New sustainability in action facility opens

The department of biosystems engineering from the Price faculty of engineering and the faculty of agricultural and food sciences have announced the establishment of a sustainability in action facility on the Fort Garry campus.

The facility was described as “quite a large facility” by Joe Ackerman of the department of biosystems engineering, who is acting as the facility’s research associate and manager. Ackerman is a research scientist, designing experiments for the facility and writing papers, but he also gives tours to show the potential of the facility and even helps out with building things due to his extensive background in construction as well.

In addition, two co-op students, one from mechanical and one from biosystems engineering, are also employed by the facility. They are currently working on integrating existing solar energy systems.

The facility is the largest strawbale building in all of Western Canada and its mission is to provide all members of the University of Manitoba community with the opportunity to participate in sustainable experimentation. It is being supported by the NSERC chair in design engineering, the university’s office of sustainability, a faculty of agriculture endowment fund and BioTalent Canada.

Located just to the west of campus, the site was used by the department of biosystems engineering for about 15 years for doing research in alternative building techniques and insulation.

Ackerman said the team is at an “organizational stage” where the facility’s main mission is to improve and promote sustainability content by offering access to hands-on learning opportunities in renewable energy, innovative food production systems, sustainable building practices and utilization of waste biomass.  A further goal is to enable the U of M to participate in public education and outreach regarding sustainability issues.

For example, Ackerman hopes to launch project demonstrations to demonstrate emerging sustainable technology, especially as several renewable energy systems are already available on the property.

“There’s a lot of completed projects [in the facility] that produce good data, but the facility now aims to use those and go further with it,” he said.

Solar energy is a particular strength.

“There are five different kinds of solar energy systems which are each taking a different aspect of solar energy, some passive and some active, some heat pumps,” Ackerman explained.

“So we are integrating all those together, bringing them all together so we can glean data off of them and make them available so people can plug projects into them with some alteration of some kind.”

Ackerman said the faculty of architecture is currently using facility space to test different organic mediums that could be used as building material. By making blocks out of materials such as fungi, the resulting object weight is very low and the blocks may even be fireproof.

“That’s exactly what this facility wants to encourage,” he said.

“We give a site for that, like it’s a bit of a workshop sort of space. We have tools, we have floor space, we’ve got a couple of buildings.”

To make the site more friendly and welcoming for people interested in learning about novel sustainable tech, the department of landscape architecture with the department of biosystems engineering have also announced a design competition to update the facility.

“We have opened up this design competition for inspiration from people,” Ackerman said.

The competition is open to any architecture student, and there is a total of $7,000 in prizes up for grabs.

Ackerman said the COVID-19 pandemic is “probably the biggest limitation” the new facility is facing but pointed out even something as simple as face masks has sparked inspiration for researchers.

“We’re working on a project to utilize face masks, and we’re working with the idea of they can be integrated as a structural fiber into low-temperature asphalt by basically collecting the masks and pulling them apart,” Ackerman said.

The office of sustainability is helping by installing mask disposal locations around campus to collect used masks.

Projects like face mask fibers are just one example of what the sustainability in action facility can do once it is fully up and running.

“All of the things that have been tried here are very forward-thinking and sort of alternative energy and conservation and better building techniques, and local design, and using the same local materials,” Ackerman said.

“None of that is growing old — it’s actually becoming more and more important as we go on, and so [the goal] is to use these [current projects] as demonstrations and also to pave the way forward for new ideas to come through.”