The Ability to Adapt

Despite pandemic restrictions, two Civil Engineering students are working to bring the benefits of green roofs to Canadian cities
Image by Gretl Chan.

Last February, when Civil Engineering students Èvane Amico (B.Eng’23) and Evelyn Zhang (B.Eng’22) logged onto the first Canadian Engineering Competition (CEC) to take place online, they weren’t sure what to expect. But after nearly a year of adapting to COVID-19- related changes at McGill, they were ready to face whatever surprises the remote format presented.

“When I shared my screen, the other participants almost disappeared: they were so tiny compared to our presentation slides,” recalls Èvane. “It felt like just another rehearsal at home.” Taking this in stride, the pair of students enumerated the many benefits of green roofs. These vegetation-covered roofing systems capture airborne pollutants, filter noxious gases, reduce urban heat-island effects, save energy through better insulation and provide a sense of connection to nature.

Èvane and Evelyn proceeded to tell their nearly invisible audience about a smart green roof they’d designed with Canadian regulations and climates in mind. “We realized that we don’t have many advanced green roofs like those you can see all over the world and especially in Europe,” says Èvane. “We wanted to find a way to adapt the technology to the Canadian situation.”

Accounting for wide temperature variations and heavy Canadian-winter snowfall was crucial. So was creating something low maintenance and relatively low-cost, since green roofs aren’t always an easy sell in North America. “It’s a new concept for a lot of people here, so that’s a huge challenge,” says Evelyn. “And the fact that green roofs can be costly often scares them away. We needed an approach that could get them on board.”

Èvane and Evelyn’s design consists of modules that can be easily fitted to roofs of different sizes. Each one retains storm water, drains the excess automatically and – with the help of sensors and a live-time monitoring system – irrigates its plants with the level of moisture they need to thrive. “We wanted to make it as autonomous as possible,” says Evelyn. “That’s a selling point.” The CEC’s judges awarded their concept first place in the Innovative Design Category.

Reaching Out Remotely

This victory was the culmination of an unusual but rewarding year for Èvane and Evelyn, who had participated in two other contests in order to qualify for the CEC. One of them was the McGill Engineering Competition, which is supported by alumni donations to the Student Initiatives Fund (SIF). “That was a remote event, too,” says Evelyn. “It definitely helped us to practice there before going on to the national level. Right now, the ability to adapt [to the virtual environment] is key.”

There are pros and cons to online events, according to Èvane and Evelyn. When it comes to networking, “doing a Zoom call is not the same as doing, say, a wine and cheese on campus,” says Èvane. “Making connections is harder. At the same time, we now have access to a wider diversity of people from various places, because nobody has to arrange transportation: if you have a Wi-Fi connection, then you can attend the event.”

Taking classes remotely has required flexibility as well. “There are technical procedures you have to study without actually doing them, because you don’t have all the necessary material and equipment at home,” says Èvane. “That was challenging, but it was also good to practice a new way to learn.”

Once pandemic restrictions ease up, Èvane and Evelyn plan to implement a green roof on McGill’s campus, so long as their team can secure enough funding. “We want to test our product,” Evelyn explains, “because right now it’s theoretical, but when you actually start building, you sometimes have to make a lot of changes.”

Come what may, the two students have gained motivation from their project so far. “Having the chance to attend those competitions solidified my interest in the environment,” says Èvane. “I’m really looking forward to bringing innovation and technology into civil engineering projects, to mitigate climate change and other environmental issues.”

This article was originally published in the Faculty of Engineering's Impact Made by McGill 2021.

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