Profiles in design: Newly minted mechanical engineer Geoffrey Iwasa

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Geoffrey Iwasa, a recent graduate of University of Waterloo’s mechanical engineering program, joined Arup’s Toronto office last fall. He spoke with Doggerel about net-zero buildings, designing in 3-D, and beer fridges.


Tell me what made you want to become a mechanical engineer.

It had a lot to do with really understanding how things work. Even just airplanes and cars. I would rather know how to fix it — take it apart myself and be able to say, “I don’t need somebody to do this, I can do it myself.”

Were you handy as a kid?

My uncle is a mechanic. I learned basic skills like how to change the tires, the oil, the brakes. And I learned to pay attention to the condition of the car just by listening to the sounds it made. It’s something I took for granted. I thought everyone should know how to change a tire if you got a flat.

Geoffrey Iwasa

Have you designed some fun things?

For school we actually built a self-serving beer fridge. You just load it up with beer bottles, and it’ll uncap it for you, pour it for you. I was amazed by all the little details of design: you have to make a gate, the beer is falling from this height to this height, it’s a glass bottle — is it going to break? How will it stay cold?

We worked in a team of five people, worked long hours for it. Even though it was for school, it was a ton of fun and definitely worth the effort.

Geoffrey Iwasa

The beer fridge team

What does your typical day at Arup look like?

Draw plans out by hand, problem solve, work with a senior engineer to figure things out further, then model a project in the different software. Like for the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] subway extensions, I’ve rerouted ductwork and piping, first by hand, sketching it out and explaining my design strategy to a senior engineer. After we talk, I modify the drawings in MicroStation, which is a 2-D CAD software, and send them off to the TTC.

What are your dream projects?

Actually, I’m working on one of my dream projects at University of Waterloo. This is the school that I spent all those years in. The project is a renovation and expansion of their current student life center as well as the physical activity complex. It will be a major upgrade to the fitness part of the physical activity complex and increase the amount of student space available. I’m on the HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning] design as well as the plumbing and fire protection.

How do you figure that out?

Every building has a different building envelope, a different design, different use patterns. The walls, the roof, the doors, the glass, and how it’s used all dictate the heating and cooling requirements. So we take these different factors into account and do engineering calculations to figure out the building’s HVAC needs.

It’s a similar train of thought for plumbing and fire protection. Depending on the layout of the building, pipework has to be routed to meet code requirements. That means we have to take into account the need for certain sizes of pipes as well as location of pipes when we design a building.

It’s neat to see how much thinking actually goes into these systems.

What’s really exciting to you in the field of mechanical engineering?

Net-zero buildings. Self-sufficient buildings that are not drawing power from the grid. It requires all these different systems coming together: HVAC systems, plumbing systems, architectural design, electrical design, et cetera. Everybody has to be on board with the idea and work together to try and reach the goal of net zero.

Any innovative working methods you use?

Right now, one of our big projects is a big transit system in the Middle East. This whole project uses Revit 3-D building software. The idea behind it is that you spend extra time developing the model at the start, but then everything’s in place, which saves you time further down the line. The project will then be built exactly to this 3-D deliverable. It’s very interesting. You need to design and draw with 3-D spatial awareness. I think it produces a very good starting point. It helps the design team see problems that will occur in the future and fix them early — an efficient design process that mitigates risk for all. It’s pretty new, but I think it will become a new standard.


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