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Several years ago, I put my career on a different track by entering the broad field of sustainability. I wish I could say that after graduating with my master’s degree I consciously chose to work in the area of standards and rating systems — a line of work that seeks to provide a clear, indisputable path toward sustainability — but that line of work found me. And it’s been a terrific ride since.

At the beginning of my sustainability career, I worked for a company that developed environmental standards for a range of products and services and worked tirelessly to educate buyers about the growing issue of “greenwashing” (making false or misleading claims about the environmental attributes of a product or service). A few years later, I joined a national organization that developed and managed standards to assess the sustainable performance of existing buildings.

Armed with this knowledge of what constitutes a “green” product and a “sustainable” building, I then joined a prominent engineering, consulting, and design services firm. It was at this firm that I had the opportunity to work on a variety of green building projects, and it was here that I learned about a new rating system for sustainable infrastructure called Envision. Thinking I had seen it all from a standards and rating systems perspective, I thought it would be like many others — a prescriptive system that tells users exactly what is required to achieve sustainability. I was wrong.

With its 60 credits and four award levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum), Envision may look like other rating systems, but it is groundbreaking. One of the most significant differences between Envision and other systems is its flexibility and adaptability. It has to be, given that it’s applicable to all types and sizes of civil infrastructure projects. Envision has been used to evaluate the sustainable performance of projects across many climate zones in the U.S. and Canada, including a sport fish hatchery in Anchorage, Alaska; a road in North Vancouver, British Columbia; an aquaponics farm in Kunia, Hawaii; an integrated pipeline project in Fort Worth, Texas; a streetcar in Kansas City, Mo.; and a runway reconstruction project in Detroit, to name but a few.

Bronze, silver, gold, and platinum icons designate locations of Envision-awarded projects, with Envision-registered projects shown with blue circles (as of Oct. 4, 2016). Up-to-date information on project awards and registered projects is available at http://sustainableinfrastructure.org/envision/project-awards/#3/48.22/-95.89.

Bronze, silver, gold, and platinum icons designate locations of Envision-awarded projects, with Envision-registered projects shown with blue circles (as of Oct. 4, 2016).
Up-to-date information on project awards and registered projects is available at
http://sustainableinfrastructure.org/envision/project-awards/#3/48.22/-95.89.

Here’s a further look at five ways in which Envision is flexible and adaptable:

One — Stakeholders are encouraged to have healthy discussions about what approaches might best solve a particular challenge before having discussions as to how to implement the chosen solution in the most sustainable way. Envision is the only system I know of that is flexible and adaptable enough to first encourage project teams to determine, “What is the right project to pursue?” before assessing, “Are we doing the project right?”

Two — There are no prerequisites. This means project teams are not obliged to implement specific strategies or technologies, or add features that may or may not lead to more sustainable outcomes. For example, the Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Facility in South Huron, Ontario, earned a Platinum award despite removing some of the costly green features from the plant’s original design. Instead, it incorporated lower-cost sustainable features more suitable to the area, such as a constructed wetland for native wildlife and visitor walking trails. The wetland also served to buffer treated effluent from damaging the ecology of Lake Huron.

Three — Each credit in the system includes as many as five levels of achievement, ranging from Improved (performance that is slightly above conventional) to Restorative (performance that restores natural or social systems). Project teams have the flexibility to demonstrate varying degrees of sustainable performance. For example, the Historic Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta earned a Restorative level of achievement for the Stimulate Sustainable Growth and Development credit by demonstrating that the project will significantly contribute to ongoing job creation.

Four — Context is everything. For example, the Kansas City Streetcar in Kansas City, Mo., and the Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Facility are two very different projects, meant to solve two very different challenges in their respective communities. Yet, both achieved a Platinum award from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), the non-profit organization founded to develop and manage the Envision rating system. How? Envision recognizes that not all credits are applicable to all projects. For example, the Preserve Prime Farmland credit was not relevant to the downtown core streetcar project. However, this same credit was relevant to the wastewater treatment facility located in a more rural, farmland setting.

Building on this same point, the credits in the Envision system are flexible and adaptable enough to allow project teams to demonstrate achievement in a variety of ways. The Extend Useful Life credit, for example, asks project teams to demonstrate the degree to which they considered ways to extend the durability, flexibility, and resilience of the project. Yet, the credit does not prescribe how to do the project. Instead, the credit provides guidance enabling project teams to think creatively about possible solutions that meet its intent.

Located in Hawaii, Kunia Country Farms received the Envision Gold award in August 2016. Photo: courtesy of Kunia Country Farms

Located in Hawaii, Kunia Country Farms received the Envision Gold award in August 2016. Photo: courtesy of Kunia Country Farms

Five — Innovation is expressly recognized and rewarded. Envision recognizes there may be other dimensions of sustainability not already addressed in the system; this is where the innovation credits come into play. Teams can earn points for implementing innovative solutions that are scalable and/or transferrable to other projects and infrastructure sectors. For example, Kunia Country Farms in Hawaii earned innovation points for implementing aquaponics technology on a commercial scale, and for committing to advancing the general knowledge of aquaponics technology as a sustainable farming solution.

As a sustainable development consultant, I had a hand in the first two Envision-verified projects in Canada. I also used the system to assess and enhance the sustainable attributes of several other projects. A few months ago, I joined ISI. Since then, I have reviewed more than 12 infrastructure projects to ensure they meet the system’s sustainability criteria. With this experience, I can say that the Envision system has proven that it’s different from other standards and rating systems, one of the key differences being the system’s flexibility and adaptability.


Melissa Peneycad, ENV SP, is director, Sustainable Projects at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (http://sustainableinfrastructure.org). She oversees and directs the verification program for the Envision rating system and also is responsible for developing relationships with infrastructure owners, designers, and public agencies across Canada and the United States, and supporting research and further development of the Envision system.

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