the delivery of our projects within the water sector across Canada. We also have a lot of co-ordination between our Canada and U.S. operations.

PROCESSWest: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the past 15 years?
Roberts: There is no such thing as cookie-cutter projects in the water industry. You can’t take what you did on the last job and simply apply it. Basically, every project, every client – whether it’s a municipality or if it’s an industrial application – has specific characteristics or criteria. For us, it’s about identifying those criteria and then coming up with an innovative solution tailored to what that client requires.

PROCESSWest: That sounds exciting – that no two days look alike.
Roberts: Yes. Definitely. The other thing that’s interesting is that, while all of the projects I work on are obviously water-related, we have a number of water professionals who work on those jobs who are not water-specific people. I’d say a good majority of our projects require a number of other disciplines. So when we’re building water infrastructure jobs, say a treatment plant, we bring in transportation engineers and structural engineers and electrical engineers and architects. The list goes on. So by leading a water project, or working on a water project, you get exposure and involvement working with a whole gamut of areas of focus, which is really interesting.

PROCESSWest: What does Stantec look at when it first gets involved in a typical water project?
Roberts: It changes, but, overall, the steps to move through the life cycle of a project, at a very high level, are somewhat similar. We first identify that something needs to get done. We then go through the planning process to figure out the best way to approach the situation. We then refine that solution, followed by design, procurement, construction, commissioning and, ultimately operation and maintenance. There are situations where the life cycle might end with a study, but that is typically what Stantec will look at when getting involved in a project.

But going back for a second, when a private client or utility or municipality first identifies something needs to be done, it typically boils down to either growth of their user base, regulatory or environmental drivers, age or efficiency, which is the toughest one to make a business case for due to competing priorities for capital funding. After defining the driver, we would typically go through a planning step, which usually involves some sort of study.

And it’s really about not knowing what to do yet, but identifying the need for an assignment and setting a boundary that involves a solution that, for example, will last 15 or 30 or 50 years. Or something to treat a certain number of people based on growth projections. The planning study would look at the solution to this problem, the outcome of which would define everything from infrastructure and financial needs to duration and expected resources.

Once we’ve gone through those planning and business case stages, and the owner believes there is a case for it, there’s a number of ways it can play out. It usually involves some type of design step that would carry through to the construction phase. The conventional delivery approach would be to plan, design, procure or tender and then construct.

Interestingly, we’re starting to see more traction on alternative project delivery. That means doing a P3 or design-build or design- build-operate or design-build-finance-operate – there are a handful of variations. Essentially it involves bringing a contractor into the overall stakeholder group at earlier stages, or owners entering directly into a contract with the builder or operator that is then responsible for the design and construction.

PROCESSWest:: So that means Stantec’s exit point on a water project could vary, depending on the client’s needs?
Roberts: It can. Our exit point could be at the design phase. That does happen. But typically we would see a project through to the end of commissioning, and then hand it over for operations and maintenance. That handover process would involve testing, training, and standard operating procedures. We do have experienced staff on hand for operations and maintenance support – we even operate a couple water utilities in California – however it’s not one of our primary services.

PROCESSWest: The alternative delivery approach you referenced earlier, does that solve or cause problems for providers such as Stantec?
Roberts: There are pros and cons to it. It really comes down to what the project needs. You can do things faster that way, and there are definitely examples where you can do projects more economically. It’s all about risk transfer. When you go into an alternative project delivery, you have to manage how you’re transferring risk and decision making.

For example, if an owner is used to directly managing the design team right up to the point of approval, they, may be used to directing specific details of the design such as selection of this pump over that pump, this valve over that value. If they go with an alternative project delivery approach, they don’t always have that kind of oversight because they have now entered into a contract with a team that’s responsible for delivering a pre-agreed-upon product typically under a performance based contract.

PROCESSWest: Is most of the work you touch in Western Canada?
Roberts: We have about 1,500 water staff at Stantec spread out across Canada and the U.S. Twenty to 30 per cent of all Stantec’s business has a direct link to water – that’s municipal, industrial, private utilities. Stantec, as a whole, operates 150 or so offices across North America. Water-wise, we have around 20 water-specific offices that act as central nodes for different regions.

PROCESSWest: Stantec worked on both the Pine Creek and Bonnybrook facilities in Calgary. Do either of those projects rank high on your list of interesting projects you’ve worked on?
Roberts: Some people will go their entire career without being about to work on projects like that. The interesting thing about Pine Creek, which we started working on in the early 2000s, was it was a reasonably large greenfield wastewater treatment plant. So to build a greenfield plant like that, especially where you live, is just not common. It’s quite rare.

For Bonnybrook, which is being constructed right now, the context is Calgary has been going through quite a bit of growth as of late. The upgrades to the overall Bonnybrook plant are to keep up with that growth. It is interesting because there are roughly 10 projects at the plant that are currently underway. One specific one of those is a major expansion, which has a number of sub expansion projects – and each one of those would be considered a large project by typical standards, just because of its size.

The overall expansion involves expanding the existing process, which is biological nutrient removal, for capacity. We’ve also done some process efficiency upgrades to the site. To that point, there were new headworks put in place and commissioned last year designed to substantially increase the efficiency of that process, and, therefore, improve overall plant operations and maintenance.

All of the solids facilities are also being upgraded – partially for growth, but also resource recovery. The plant takes biogas and converts it to energy through a cogeneration process. That’s being expanded as part of this project. To go on, there’s a nutrient recovery facility that’s in the planning stage right now. It’s a side-stream process that remove nutrients from the biosolids stream in the form of struvite, which is then used as a fertilizer.

Separate from that, there’s a new outfall that’s going. Right now, it’s a bank-type fall. The new one has an inbed diffuser that’s designed to improve the ex-filtration of the effluent into the Bow River. Lastly, there is a new flood-protection berm going in. A portion of the Bonnybrook site went underwater during the 2013 floods … Part of this project that we’re currently working on is putting a flood-protection berm around the site so that if there was a similar event in the future, that it wouldn’t impact operations of the facility.

PROCESSWest: While some of Stantec’s work takes it into other communities, projects like Bonnybrook are in your backyard. What’s it like for you to drive past projects?
Roberts: We have a vested interest and a personal commitment to all of the projects we work on, regardless of where it’s located. But, of course, when it’s right in the community you live in, it’s obviously important. You want to make sure, obviously, it does what it’s supposed to do. You want to make sure it’s protecting the environment, which it’s supposed to do.

But you also want to make sure you’re thinking outside of the box in terms of what kind of innovation that you can bring to that project to increase the benefits it provides while making it as economical as possible – especially since it can be your tax dollars going into paying for it.

PROCESSWest: Water and wastewater often ends up in the news for all the wrong reasons. What influence can an organization like Stantec play in mitigating this before it comes to that – particularly at the design stages?
Roberts: A big part of it is defining the design criteria. And that design criteria has to look at things like the service population, flood-protection levels being designed for, runoff values … And I’m saying these because, if there’s an event that surpasses one of these items, then that’s typically where something could go wrong and end up in the news.

That said, you have to use sound judgment and professional experience to come up with that design criteria because everything can’t be overdesigned. It is not practical. Plus, there is a downside to overdesigning. If you have collection or treatment systems that are grossly overdesigned, they can have negative impacts on how they operate.

Overdesigned collection systems, for example, could impact flush velocity and, on the wastewater side, settle excess debris, which could lead to bio-growth and, eventually, treatment deficiencies, odour and corrosion. On the water side, overdesigning can increase water age in the system to the point that, by the time it gets to users, the chlorine residual is not there anymore and its quality is impacted. And there’s way more good news stories than bad news ones. They’re just not newsworthy.

For those few times that people do hear something, they need to remember these systems exist. They’re everywhere. Every time someone turns on a tap or flushes their toilet, that means that system’s operating well.

About the author: Jamie Zachary is the editor of PROCESSWest.