Helping Western Canada Build Smarter for Almost a Century

The past five years of economic expansion in Canada’s western provinces have translated into rapid growth for surveying, mapping, and consulting engineering firm McElhanney, which has operated in the region since founder William G. McElhanney began surveying BC’s wilds in 1910. Since then, McElhanney has grown extensively, and even though the recent economic slowdown has slackened the pace of the company’s growth, McElhanney is continuing its involvement in large-scale building projects. Chris Newcomb, president of McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd. (MCSL) since 1997, has seen the company expand to 16 offices with approximately 400 employees. MCSL’s sister company, McElhanney Land Surveys Ltd., which has separate senior management and operates extensively in the oil and gas field, was launched in the ’70s and today has a staff approximately equal to that of MCSL.

This past September, Newcomb was appointed chair of the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies, which, as one of its core principles, promotes hiring engineering firms based on combined experience and expertise over price. Newcomb says that this characterizes McElhanney’s draw for its clients. “We and the other firms that are members of our association all agree very strongly that we should be hired based on our qualifications,” he says, explaining that this is not an entirely self-serving statement, but it makes sense for clients to adopt this attitude as well. “Engineering only represents a very small fraction of the actual cost of a new building or a new bridge or a new highway,” Newcomb explains. “The majority of the cost is in the construction, maintenance, and operations of those pieces of infrastructure.” In other words, if the project’s engineering team focuses on minimising design effort over design quality, then construction and operating budgets will suffer the consequences. McElhanney prides itself on giving its experienced staff the right amount of time for design and supervision that is thorough and effective.

Thinking greener
This emphasis on quality, says Newcomb, also carries over to helping their projects conserve resources and minimise their carbon footprint. “It’s especially important that designs are undertaken with careful consideration for sustainability rather than selecting the cheapest and quickest solution,” says Newcomb. This starts at the home office, where McElhanney has a recycling program that includes using recycled paper and is even taking this initiative on the road by gradually converting its vehicle fleet to hybrids. Newcomb adds that McElhanney’s business model, based on maintaining branch offices in communities throughout Western Canada, reduces the need for travel, enabling the firm to provide local services with the smallest carbon footprint. Newcomb puts it this way: “Using McElhanney for engineering and surveying is the consulting equivalent of the 100 mile diet”. McElhanney is also at the forefront of the development of green highway design, which aims to lessen the environmental impact of every aspect of highway construction, operation, and maintenance., and a couple of McElhanney’s senior employees will be presenting a paper at BC’s first Green Roads Conference, scheduled for February 2009.

Environmental services, says Newcomb, has become a significant area of growth for McElhanney, which now employs biologists in several of its offices. “They are the ones to help us identify and minimize environmental impacts and to recommend what compensation work is required,” Newcomb explains. “If you compromise an environmental asset in one location you have an obligation to replace it with at least twice as much environmental asset in another location to make up for it.”

Growing with new technology
McElhanney has distinguished itself from its competition by acquiring and implementing powerful terrain data acquisition technology. One example of this is the Airborne LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) Scanner, which the company purchased in June 2008. Newcomb explains that conventional mapping from the air is done with photogrammetry, in which when photos are taken from an aircraft that are later interpreted and made into maps—a very time-consuming process. The other drawback is that the photos are unable to penetrate through heavy trees and bushes; LiDAR, on the other hand, emits millions of pulses of light, some of which are able to pass through small gaps in the tree cover and reflect back up to the aircraft, thereby creating a reading of the true ground elevation. “It’s been busy since day one and it’s still busy today,” Newcomb says of the company`s LiDAR Scanner. Being able to use aircraft to survey large areas of land is much better than surveying on the ground, which is very labour-intensive, and it is even more economical when McElhanney is able to arrange surveys for various clients in the same area on the same day. The technology is also being used in other areas of the country besides BC: McElhanney has completed projects in Ontario and is planning projects in Indonesia during the northern hemisphere’s winter months.

More recently McElhanney purchased a Terrestrial Laser Scanner (TLS). With a range of one kilometre, this survey instrument can pick up more ground survey data in a single day than a conventional survey crew could in weeks. The company is currently using the TLS to map open-pit mine sites in Indonesia, and it also expects to use it to map steep highway rock cuts and to monitor the movement of unstable slopes. “This will complement our current work for mining sites where we are building remotely monitored real-time GPS systems to measure slope stability and surface movement,” says Newcomb.

Pride-inspiring projects
Newcomb was eager to discuss some of the exciting projects McElhanney has taken on. The Vancouver 2010 Olympics have created numerous opportunities for the company, which has done a lot of the survey and mapping work in Whistler to be used by the engineering firms that designed facilities there. McElhanney also designed sections of the Sea to Sky Highway connecting Vancouver to Whistler. But the company’s involvement in the Games goes further. It is also sponsoring two Canadian athletes who are qualifying for the Canadian Olympic team: Matthew Hallat, a para-alpine skier, and Sara Renner, a cross-country skier who medalled in the Turin Games. Newcomb said that the athletes have formed a warm relationship with the people at McElhanney. “From time to time they visit us or attend our meetings so that we can let them know how excited our employees are about helping them,” he said.

McElhanney is also involved in the Golden Ears Bridge project, having done most of the highway design work. Spanning the Fraser River in Vancouver, the bridge is set to be completed and to open in 2009. “It’s the first new major highway bridge in the Vancouver area for at least 20 years, so we’re pretty excited about being involved in that,” Newcomb says.

And, nearly halfway around the world, McElhanney’s work took a turn towards community recovery. McElhanney has had a presence in Southeast Asia for nearly 50 years and it was able to help residents of Sumatra with surveying and mapping after the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004. After the disastrous tidal wave hit, the office in Jakarta, Indonesia, contacted the Canadian Red Cross, looking for ways to help, says Newcomb. Once the immediate relief work was done, the organization had funds left over from Canadians’ donations, and that was put towards reconstruction. “At our peak we had about 20 people there, and they were doing surveying, mapping, and community planning in order to re-establish the property ownership in the villages, because everything was wiped out,” Newcomb says. The survivors, in many cases, were unable to identify where their properties were, and so McElhanney assisted them by using satellite imagery from before the tsunami to help re-establish property boundaries. In places where the land was especially badly damaged, even this approach wasn’t feasible, so planners were brought in to assist residents in designing new communities—helping them determine where to place their school, their mosque, and their market. The work was very challenging, says Newcomb, but ultimately very rewarding. The company’s website shows what Newcomb humbly neglected to mention: in May 2008, McElhanney was awarded the David Thompson National Geomatics Award in the “Contribution to Society” category for their work in Indonesia—actions abroad that can truly make Canadians at home feel proud.

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