Building a Sustainable U.S. Infrastructure: A Whole Systems Approach

infrastructureBy Karin Holland, Senior Sustainability Specialist, Haley & Aldrich

During his recent State of the Union address, President Obama shined the spotlight on sustainability when he talked about climate change and clean energy—as well as the United States’ desperate need to repair and upgrade its infrastructure.  Emphasizing ideas from his first term and from his recent State of the Union address, the president is proposing a number of initiatives, including a series of tax breaks and loans to stimulate private investment, to improve the country’s roads and bridges to make them sound and sustainable for generations to come.  These are welcome developments, in particular given recent damaging forces to our infrastructure.

We all witnessed the devastation to our infrastructure by natural disasters like the recent super storm Sandy, which destroyed airport runways, public transit and roads.  Furthermore, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) score card published this month rated the overall state of the U.S. infrastructure a D+. Although it is a slight improvement over the D grade received in 2009, this is still disappointing.  Meanwhile, the anticipated funding to repair our infrastructure continues to dramatically increase.  The recent sequestration will further slash budgets, and will likely further stretch the financial gap.

A whole systems approach

What can the industry do to strengthen our infrastructure and make it world-class once again?  An important, yet not yet widely adopted solution is the application of a whole systems approach—one that considers the interconnections between infrastructure projects and their surroundings, and that spans the entire lifecycle of infrastructure projects, from design and construction to operation and maintenance.  Although this approach may involve upfront costs, this model can bolster efficiency, garner public support, and improve resiliency to natural disasters, resulting in significant short- and long-term payback. A whole systems approach should simultaneously address the needs of all stakeholders, and provide community, environmental, and economic benefits for all types of infrastructure projects, from pipelines to bridges to ports to airports.

The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), working with the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University, has launched an innovative rating system that fosters such a whole systems approach.  The industry should take notice.  The purpose of the system, appropriately named EnvisionTM, is to evaluate, grade, and acknowledge infrastructure projects that are both transformational and collaborative.  EnvisionTM is designed to assess key sustainability indicators over the course of a project’s life-cycle to ensure these initiatives are resilient not only today, but for generations to come.

EnvisionTM is similar in nature to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a voluntary, consensus-based, market­-driven program that provides third-party verification of green. Yet, instead of focusing on green buildings, EnvisionTM fills an important niche for infrastructure projects. A key difference between buildings and infrastructure is the enormous scale of many infrastructure projects and the vast number of people and communities that these projects impact.

A key aspect of successful and cost-effective infrastructure projects is a focus first and foremost on stakeholder collaboration. Through its assessment tools, EnvisionTM promotes collaboration among all key stakeholders—e.g. infrastructure owners, design teams, community groups, environmental organizations, construction professionals, regulators, and policy makers.

It’s important, for example, that infrastructure project teams seek to deeply understand the needs and desires of the local communities early in the process. This can help determine whether a proposed project is even necessary, and if so, whether it will benefit the community. As a next step, EnvisionTM helps determine the sustainability attributes of the project—to not only make sure that projects don’t negatively impact community quality of life, but that initiatives eventually lead to community regeneration and restoration, for example, by reversing blight through developing compact, mixed-use, safe and healthy communities with access to green, open space.

Environmental considerations are key to long-term sustainability

In addition to addressing the social aspect of sustainability, EnvisionTM addresses broader environmental considerations in a world where both funding and natural resources, such as raw materials and water, are scarce. Under EnvisionTM, projects that reduce energy requirements and waste, and conserve water, are given credit. EnvisionTM includes 60 sustainability criteria, called credits, divided into sections including Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Risk. Projects that consider broader environmental issues from the outset are more likely to reap the benefits of reduced construction, operating, and permitting costs.

Additionally, the forces of nature clearly have their own role to play with our infrastructure projects. Teams must take in to account our changing climate, which is resulting in higher temperatures, sea level rise, droughts and extreme weather events, putting even greater pressure on already diminished infrastructure.  To remain economically viable for the long-term, project teams must prepare for environmental threats to ensure that the project can adapt to changing conditions over time. An entire component of EnvisionTM is devoted to climate change and associated risks.  Not only does this element encourage project teams to mitigate climate change impacts, through reducing atmospheric emissions, but to build in resiliency to short- and long-term natural and man-made risks.

Projects must seamlessly mesh with broader surroundings

Another whole systems attribute of EnvisionTM is that it helps ensure that an infrastructure project team consider the broader surroundings and how a project can seamlessly connect to both the physical and natural environment around it. Projects will inherently link to and rely on other infrastructure for effective operation; the project at hand and surrounding infrastructure must work as a whole. For example, an airport will soon become non-operational if the roads and railways leading to it close due to flooding, or if its stormwater system fails and inundates its runway(s). Looking at projects in isolation without a whole systems approach in mind often causes serious consequences later on.

It is clear that there is a tremendous amount of work to do to fix this country’s aging infrastructure. What is also clear is that taking a whole systems, sustainable approach to designing and operating infrastructure projects will ensure adaptability and resiliency for generations to come.  The industry must work together to help shift mindsets so that whole systems thinking becomes the norm.  The public will reap the benefits, particularly when infrastructure projects can withstand the greatest of super storms and the chronic and rising impacts of climate change.

The ASCE will likely issue its next U.S. infrastructure grade in four years.  What will the country’s grade be then? Let’s hope that we are closer to an A.

Karin is a senior sustainability specialist at Haley & Aldrich, where she applies sustainability thinking to the firm’s infrastructure services. Karin is an EnvisionTM verifier and an EnvisionTM Sustainability Professional, and a LEED Accredited Professional. Haley & Aldrich is a Charter Member of the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure. Karin can be reached at

[image credit: Calotype46: Flickr cc]

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3 responses

  1. You are right Karin:

    1 – “It is clear that there is a tremendous amount of work to do to fix this
    country’s aging infrastructure.”

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    2 – ” What is also clear is that taking a whole systems, sustainable approach to designing and operating infrastructure projects will ensure adaptability and resiliency for generations to come.”

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    3 – “The industry must work together to help shift mindsets so that whole systems thinking becomes the norm.”

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  2. Very good article that points out the key relationship between Envision and systems thinking. ISI would like to emulate the success of the USGBC and the LEED rating system in its’ implemetation of the Envision rating system. However, a key difference between between the two rating systems is that, whereas LEED can demonstrate immediate tangible economic benefits through higher lease rates, higher commercial attractiveness and increase productivity and effectiveness of personnel working and occupying a “green” building, Envision’s benefits are more realized in life cycle cost savings and the less-quantifiable benefits to the environment and society. For infrastructure owners (who are almost exclusively public agencies) to accept Envision as universally as the building industry does LEED, it will be necessary for them to get beyond the “first cost” budgeting that is dominant in any agency’s culture and see the long-term benefit to their own constituency and mission. That is a “sea change” that will definitely require “systems thinking” to overcome.

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