Engineering alumnus' $10M gift to help build a greener construction industry

The Nasseri School of Building Science and Engineering will focus on improving the sustainability of the residential and commercial building process.


(Edmonton) The construction industry in North America, particularly the residential construction sector, generates enormous amounts of waste. It’s estimated that 25 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to the construction and use of homes and other buildings.

But a new school of building science and engineering at the University of Alberta is about to change that.

Fuelled by a $10-million gift from Reza and Sylvia Nasseri to the U of A Faculty of Engineering, the Nasseri School of Building Science and Engineering will serve as a teaching and research centre in which engineering students, professors, researchers and staff will focus on improving the use of materials and energy in the construction and design of homes and commercial buildings. Advances made through this research will reduce environmental impact, enhance safety for workers and occupants, and increase affordability of residential construction.

Dean of Engineering David Lynch said the “incredibly generous” gift creates an endowment that will live on in perpetuity. Interest generated from the endowment will support the hiring of new professors and research chairs, and enhance education opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.

The school touches on all aspects of building science and engineering, “which is really at the heart of creating sustainable building and construction practices,” said Lynch.

“When you think of everything involved in building a home, it crosses many boundaries, from the foundations and concrete work to wiring and electrical appliances, plumbing and heating; and there are all sorts of materials,” Lynch explained. “The Nasseri School of Building Science and Engineering will have an impact on all of our departments, including biomedical engineering—where new technologies can be applied to make homes safer for seniors and those living with disabilities.”

Sustainability drives engineering alumnus

Reza Nasseri, who graduated from the U of A Faculty of Engineering with a degree in electrical engineering in 1970, is the founder and CEO of Landmark Homes. For several years he has been trying to find ways to eliminate waste in the construction industry and has discovered that industrialization of the construction process—building some parts of buildings in a plant, then assembling them on site—dramatically reduces waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Nasseri explained homes of the future will need to be highly energy efficient and will increasingly be involved in producing their own energy and contributing power to the electricity grid. For this, he said new systems and materials for insulation and energy storage will require the expertise of materials and electrical engineers, while mechanical engineers are involved in the design of more efficient heating and cooling systems. Software engineering for wireless technology in homes will also be in demand.

“My motivation is to lower carbon emissions and waste associated with residential construction, to increase sustainability and to improve the quality of homes being built,” said Nasseri. “I want to make sure that this technology advances. If you push technology, you can cut the cycle of change down to 10 years or less. Now we have a school where we will educate people and develop technologies to reduce waste and produce better homes.”

Ahead of his time

Dignitaries on hand for the May 8 announcement praised Nasseri for his forward-thinking ways.

Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, who has known Nasseri for several years, described the builder as a “humble and shy” individual whose family is demonstrating leadership through establishing the school.

Hancock said it’s difficult for families to put their names out in the public, but it is important that people “know and understand that communities are built by people giving back.”

“The $10-million gift is extremely important and very valuable,” Hancock added, “but the gift of your name and what that stands for in terms of what you’ve contributed—to give back and create community—is a real gift, and for that I thank you.”

Edmonton City Councillor Mike Nickel echoed the sentiments, referring to Nasseri as a “quiet giant” who is held in high esteem among members of his industry.

“This outstanding contribution enhances not only the University of Alberta’s reputation, but also the city’s reputation as a centre for research and innovation,” he said.

U of A Board of Governors Chair Doug Goss agreed, saying the establishment of the new school “sets the mark for how we do things to solve the world’s great problems.”

Nasseri insists, though, that the family’s gift is about eliminating waste. If waste is reduced in the construction industry, then there would be less demand for products upstream in the supply chain, he said. If less wood is wasted on construction sites, fewer trees need to be harvested and fewer trucks required to haul them.

“An ounce of waste (on a construction site) looks like an ounce of waste, but it’s tons,” he said.

“My dream is that this school can create a platform to graduate engineers so that they can go around the world and build many of these plants, here and everywhere else.”