Sustainability has become ubiquitous in the discussion of how we will rebuild infrastructure in the United States. That conversation seems to move quickly into evaluating whether the project has more green elements or has a smaller carbon footprint. While those elements are certainly important, they represent only a portion of true sustainability in infrastructure. Perhaps it is time to refocus on the full spectrum of sustainability.
A simple definition of sustainability is that todays society does not create projects that would prohibit future generations from enjoying similar choices. Current definitions begin with the triple bottom line economic, environmental, and social impacts. A quick look at our history can help us understand the need to incorporate all three into the planning, design, construction, and operation of new projects and facilities.
When I attended college in the early 1970s, we were taught a design philosophy that was based on economics, practicality, and durability. Our projects were built to last. Beginning in the 70s and ramping up, the environmental movement moved the design and construction industry to adopt another element to our process. We could build projects that were economical but that also did not harm the environment. New environmental regulations and permits directed the content of our designs in new directions.
Coming into the new century, we began to understand that the available natural resources were being overused. Countries around the world were competing for a dwindling supply of resources. At the same time, communities began to participate in public forums demanding a closer look at the impact of new facilities on existing neighborhoods. New studies showed previously unknown impacts to individuals and communities. The change in design philosophy to accommodate these new conditions is still underway.
The design and construction industry took it upon themselves to lead the way to including the triple bottom line in planning and design. Organizations like ASCE, ACEC, APWA, and others declared sustainability to be a critical element of good practice. Sustainability rating tools began to be created and culminated in the introduction of Envision, a comprehensive tool of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. Moving infrastructure process is somewhat similar to turning a battleship. It takes a long time and moves slowly. We are making progress, but we are not where we need to be.
I am encouraged when I hear colleagues discuss the virtues of sustainable practice. However, we rarely include all three elements. In my opinion, we still do a good job with the economic elements. Whether we are using public or private capital, the construction industry knows how to be efficient. I think we do a reasonable job addressing the environmental aspects of our projects. New techniques related to green infrastructure are becoming more commonplace across the country. We could improve in our understanding and use of new or reconstituted materials, so we cannot let down our focus on this element.
Social impact remains the element in most need of improvement. Most public projects use the public input process developed 20 years ago. Projects are well along, and the input comes fairly late in the process. The design and construction community, working together with owners, should focus on how we can get public input during the conceptual and planning phases of the work. We should broaden our scope of how deeply a project may affect a surrounding neighborhood and the entire community. We are learning as we go, and I have every confidence that we will see progress in developing projects that enhance the communities where they are constructed.
I am fortunate to have seen our industry evolve during the last four decades. Todays projects are truly better than yesterdays. We are in the midst of a major shift in how we do projects today. Let me give you a few things to help you focus on true sustainability:
- First, economics is important, but it is not enough.
- Second, all green infrastructure is not sustainable, but all sustainable infrastructure is green.
- Third, a project that fails to meet the needs of the community is a project that fails.
We are going to rebuild the infrastructure in America. When we build it back, we can build it better.
D. Wayne Klotz, P.E., D.WRE, ENV SP, is president of RPS Klotz Associates, Inc., a full-service civil engineering firm based in Houston. In 2011, he was appointed by the mayor of Houston to the Coastal Water Authority board of directors and serves as board president. He also has served on the Community Resilience Task Force for the Department of Homeland Security and is a founder and past chair of the board of directors for the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (sustainableinfrastructure.org).