The whole “you’ll know it when you see it” concept really only goes so far when it comes to sustainable infrastructure.
“You need some measure of what you mean by sustainability,” said Paul Zofnass, founder of the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University. “You can say that sustainable infrastructure is important and everyone nods, ‘Yep, right, sustainable infrastructure is important,’ but what do you mean by sustainability? How do you define it? How do you measure it?”
The Zofnass Program worked with the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure – itself an organization cofounded by ASCE – to develop the Envision rating system to do just that: measure the sustainability of infrastructure.
“What was happening in 2009 was that each individual engineering firm was developing its own proprietary way of measuring sustainability,” Zofnass said. “Each one of the firms was competing against the other, and as soon as you start competing with each other, then who does the world believe? What we needed was some form of consensus.”
Envision measures sustainable infrastructure projects in five categories: quality of life, leadership, natural world, resource allocation, and climate and risk. Dozens of projects around the world have attained Envision platinum and gold in recent years, as the rating system has provided a guideline for owners and designers seeking to incorporate principles of sustainability into their projects.
The Envision program also includes training civil engineers in its use. Individuals who successfully complete the Envision credential training course and exam earn the Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) designation.
“The number of cities in the U.S. that use Envision in assessing and evaluating infrastructure is over 250,” Zofnass said. “That’s pretty important. So if you’re an engineer and you want to work on the big, new projects, redesigning cities, redeveloping transportation, you need to be on top of this. You need to be Envision certified. If you don’t know how to design that way and earn those ratings, you’re not going to be the winner on these projects.”
“We have decided that we need to ensure that our staff, as well as our constituents and our vendors, have a common understanding of what sustainability means,” Liban said.
“We said, ‘Let’s make it simple for ourselves; let’s use Envision as that platform for all of our stakeholders to have a common understanding of what sustainable infrastructure is, and that common language of sustainability.”
Since February, Liban’s group has trained 300 people and certified almost 200 in the L.A. region in Envision.
An ongoing challenge is accounting for advances in science and technology as well as changes to the environment. It’s essential that the Envision system keep pace with the changing world, Zofnass said.
“This is not like something you can slice into stone and have it be the Ten Commandments,” he said. “You need constant research and development to keep it up to date. But you can set the principles, and every few months you update it.
“It’s all about getting a consensus between the engineering side, the academic side, and the government side. You measure it and get wide buy-in. That’s what Envision is all about.”