Sustainability has been a focus of the news cycle and academic journals for the past several decades. Most recently, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia in the past three weeks, we have seen the direct impact changing weather patterns have on infrastructure and the strain natural disasters can place on cities. As science and technology continue to advance, our understanding of the long-term social and environmental impacts of infrastructure projects grows. Large cities with antiquated wastewater systems, like Philadelphia, are upgrading their infrastructure to include permeable surfaces and enhanced greenspaces. Low-lying areas, such as New Orleans, are installing new infrastructure to ensure their communities are protected against changing climate conditions. Government organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are incentivizing developers and municipalities to focus on sustainable infrastructure through funding and regulatory actions.
In light of these factors, LEED was created in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to assess buildings for sustainability and reward those that demonstrated a commitment to reducing environmental impact. Today, LEED certification is required by many cities and developers, particularly when a project uses taxes or other government funding. Harper currently has 15 LEED certified employees on staff, with 30 projects achieving LEED certification. Realizing a gap in assessment for and recognition of sustainability in infrastructure projects, the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design partnered to create the Envision Certification in 2010. Since then, 38 projects have earned Envision Certification. While Envision does not yet have the same mass exposure as LEED, the exponential increase in project certifications over the past two years (4 projects in 2015, 14 in 2016, and 14 in 2017 as of July) indicates Envision Certification is gaining market appeal. In March 2016, Harper added our first Envision Certified Professional to our team when Anne-Marie Moehring, a member of our Environmental Systems Division (ESD), earned her credentials to become one of the first Envision Certified Professionals (ENV SP) in South Carolina.
A unique element of Envision is its holistic approach to projects. Evaluation occurs across 60 criteria in five main areas: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World and Climate and Risk. These categories underscore the Envision Rating System’s emphasis on all areas of the project. Quality of Life and Leadership explore how the project, and project team, interact with the surrounding community while the remaining three areas assess how the project impacts, and plans for, environmental factors. The nature of the evaluation demands communication among the Owner, Design Team, Contractor, Subcontractors, Key Stakeholders and a myriad of other teammates. Only those projects that are truly collaborative can earn Envision Certification.
A collaborative approach is extremely beneficial to Owners, Design Teams and Contractors as they plan for, and implement, infrastructure improvements. These projects, particularly in water and wastewater treatment, are often viewed as intrusive or ugly by the local community because function and budget typically trump elegance. Furthermore, the direct benefits to the community are not as tangible as a retail center or even a park. However, by including the neighborhood association, community leaders, and others impacted by the project throughout the design and planning process, project teams are seeing a direct correlation between community buy-in and easier project approval processes.
One example of the success of this collaborative process in South Carolina is the City of Seneca’s Water Treatment Plant (WTP) on Lake Keowee. Bob Faires, Director of Utilities for Seneca Light & Water, said,
“We found the collaborative process beneficial throughout the project. From the beginning of the design to the grand opening, we actively engaged the community to develop a water treatment plant we are all very proud of.”
Located on a prominent peninsula in the picturesque lake and at the back of a neighborhood, the WTP had been a point of contention among members of the community for several years. When plans for significant upgrades were announced, the City of Seneca and their design and construction partners saw an opportunity to reduce the tension over the plant by increasing community involvement in the upgrades. As the project progressed, the Project Team remained in constant communication with Key Stakeholders and general members of the public, letting them know about design elements as well as opportunities to participate in the project. Local subcontractors and suppliers provided a significant amount of the labor for the project, a positive impact on the local economy, and members of the neighborhood association were even invited to the tearing down of a particularly contentious bulk chemical tank. Throughout the project, the Owner, Design Team and Contractor used elements of the Envision framework to shape conversations and inform decisions with regard to sustainability and collaboration. Bryan Royal, Harper’s Vice President, Environmental Systems Division, said,
“The Project Team chose to pursue Envision certification for the Seneca WTP toward the end of the project when we realized how closely the design and construction methods aligned with Envision’s purpose. Sustainable construction methods not only provided the City of Seneca with an environmentally-friendly facility, but also saved time and money throughout the project. Collaborating with local stakeholders allowed certain aspects of the project to move forward and gave the community a finished product they are proud to live and play next to.”
In the end, the community received a treatment plant of which they are proud and the project itself earned Silver Envision Certification, the first Silver Certification in the Carolinas.