Guest Column by William Bertera
Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure
Sustainability for infrastructure projects can be a hard sell for small and mid-sized communities. It can appear to add costs to a project without demonstrable benefits … other than to “do good.” Doing good is important, but in an age when every dollar of public investment is dear and there are lots of competing demands, it isn’t good enough. There needs to be something more.
That something more is a business case for sustainability in civil infrastructure: a business case that demonstrates real value for the taxpayer and the voter, a business case that shows a real return on the investment of scarce tax dollars. To date, there has not been a way to measure and consistently show that kind of value for sustainable infrastructure investment.
In an effort to address this need, the American Public Works Association, the American Council of Engineering Companies and the American Society of Civil Engineers formed the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, a not-for-profit research and education organization. The mission of the ISI is straightforward: develop a tool the public sector can use to help make infrastructure decisions that are more sustainable and which can help show the direct benefit of that sustainability on the lives of citizens.
ISI has done that in collaboration with the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Together, these two organizations have produced a tool called Envision. The tool is available in the public domain, is web based and costs nothing to use. Additionally, its use does not require any public acclamations or commitments. More important still, Envision is not a decision making tool; it is a guidance tool. It does not make decisions for public officials or require anything of you or your project. It is not prescriptive.
The Envision tool is applicable to all kinds of horizontal infrastructure, including but not limited to roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, water pipelines and airports. It is not designed for use with buildings, but can be applied at any point in the life cycle of a project. It provides metrics to demonstrate accomplishment.
Envision causes users to think about sustainability as they put projects together, and to consider best practices in doing so. Perhaps most importantly, Envision helps make a business case for sustainability. Metrics are always important and help measure progress and success. This is especially necessary when considering the addition of sustainable elements in public infrastructure because the common perception is they add cost… cost without benefits.
Unlike in the private sector, where profits are a ready measure of success, things are more complicated in the public sector. There are no profits; only voter, taxpayer and customer satisfaction and an unending quest for the efficient use of scarce resources, often manifested in procurement systems which value low bids above most else. Sustainability resists that easy resolution. It requires we look ahead and assess benefits other than initial bid costs and take into account those benefits over the entire life of a piece of infrastructure.
Envision is not a decision making tool; it guides planning and design. It is intended to supplement other tools currently available, not take their place. It does introduce considerations of sustainability at points where, without the application of a tool designed for that purpose, it might otherwise not happen at all. Envision can be used for individual projects or to weave together separate pieces of infrastructure throughout a community. In truth, its most important application is at the community level where it can provide a holistic framework for all infrastructure decisions.
Although this may sound logical and simple, adding additional steps to the planning process can be time consuming and/or expensive for small and medium sized communities — and Envision itself is a sophisticated and comprehensive tool. It takes work and some resources to use properly. So ISI has developed a complimentary and easy-to-use, inexpensive checklist which requires neither training nor expense. It’s web-based, free of charge and designed to provide a general sense of the sustainability of small projects. It can also be used as a barometer of sustainability for larger projects.
The ISI website, www.sustainableinfrastructure.org, in addition to the tool and the checklist, offers a low-cost, web-based training program for public employees to help them better use both Envision and the checklist. It is worth looking at.