Change Leader Interview: Advocating for Sustainable Infrastructure and the Envision System
The Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System is the product of multiple entities collaborating and then founding the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. Informed Infrastructure spoke with Heather Unger, Manager, Transmission within the Power and Energy Group and Corporate Social Responsibility Chair at Louis Berger about her efforts to institutionalize the standard within her organization.
I2: Can you give me some background on your links to the Envision system?
Unger: I recently graduated from Harvard University Extension School with a Masters in Sustainability and Environmental Management. The Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design was involved in developing the rating system.
The capstone project I completed for my degree was a sustainable action plan for Louis Berger. Part of that plan was focused on implementing Envision—getting people trained and making sure we’re using it on projects.
A lot of people have been very excited about it, although it is a transformation and involves some disruptive change. The way we’re rolling it out is to get small groups together to act as Envision champions and explore and push it, and also to generate some excitement around our commitment to certify 100 people.
Louis Berger is part of the Berger Group Holdings, and we have a sister company BergerABAM that has been involved in Envision since it came out in 2012. Their experience is helping to guide our expansion.
I2: How did the Envision framework come about?
Unger: Envision was a collaboration of four different groups putting together a rating system for civil infrastructure projects. Because they were all taking separate paths, they decided to come together on one tool rather than each having their own separate tool.
Those groups were American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), the American Public Works Association (APWA) and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Those groups formed the Envision tool that has been turned over now to the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure.
I2: What are some of the basics of Envision in terms of how it applies to your infrastructure projects?
Unger: Envision is designed to be a guidance tool to incorporate sustainability into projects. 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.
Ideally, the project team uses Envision early on in the process. Envision can be used to guide the design process to ensure sustainability is considered. Even if it’s not used until later in the project, there may be some opportunities to make changes and also evaluate how your project would rate using Envision.
The Envision Rating System consists of 60 credits organized into five categories:
Quality of Life relates to how the project contributes to quality of life for the community. For instance, this category evaluates the extent that the project employs local workers, improves community mobility and access and preserves or enhances the character of the community.
Leadership relates to what the project team is doing to foster sustainability and collaborate with stakeholders. This could include how the project team formalizes their commitment to sustainability and collaborates with stakeholders in a meaningful way.
Resource Allocation considers the impacts associated with resources used to build and operate the project. For example, Envision considers the amount of recycled and regional materials used and how much waste is diverted from landfills. This category also factors in what the project team is doing to reduce the amount of energy and water used by the project.
Natural World assesses the project’s impact on natural areas such as wetlands and prime farmland and whether the project is constructed on greenfield, grayfield or brownfield land. This category also considers the project’s impact on biodiversity.
Climate and Risk evaluates the project’s impact on climate change in terms of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and whether or not the project is designed to be resilient. This category factors issues of climate threat such as the potential rise in sea level and the extent the project relies on resources that may not be available or will be increasingly expensive in the future. This credit also considers the long-term adaptability of projects, such as if you have a landfill and how you might convert that to something of good public use at the end of its lifecycle.
Each category includes two to three subcategories, which are identified in the Envision Rating System manual. Each credit is eligible to achieve a level of achievement based on the level of sustainable performance. The levels include improved, enhanced, superior, conserving and restorative.
I2: What’s your area of practice, and how have you implemented Envision in your work?
Unger: I’m currently the manager of transmission, and my focus in on siting new electric-transmission lines. Siting is a subcategory under the Natural World category. I’ve been reviewing that subcategory against how we currently route transmission lines to understand what we’re already doing that might score well using Envision, and whether there are opportunities to achieve a higher level of sustainability performance.
Envision has two different tools. There’s a simple checklist, which is a series of yes/no questions. Questions such as, “Do you avoid constructing within 300 feet of a wetland?” From that perspective, you could use Envision as a quick tool to evaluate the work we do from a corridor perspective.
The other tool is the Envision Rating System, which can be used as a guide to incorporating sustainability into the project planning and design process. Projects can be recognized for sustainable performance by submitting the project for third-party verification. The third party verification process involves using an online tool to submit documentation for each applicable credit to prove that the project has met the desired level of achievement.
I2: I’m fascinated by the newer thinking about ecosystem services and how we quantify our impacts on the environment. How do you go about collecting data to quantify that impact?
Unger: There is a lot of data available, but you also have to be aware of how accurate the data is. For example, there is a national wetland inventory data layer, but the accuracy varies considerably. It’s not always feasible to go out in the field and conduct a complete wetland delineation while you’re routing a new line, but there might be opportunities to make changes afterward.
If you’re planning new transmission line route, you’ll initially rely on data from the National Wetland Inventory and other sources, such as infrared imagery and hydric soils to identify the location of potential wetlands. Once you choose the route, you go out and delineate, and can attempt to design the line to avoid or minimize impact to wetlands.
I2: What other areas of practice is Louis Berger applying the Envision standard to?
Unger: We’re opening it up to everyone in the company, and we’ve identified Envision champions who are in different markets and where we felt Envision would fit well to get certified early and push the program.
We held three in-person training sessions and currently have 67 people certified within the Berger Group Holdings companies. We expect to reach 100 before the end of our fiscal year.
Certified employees include individuals from our transportation planning group, power and energy, ecosystem services, remediation to name a few. Envision will span a majority of our disciplines.
I2: How is the standard applied against such a broad diversity of projects?
Unger: Envision is less prescriptive than some other rating systems, which allows it to more easily apply to a broad range of projects. Projects don’t need to achieve points under each credit. Projects need to achieve a minimum of 20 percent of the applicable credits. That might sound like a low number, but that means you’re project is 20 percent better than a baseline project. Not every credit will apply to every project.
It’s helpful that Envision can rate all types of civil infrastructure projects, because it’s challenging to keep track of all of the various rating systems that may cover individual fields or regions. Envision can be tailored toward any project, and it helps us prove that we’ve considered sustainability into our projects.
That’s one of the benefits to our clients. A lot of projects can be controversial, and Envision demonstrates to the public where you’re going above and beyond to make each project the best possible project with long-term sustainability guiding design decisions.
I2: It’s impressive that Louis Berger is embracing the Envision standard at such a level. Is it becoming a means to differentiate and win work?
Unger: There are several companies doing similar large-scale training. The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure and the Envision framework are still new, and there’s a push on promotion and certification for it to take hold. One of the benefits at this stage is the Charter Membership, and Louis Berger is a charter member of ISI. If you commit to certify 100 people, then ISI provides charter members with a discounted rate to go through the training and take the exam. That’s part of the reason why you’re seeing new commitments to train and certify 100 people.
We’re starting to see projects specify Envision. For Florida’s I-4 transportation project, the winner Skanska is committed to certifying the project as Envision platinum, and I’ve heard that this contributed to why they won the project.
From our perspective, we’ve seen at least one RFP that has requested information about our Envision qualifications. I know that other agencies are starting to incorporate Envision into their RFP and RFQ process.
One of the ISI founding organizations, the American Public Works Association, has guidelines on its website to help members incorporate Envision into their RFP process.
I2: Is Envision tied to performance and different project phases throughout the project lifecycle?
Unger: Ultimately, the goal is to have a guidance manual for planning and design, construction, operation and decommissioning to cover the full project lifecycle. ISI started with the planning and design phase.
Planning presents the biggest opportunity to make sure your project is sustainable, planning and designing the project in the right way. For now, there is a one-time certification process. As the rating system evolves, there could potentially be a different certification process for construction, operation and decommissioning.
Similar to the LEED Rating System for buildings, you can pay a fee to go through the certification process and get a project officially verified. If the project achieves enough points, you get a bronze, silver, gold or platinum plaque. However, you can also Envision for free as a tool to help guide the planning and design process.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been using the tool as a guide and have integrated it into their design process, but they don’t necessarily want to certify every project. It’s an additional cost they have to justify. They did recently certify their first project, a wastewater treatment plant, but they’ve used it on a number of other projects that they don’t intend to certify.
I2: How do you see the adoption of the Envision standard expanding into practice?
Unger: It’s starting with the larger organizations and then trickling down. Based on what I’ve been keeping tabs on, I’ve seen at least 16 Departments of Transportation (DOT) that are looking into Envision, with some more than others. Some are asking for information in RFPs, and others are just exploring it at this point. There are a range of other agencies, such as Departments of Public Works, counties, water and sewer authorities.
That makes sense, because these organizations are the ones that typically take on these large infrastructure projects. They’re making these huge investments and commitments that this is the way to ensure they are making the best investment.
I2: How does climate change factor into decisions to adopt Envision?
Unger: Resiliency is prompting some of these agencies to look at Envision. 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.
Resiliency is a buzzword with a lot of attention right now. We’re noticing changes happening in our climate, and it makes sense to engineer for that change when we’re designing infrastructure built to last for decades. You don’t want to just consider current conditions, you want to consider future conditions.