Change Leader: Advancing Sustainable Infrastructure with the Envision System
Heather Unger, manager, Transmission within Louis Berger’s Power & Energy Group and Corporate Social Responsibility Chair, recently earned a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from the Harvard University Extension School. Her capstone project was a sustainable action plan for Louis Berger that focused, in part, on advancing use of the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System within the firm and certifying 100 employees with the ENV Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) certification.
Envision is the product of multiple collaborators, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Council of Engineering Companies, the American Public Works Association (APWA), and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. The system is administered by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI).
The sustainability of building performance and materials has been well documented through the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program. A similar system for civil infrastructure was being explored by many different entities who realized that by banding together they could provide momentum and greater adoption. ISI was formed in 2012, and adoption of the standard by practitioners and projects has been growing since.
“Envision is designed to be a guidance tool to incorporate sustainability into projects,” says Unger. “It’s designed to cover any type of civil infrastructure from roads to pipelines to wastewater treatment plants to gas plants. Anything that isn’t a building can be rated through Envision.”
The rating system has 60 sustainability credits arranged into five impact categories: 1) Quality of Life, 2) Leadership, 3) Resource Allocation, 4) Natural World, and 5) Climate and Risk. Points are awarded for up to five levels of achievement within each credit based on how far you take the project toward sustainability. The levels of achievement range from improved to restorative.
Tools and Ratings
Envision includes two different tools. There’s a simple checklist, which is a series of yes/no questions to help guide design decisions and quickly compare project alternatives. The other tool is the Envision Rating System, which is a comprehensive planning framework and rating system designed to improve the sustainability of infrastructure projects. The Envision Rating System can be used for free, or project teams can seek an Envision award through third party verification. Third party verification is a rigorous process that includes a verifier who acts as a mentor to guide you through the process as well as an online tool for organizing your submittal along with the necessary documentation. Proof is required that you’ve met the different levels of achievement for the credits the project is seeking.
Large infrastructure projects are significant long-term investments and can be controversial. Envision demonstrates to the public that you’re going above and beyond to consider the long-term impacts to the community and environment.
“It’s nice that it covers all of civil infrastructure, because it’s hard to keep track of all the various rating systems that may cover just an individual field or a specific geographic region,” adds Unger. “Envision can be tailored toward any civil project, and it helps prove that we’ve considered sustainability.”
The different tools and approaches complement each other, as the time and expense to achieve certification and a plaque aren’t for every project. The checklist helps instill the thought process in every project, and the more-rigorous rating system can guide project teams through the planning and design process and can be used for validating projects when they achieve a truly exceptional level of commitment to sustainability. The tally of certified points results in a project rating, similar to LEED, of bronze, silver, gold and platinum as well as an associated plaque.
The Envision framework is a tool for the full lifecycle of a project, including planning and design, construction, operation, and decommissioning. At this time, the standard focuses on planning and design, as that’s where the greatest impact can be made.
“Ideally, the project team uses this early on in the process,” says Unger. “It can be used to guide the design process to make sure sustainability is considered. Even if it’s not used until later in the project, it can be used to evaluate the project and make changes.”
ISI and the Envision framework are new, and there’s an ongoing push on promotion and certification for it to take hold. APWA is advancing the standard with its members, providing guidance on how to include it in the RFP and RFQ process, as are other entities.
“We’re starting to see projects specify Envision,” says Unger. “Florida’s I-4 transportation project and the winning contractor Skanska committed to certifying the project as Envision platinum, and I’ve heard that this contributed to why they won the project.”
Issues of climate change and adaptation are coming more to the forefront lately and factor into Envision adoption.
“Resiliency is prompting some of these agencies to look at Envision,” adds Unger. “After Hurricane Sandy, New York and New Jersey are a lot more focused on resiliency. In California, with the major drought they’ve had, they are definitely focused on resiliency. It’s a big driver for sustainability thinking.”
Read the full interview here.