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National Infrastructure Week

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JustusMay is an exciting month, bookended by Cinco de Mayo and Memorial Day. But the most exciting part is May 12 to 16 – which is national Infrastructure Week! Presumably you knew that and were out celebrating… but in case you were not, let’s try to illuminate why O’Brien & Company is so excited these days about infrastructure—especially the rapidly emerging interest in sustainable infrastructure.

To say interest is ‘rapidly emerging’ is not to imply that the concept is brand new; it isn’t. But while certain elements have been around for some time—notably green infrastructure and Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI)—the emergence of a holistic field called ‘Sustainable Infrastructure’ is relatively recent. Furthermore, interest in the topic has notably accelerated in the last 2-3 years. Just as the green building industry really took off after the creation of a national rating system (LEED) and an organization to administer it (the US Green Building Council—USGBC); one obvious reason why sustainable infrastructure is buzzing right now is the creation of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) in 2010, and subsequent development of Envision™, a rating system for civil infrastructure projects released in 2012.

Envision has clearly met, or at least begun to meet, a huge latent demand for guidance and standardization in this area; not only have a few leadership projects already been certified, but an impressive collection of state and federal agencies, county governments, and utilities now include Envision in their planning and review processes. These include Departments of Transportation, Public Works, Wastewater, electric and power utilities, parks, and others. Here in the Pacific Northwest, King County stepped up as the first local government to undertake Envision certification on a project, after the Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) conducted a feasibility analysis on pursuing Envision certification for a pump station upgrade project. The project is also required to utilize an existing County-wide tool (the ‘Sustainable Infrastructure Scorecard’), and will therefore be able to provide a side-by-side comparison of the two tools.

The two tools aren’t a perfect match, as they’re focused on slightly different project phases—Envision currently focuses on planning & design, and the Scorecard more so on design & construction. Using the metaphor of hydrology, Envision is focused further upstream and the Scorecard downstream. (More on that later!) Applying the Envision rating system reveals some real advantages for projects: the most obvious is standardization—using the same system as projects in other places, or your own projects in the future. Another advantage is the way the rating system rewards existing practice, assuming you already have strong practices in team management, communications, public outreach, and planning. But perhaps the greatest advantage offered by using Envision is its emphasis on ‘upstream’ decision-making and planning.

That last point may sound basic, but is actually still fairly uncommon for major infrastructure—and can be quite controversial. We can look to the field of green building for a quick history lesson: there was significant controversy early on, as to whether a building could still be considered “green” if it was very energy and water efficient, but was in a location where it contributed to urban sprawl. Did the one just cancel out the other? While this was never formally ‘resolved’, it was given clear answer in the evolution of green building rating systems, which in many ways reflect the industry’s thinking as a whole. Recent versions of LEED, for example, or the Living Building Challenge include siting as a fundamental prerequisite consideration.

For infrastructure, asking these challenging but necessary ‘upstream’ questions about systemic impacts is, if anything, more important. “Is this the right project?  Is it in the right place? Is this project even necessary?” The answers to these questions have enormous consequences for a sustainable built environment. Fortunately, asking these questions is explicit in Envision, and positive answers are rewarded. As the rating system evolves—or others emerge to challenge it—we’ll perhaps see these questions shift from consideration to requirement.

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A Moment of Opportunity
But of course, it’s not just ISI and Envision. The Pacific Northwest gained a valuable new resource in 2013, when Climate Solutions co-founder Rhys Roth established the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. The Center aims to make the Pacific Northwest “a national and global leader in sustainable infrastructure” by helping to “shift billions of dollars in public works investment to climate-smart infrastructure.” Those two points—how much money is tied up in infrastructure and the need to anticipate potential impacts of climate change—go to the heart of why a new approach to infrastructure, focused on sustainability, is so important.

For one thing, billions of dollars isn’t even close from a national perspective; the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates our current infrastructure funding needs through 2020 at $3.6 trillion. And that number doesn’t include potential impacts from climate change. Nearly every federal department with infrastructure oversight—Energy, Defense, Interior, the Highway Administration, to name a few—have drafted vulnerability assessments, planning guidance, and adaptation strategies in an attempt to increase resilience in the face of expected impacts.

What about downstream?
Revisiting the metaphor of hydrology, if ‘upstream’ work shifts decision-making processes and early planning, the ‘downstream’ work focuses on how to shift design and construction practices. Completing the ‘cycle’ is Performance Measurement—the practice of project-level data gathering and reporting, which carries information back upstream to inform future decision-making.

So if we are able, in the years to come, to shift those billions (or trillions) of dollars towards ‘climate-smart infrastructure’, what might those projects look like? Well, a simple answer is that we don’t know entirely. Part of what makes this work so exciting is that we’re still learning what’s possible in the realm of infrastructure. Different projects are pushing the envelope in different areas. The new SR 520 floating bridge, for example, was the first-ever WSDOT project to require the design/builder to draft a ‘sustainable practices plan’ for design and construction. While the ‘baseline project’ for an office building, against which you could measure the energy efficiency of another office building, is well established, this is not the case for a floating bridge! There are not well-established practices for determining the optimal energy use (or water use) that goes into a cubic yard of concrete or how best to reduce the lifecycle carbon footprint of major construction materials. In keeping with the cutting-edge nature of this pilot, WSDOT also required performance measurement, with monthly and annual progress reporting on the Sustainable Practices Plan. This information provides the agency with the real project data needed to inform decision-making for future projects.

What we can say is that we know how it will look different from our current approach: projects will prioritize sustainability outcomes in early planning and decision-making, even to the point of completely replacing one project or solution with another. Those outcomes will be integrated into design and construction practices, with the most important priorities expressed as project requirements. Project performance will be tracked and reported, to begin filling in gaps in our knowledge of how to build the next generation of infrastructure; an infrastructure that will need to respond to a very different world 50 years from now, but which we’re planning and designing today. Perhaps most importantly, the convergence of our maintenance backlog, high capital costs, and rapidly evolving demands on infrastructure seem to indicate that the era of single-purpose mega-projects is drawing to a close. The link above reflects not only a different way of selecting infrastructure, but a different way of thinking about it—an emphasis not just on performing better, but performing differently. A truly sustainable infrastructure will spend public dollars on projects that provide multiple public benefits, simultaneously. While this represents a departure from our current approach, it also represents our best hope for creating a built environment that can respond to—and withstand—the demands this century will place on it.

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