To change the way we think about civil projects, we must be able to measure the value of sustainable efforts.
by Bill Bertera
November 29, 2012

Civil infrastructure is everywhere, and it represents our most prevalent footprint on the earth. Considering the 3.9 million miles of public roads, 1.4 million miles of water and wastewater pipes, 157,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 120,000 miles of railroads, 25,000 miles of navigable waterways, 90,000 bridges, 5,000 public use airports and the all-important seaports through which we connect commercially with the rest of the world, infrastructure is as important as it is pervasive.

At the same time, with population and the demand for scarce goods rising in our nation and around the world, our infrastructure is becoming increasingly strained. With these forces in play, infrastructure development must not only be thoroughly planned and intelligently constructed but also must be durable and efficiently managed. Additionally, it must take into account future generations, which are likely to face the same strains we are experiencing today.

Unfortunately, some perceive that what is sustainable and what is wise public policy are in conflict because sustainability usually suggests added costs. However, sustainable infrastructure also carries benefits with measurable value to the customer and the public. Additionally, the things we hold most dear as a society—personal security, public health and economic well-being—are dependent upon a strong infrastructure construction and development program. In a world more globally connected than ever, local, state and federal infrastructure projects are key elements in our ability to be competitive on an international level. Until recently, these concerns have largely been missing from our national conversation about sustainable infrastructure investment.

A New Tool To Measure the Benefits
This lack of a business-oriented argument for sustainable infrastructure prompted the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), in partnership with the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, to develop a tool that both communicates the monetary benefits of sustainable infrastructure development and helps organizations achieve those benefits. That tool is Envision, a sustainable infrastructure rating system that has the potential to place the issue of infrastructure investment in the United States high on the public agenda—where it belongs.

Envision is a results-oriented system that helps the construction and engineering communities design, construct and maintain infrastructure in accordance with industry-determined best practices regarding sustainability. It is not a decision-making tool in itself, however, and does not dictate project goals and methods or remove decision makers at any stage of the process. Instead, it helps professionals involved with infrastructure projects at all levels to make informed, responsible decisions for their employers and constituents. It does so by taking the triple bottom line—profit, people and the planet—into account. All of these elements are important on a business level because in addition to the economic elements involved in development projects, the triple bottom line accounts for values that contribute heavily to customer satisfaction.

Specifically, Envision helps decision makers plan and evaluate projects through five portals: quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, natural world (environment), and climate and risk. It uses as many as 80 credit items to score the efforts that guide decision making and provide point-based evaluations of projects’ sustainability. The tool can be used on the ISI website as is, but users will require some training for most effective use. ISI provides a web-based training and credentialing program.

Public Evaluation
Alternatively, the Envision Checklist, a scaled-down version of the full Envision system, is designed for small projects and can be used with no training. This allows planners and public officials to get a sense of the general sustainability of their projects prior to moving forward with a full-blown, quasi-public evaluation of the project.

And that quasi-public evaluation is where most projects are likely to end up. Both private sector contractors and public sector owners will want a third-party verification of the sustainability of their projects to assure the users of civil infrastructure—the citizen, the taxpayer and the businessperson—that the project not only delivers value but does so in a way that follows best practices and is respectful of the environment and of community principles.
To this end, ISI also offers a web-based third-party verification program to which both private and public sector applicants can submit projects for independent verification. This way, someone without a direct interest in the project can confirm that it is sustainable according to the guidelines of Envision.

Some caveats do exist. Envision is under ongoing development, and the version now available will be followed by increasingly sophisticated versions. The current version is heavily weighted toward the planning and design process, but by the end of this year a construction module will be introduced, and in 2013 an operation and maintenance module will follow. Metrics are also still under development in many credits.

Envision is the start of something that may change the way we think about infrastructure investment. It will demystify the topic and make it understandable by the business community and general public alike. It will help us assign the appropriate priority to infrastructure investment as the bedrock of most, if not all, societal services. It will help us not only to do our projects right, but to do the right projects.

More information on Envision and the family of tools and services supporting the system can be found on the ISI website, www.sustainableinfrastructure.org.