Future Forward: Prepare for the Future in the Beginning Design Phase
This particular interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/44LLRLl.
According to Ari Raivetz, many of the problems in our current infrastructure stem from poor designs that had to be made quickly, under deadline, without considering all the uncertainty and change that will inevitably happen.
“We’re not considering new technologies, we’re not considering new regulations, we’re not considering climate change, changing weather patterns, and all those kinds of uncertainties,” he explains of common design processes. “If we run more scenarios and designs in the beginning, then we can end up with better infrastructure at the end of that process.”
He notes that infrastructure design typically is a very manual, labor-intensive process that costs hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and takes many months.
“You’re only getting one or two options in the early project phase, and that’s when we make our most important decisions that ultimately drive what this infrastructure is going to look like for the next 20 or 30 years,” explains Raivetz.
“We have to stop chasing our tail,” he adds. “We are making massive investments to upgrade and fix assets today, which in reality is just correcting misses we had five, 10, 15 years ago when we actually designed it in the first place.”
A Better Way to Design
Raivetz cites water infrastructure as particularly prone to error from lack of foresight at the design process. General problems include water mains that break every two minutes in the United States, which wastes clean drinking water that could fill 9,000 swimming pools every day; lead contamination in aging pipes; and PFAS microplastics in drinking water that are difficult to remove.
Specifically, he cites examples in the wastewater industry where better designs could prevent problems and better allow for change as circumstances evolve. A water utility, for example, could plan at the design phase the ability to add wastewater recycling in a later phase.
“Am I setting it up from the beginning so if the weather conditions continue on the path they’re on, I will actually have a source of recycled water—I can then find off-takers for that? That’s something I could consider in the planning phases today,” he notes.
Wastewater recycling is particularly important as drought and flooding continue to wreak havoc on water systems. Raivetz cites that 98 percent of water is used for non-potable purposes such as irrigation and cooling for manufacturing, yet drinking water typically is used for those purposes. Recycled wastewater would be a much better option.
In another example of inefficient water use, he explains that much time and expense is taken to remove nitrogen from wastewater, yet agriculture, the largest users of non-potable water, add nitrogen back to the system as fertilizer.
“How about we connect those two dots; recycle the wastewater and leave the nitrogen in that actually helps from a fertilizer point of view?” he asks.
Listen to the Operators and Nature
According to Raivetz, when designing infrastructure, it’s critical to get feedback from the onsite humans who are going to operate these facilities for the next 10 to 15 years.
“Inevitably, if you talk to those people, they will tell you five or 10 things they absolutely hate about the way that particular facility was designed, that make their life challenging every day,” he says. “Why aren’t we incorporating those things into the initial design in the first place?”
Another place to seek insight is through scientific observations of the surrounding world—especially evolving weather patterns—and using forward-looking models to design new infrastructure and better-adapt existing facilities.
“These facilities were never planned to have this kind of wet weather and peak flow,” he notes. “We have to look at our existing infrastructure and say, ‘if this trend continues, how do we plan for that in the future?’ Otherwise, you’re going to see wastewater plants washing out into our drinking water and surface water streams.”
Raivetz believes this is where software can come into play and help engineers look at different options, costs and impacts.
“These are the scenarios people wish they could evaluate in those early project phases, and they can’t because their resources are limited,” he says.