Sudbury: Masters of the Underground – by David Robinson (Mining Solutions Journal – June 2013)

Dr. David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. His column is from Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal a magazine that showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury.

Management consultants quote Sun Tsu’s Art of War when they want to emphasize strategy and creative thinking. I plan to quote Wayne Gretzky about an idea that I think mining supply firms should be pushing.

Dr. Dougal McCreath has over 35 years of experience worldwide, teaching, consulting, doing research and managing projects. He is also the author of more than 50 technical publications, primarily in the field of rock engineering. Dougal’s crazy ideas are better than most people’s best work. This one isn’t crazy – it’s more like a very sneaky chess move.

Dougal wants to build an underground building. That’s not new, of course. The Gjøvik (pronounced Djuhveek) Olympic Cavern Hall, for example, seats 5,500 ice hockey fans under a mountain in Norway. Built for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, it is still the world’s largest underground cavern for public use. The arena was more expensive to build than a surface structure, but as the assistant manager of the project said: “There are no windows to wash or fix, no outside walls to paint, no roof to repair and it costs about half as much to heat as a regular building.” There are a lot of underground sports and recreational halls in Norway, where they double as civil defense shelters.

Like Norway’s underground facilities, the amazing Sydney Opera House car park, the pedestrian tunnels under Toronto and Montreal, the underground additions to the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa and subways around the world show what the mining sector has to offer to a world with growing population and serious sustainability problems. Loretta Hall’s stunning 2004 book, “Underground Buildings: More Than Meets the Eye,” provides other examples.

As space in cities gets more and more expensive, the value of underground space rises. As the carbon cost of steel and concrete rises, the carbon cost of holes is actually falling. Since heating and cooling costs are a big part of the energy costs for households and commercial buildings, underground construction offers big savings. There is a growing market here for the mining supply sector.

Dougal’s building has strategic implications for the industry. He wants to create a new engineering building for Laurentian University in the rock under one of the parking lots. The building would solve a serious space problem for the growing Bharti School of Engineering, one of Canada’s leading mining engineering programs. It would provide a dramatic architectural feature for a university that specializes in mining and environmental science. Even more important, it could serve as a showcase for the capabilities of the mining industry and its suppliers.

That’s why the mining supply and service sector should actively campaign for the McCreath Cavern at Laurentian. Imagine bringing potential customers to see a facility that demonstrates your company’s achievements and virtually screams “We are part of a powerful, creative and forward looking cluster of firms that is master of the underground world.” The building might not end up quite as impressive as the Dwarves Hall in the movie version of the Hobbit, but it would be terrific advertising for the industry’s skills and products.

Even this idea isn’t new. Back in 1982, the University of Minnesota put 95 per cent of its new Civil and Mineral Engineering building deep underground as an experiment in underground construction. It is still considered to be one of the most innovative buildings in the United States. Constant temperatures reduce the energy requirements by a third. Solar optics bring in natural light. The McCreath Cavern would showcase much newer technology. It would teach students to think in new ways to apply the skills and products of the mining supply sector. And with Laurentians’s new Architecture school it could become a world leader in the growing field of underground construction.

Wayne Gretzky said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” The mining supply sector is doing a pretty good job of responding to its main customers today. It should spend some energy getting ready for where markets are going to be tomorrow. Professor McCreath has identified a strategic initiative that will promote the existing mining supply industry and open a path to new markets.