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Magazine » June 2012 » Features » RAI EXCLUSIVE

Envisioning sustainable infrastructure
Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure Executive Director William Bertera explains the organization's new rating system.


In April 2012, the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) in collaboration with the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design unveiled a new infrastructure rating system called Envision. According to the organizations, the system is designed to help policy makers evaluate the sustainability of infrastructure, set realistic national priorities, and conduct a national discourse on infrastructure investment. ISI is a not-for-profit educational organization founded by the American Public Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Council of Engineering Companies to develop and promote the use of a rating tool for measuring and encouraging sustainability in civil infrastructure projects of all kinds, other than buildings.

In the following interview, William J. Bertera, executive director of ISI, responds to questions from Rebuilding America's Infrastructure (RAI) to explain Envision and ISI's goals. Bertera is the former executive director of the Water Environment Federation, the Rebuild America Coalition, and the American Public Works Association. He also has held senior executive and management positions with the International City Management Association, the National Association of Counties, and the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

RAI: What exactly did ISI release in early April with Envision Version 2.0? How was it refined between Version 1.0, released for public comment in 2011, and Version 2.0, released in April 2012?

Bertera: ISI released the first market-ready version of Envision in April. An earlier version was a prototype and was released for public comment only. Based upon several hundred comments received, and a merger with a similar tool under development by the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure and the Harvard School of Graduate Design, Envision 2.0 represents a pragmatic approach to rating the sustainability of civil infrastructure projects of all kinds.

RAI: How does Envision relate to, build upon, or compete with other rating systems such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development, Greenroads, and the New York State Department of Transportation's GreenLITES programs?

Bertera: Envision is a multi-dimensional, holistic infrastructure rating system designed to encompass not just a single infrastructure sector, but all sectors of civil infrastructure. As such, it is an umbrella system that has the capacity to plug in results from successful sector rating systems and allow those results to fulfill an Envision requirement. Consequently, it is designed to complement and be compatible with other rating systems rather than compete with them.

RAI: Why is a rating system important?

Bertera: Investment in civil infrastructure is an important community decision involving scarce resources and sometimes conflicting priorities. A rating system adds clarity to the decision-making process by introducing best practices against which to measure and evaluate the project, its goals, and objectives. It gives us a common language and point of focus to discuss what might otherwise be complicated and complex issues, and does so in a way that can help policy makers, administrators, and citizens become active participants in defining a public interest.

RAI: What process does ISI have for further refining Envision as our understanding of sustainability and technologies evolve?

 

"Envision is, and will always be, a system in transition. As our needs change in the decades to come, so will our concept of what constitutes sustainability."

 

Bertera: Envision is, and will always be, a system in transition. As our needs change in the decades to come, so will our concept of what constitutes sustainability. Consequently, we are establishing a process for continuous review and improvement using a web of expert committees and contractors working under the direction of a board of directors. We also expect that our program for third-party verification of projects to which Envision has been applied will significantly contribute to this dynamic as actual projects become identified as "sustainable" and therefore constitute models for review, study, and replication.

RAI: Please briefly describe Stages Three and Four. How is work progressing on those and when do you expect them to be available?

Bertera: Stages Three and Four are internal planning elements rather than distinct and separate products at this point. In truth, we do not know how Envision will evolve over time, but we do know that we expect it to include sophisticated economic metrics and "gaming" capabilities so that communities and developers can try out various scenarios in the pursuit of better and more sustainable infrastructure decisions.

RAI: What is ISI's plan for the next year or two to promote and begin implementing Envision?

Bertera: We are aggressively moving on two fronts: the first is directed toward infrastructure owners, i.e., public-sector organizations; the second toward the planning, design, and construction industries. Public-sector members of ISI currently serve 45 million Americans. We want to increase that coverage for the obvious reason that the public sector owns most of the civil infrastructure and are market drivers for sustainability: What they ask for or demand, the private sector will deliver.

 

"We intend to demonstrate the long-term benefits of sustainability for civil infrastructure projects and simultaneously demonstrate that sustainability is a good business decision for private industry."

 

Our second focus is on the private sector itself, to help it better address the demand we think is coming from the public sector and to do so responsively and efficiently. For both sectors, attention on infrastructure costs is paramount. We intend to demonstrate the long-term benefits of sustainability for civil infrastructure projects and simultaneously demonstrate that sustainability is a good business decision for private industry. Clearly we are describing a win-win strategy that speaks to a larger societal public interest in sustainable infrastructure.

RAI: How does an engineering firm or infrastructure owner currently access the Envision rating tool?

Bertera: Envision is available on the ISI website now and it is in the public domain. Any public or private organization is free to use the tool without cost.

RAI: How can engineers become ISI Sustainability Professionals (SPs) or Verifiers? When do you expect the first SPs and Verifiers to be trained and credentialed?

Bertera: We have a training and credentialing program available now on the ISI website to help professionals understand and apply Envision to civil infrastructure projects. It is open to engineers and other professionals and includes six, one-hour training modules and a Web-based examination. An applicant pays a fee, takes the course, and when ready, an examination. Results are returned almost immediately.

Project Verification and Verifiers are a separate subject of interest. These are the people who will serve as reviewers of projects submitted to ISI for third-party verification and an ISI acknowledgment of sustainability. Verifiers will work for ISI; credentialed Envision Professionals will work for either the infrastructure owner, the planner, designer, or contactor.

Verifiers will be recognized professionals; they may also be Envision credentialed, and will have no direct interest in the project under review.

RAI: Can Envision be applied to existing infrastructure, and if so, what benefits might that provide?

Bertera: Envision is designed to evaluate a piece of civil infrastructure at any point in its life cycle, and the present version of the system can do that with some adaption. In truth, the tool in its present configuration is heavily weighted toward the planning and design phases of a project (as are most rating systems), but that will change by the fall when we will introduce additional elements that will make using the tool more effective for the construction and operation/maintenance phases as well.

The advantages to applying Envision to an existing piece of infrastructure relate to our societal need to continuously maintain, upgrade, and evaluate our civil infrastructure in terms that are sustainable. Even a project that was not originally designed or built with sustainability in mind can benefit by applying those principals to its operation, maintenance, and eventual upgrade.

RAI: The ISI website says that sustainable infrastructure design and development "requires a change in the mindset of engineering design." In what ways does Envision move infrastructure designers and owners beyond just the use of green infrastructure technology and recycled materials?

Bertera: Envision requires that we think of our infrastructure in terms that go beyond simply designing a project at minimum obvious cost. It causes us to consider true life cycle costing, to include the hidden costs in not choosing options otherwise unconsidered or cast aside. It encourages us to think not only about doing the project right, but to consider whether the project is the right project in the first place, and to do so with recognition of the "triple bottom line" [social, economic, and environmental impacts].

There is a decided inclination in this country toward investment in new infrastructure because politically it has more traction than repairing or restoring existing infrastructure. Sometimes this is a good and necessary decision, but sometimes it is not. Envision will cause us to at least think about the alternatives. Doing so is critical.

The reports from any number of credible sources, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, suggest the dire state of American civil infrastructure. Former [Pennsylvania] Governor Rendell recently told the American Council of Engineering Companies that the state of our infrastructure is "a national disgrace" and he is right. Envision will cause us to evaluate both new and existing projects in the clear light of our national public interest, and to choose projects and priorities that speak to those national interests rather than against them.

RAI: How do you promote this "change in mindset" to an industry and to the public that often are slow to embrace such change?

Bertera: All too often, we think of change in terms of costs rather than benefits. Costs are reasons to not do something; benefits are reasons to do. Envision is designed to identify and promote the benefits of sustainable infrastructure and to do so in terms that are meaningful to citizens and ratepayers.

In the end, of course, nothing takes the place of leadership – from both the public and private sectors – that forthrightly acknowledges the challenges we face, honestly identifies our options, and makes courageous decisions to do what is necessary. I think we are going to do that because we have to; there is no real choice, and once we realize that, everything will get easier.

RAI: Engineers and infrastructure owners often express concern about delays and costs associated with environmental regulations and permitting and, in some cases, public opposition to projects. How do you anticipate the Envision rating system will impact the approval process at both the regulatory and community levels?

Bertera: We have three different issues here. The first is the regulatory process which colors everything we do (often with unfunded mandates); the second is procurement practices which discourage anything other than considerations based on initial costs (often at the expense of our longer-term interests); and the third is the natural public reaction to anything that causes dislocation.

Envision is not going to solve any of these problems directly and certainly not in the short term. But it is not only the short term in which we have a societal interest. The world in which we live is changing and it is changing irrevocably and in ways that threaten our future. Over time, Envision will help us grapple with these changes by helping us more clearly identify our options, establish our priorities, and otherwise better adapt to a changing world.

More information about the new Envision sustainable infrastructure rating system is available on the ISI website at www.sustainableinfrastructure.org.

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