Sustainable Infrastructure – Civil Engineering Solutions

October 22, 2011

This year’s ASCE conference focused on strategies for implementing sustainability in infrastructure projects. It was enthusiastically kicked off in the opening plenary by Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He presented an overview of the Smithsonian’s efforts to green their operations. Additionally, his institution’s credibility on natural history lent gravitas to the discussion.

Homo Sapiens are the sole remaining species of humanoids to occupy the planet. We were able to adapt to previous climate and environmental changes and thrived. Will we be able to adapt to further climate change?

The capacity to adapt to extreme natural events has been explored most visibly in the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans. The first concurrent session that I attended at the conference addressed sustainable infrastructure in New Orleans. One of the panel’s featured discussions was on the question of whether to renovate or re-construct the old Charity Hospital.

The sustainable decision would incorporate environmental, community and economic considerations. It was also important to recognize the historic nature of the hospital. Trinity provided medical services to an economically depressed constituency. Trauma surgeons from several universities used the hospital as a training facility. From an engineering perspective, the building holds historic interest due to previous evaluations by legends in the profession Hardy Cross and Karl Terzaghi.

After careful consideration of the existing structural condition, the investigating engineers estimated that restoration of the hospital could be performed at lower cost than a complete demolition and rebuild. The cultural and social benefits of retaining the historic nature of the structure also would contribute to the decision to restore the hospital.

At the conclusion of the presentation a lively debate was held regarding the pros and cons of restoration. Despite the presenter’s conclusion, there were still a considerable number of attendees who felt that a new modern hospital building would be preferable for the community. These engineers felt that adaptation of the old building would be very difficult.

Answering the question to restore or replace requires consideration of many factors. This project illustrates the difficult decisions that engineers face when making sustainable recommendations.

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