Amid extreme weather, infrastructure needs sustainability

Amid extreme weather, infrastructure needs sustainability

Hurricane Sandy, the super storm that ravaged parts of the East Coast in September, has brought to light the dismal state of bridges, roads and buildings in the United States. As scientists predict these severe weather patterns are set to occur more frequently, the need for sustainable infrastructure has become a matter of urgency, crucial to economic growth and quality of life around the world.

But erecting structures that can withstand hard knocks for years to come takes money, and lots of it. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), $53 trillion will be needed in infrastructure development around the world over the next few decades.

Experts agree that what’s needed is a more holistic approach towards project implementation and funding. Planners need to look beyond the economic benefits of a project and consider too the social and environmental benefits it might bring.

Sustainable infrastructure means finding what’s “viable, bearable and equitable” for community members and cities, said Lisa Rephlo, the principal of energy conservation and management of MWH Global, during a recent GreenBiz webcast about new tools to assess sustainable infrastructure.

“We’re considering all the project’s benefits across the portfolio in a total benefit return,” said Rephlo, who uses this integrated approach with her clients. By looking at the social, environmental and economic benefits, your total benefits are “higher than just looking at the economics approach,” she said. 

This holistic approach enables planners to better communicate how the project will translate to the community on a number of different levels, as well as help address specific stakeholder concerns. The ability to demonstrate an array of benefits also opens up more funding channels, said Rephlo, allowing planners to take advantage of outside funding from sustainability groups and other investors.

Funding: Entry of Impact Capital

Gone are the days when planners could rely on government funds to back their infrastructure project, said John Williams, chairman and CEO of Impact Infrastructure, during the webcast.

“The trend seems to be accelerating away from dependence on government,” Williams said.

Photo of bridge with airplane overhead provided by fuyu liu/Shutterstock

There is a gap between demand for funding and what is currently available, which has led to fierce competition among applicants hoping to secure funding at the federal, state or local level.

But other funding streams are opening up, said Williams, namely what he calls “impact capital,” which includes pension, socially responsible, or governance funds. These funds control nearly $24 trillion in capital worldwide, said Williams, yet less than 1 percent of that money is invested in alignment with the missions of the organizations that are the source of that capital. In the past, and especially during the recession, the investors of these funds have been more interested in their return on investment than anything else. But that’s now changing, said Williams, and investors are now “working very hard to find their way back into public buildings,” said Williams.

Project designers and engineers are also starting to play a bigger role in securing funding, said Williams. These players are involved in the project right from the start, from early planning through design through construction. They also possess information that is invaluable in communicating to stakeholders how they will benefit from the project.

“Those same professionals are sitting on the information needed to create a business case for the project from beginning to end,” Williams said.

To convince stakeholders to invest in a project, a planner needs to present a detailed business case that clearly shows the value and risk of a project. But evaluating a project can cost money, upwards of $100,000 when using a customized consulting arrangement. Williams suggests the use of an automated business case evaluator, a cheaper option that would also analyze each alternative under consideration, so project sponsors are able to select those with the greatest value for money. These automated tools will emerge very soon in areas such as water, waste, goods and services, and public mobility, said Williams. 

To assess the environmental benefits of a building or bridge or other structure, the use of a ratings system comes in handy. But with over 800 on the market worldwide, deciding which one to use can be a challenge. Rephlo suggests the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System, which can be used across a wide range of infrastructure, including water, energy, and waste.

The system, a joint collaboration between Harvard University and the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, has 60 sustainability criteria divided into five categories: quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, natural world, and climate and risk. The system, which was launched in April, is also capable of running a business case or risk analysis, which sets it apart from all the other systems out there.

“That will make Envision…more valuable to everyone,” said Williams. “People want to know what else is that bridge going to do for their community -- more than just a plaque.”

Many ratings systems are project-based, whereas Envision focuses on large-scale planning, said Terry Bennett, senior industry manager at Autodesk, during the webcast. This helps planners figure out which business case will have the biggest impact regionally by vetting different options for different areas.

“Whatever you design today is going to be in the ground for 70 years,” said Bennett. “So you need to make sure you really vet it on a regional-wide basis rather than just the project itself.”

Technology as a change driver

Social media can play a big role in driving new infrastructure, said Bennett. The new generation has the ability to shape what their city is going to look like, rather than merely inhabit it.   

Cities are now starting to think in these terms, he said. Kansas City, for example, is considering turning a redevelopment project into an online video game to give community members a say in how their neighborhood will look and how they want the resources to be used going forward.

“There’s a clear shift from the traditional way of doing it,” said Bennett.

Technology can also play a role in making infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather conditions. Sensors are smaller and cheaper than ever before, and can be found in all kinds of infrastructure like bridges and roads. These sensors communicate massive amounts of information that can be used to improve existing infrastructure. In 2012, 40 billion gigabytes of unique new information was uploaded to the internet, said Bennett.

“No longer can we say we made a bad sustainable infrastructure decision because we didn’t have enough information,” said Bennett.

But systems capable of processing this vast amount of complex information are needed to solve infrastructure problems.

“Otherwise we just have an inundation of information,” said Bennett.

Bennett said plans should be presented in 3D to give stakeholders a stronger sense of how the project will look.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) goes beyond the traditional approach of two-dimensional drawings, and uses technology to create a multi-dimensional model that shows what’s outside the building, as well as what’s inside and underneath. This type of technology can illustrate very complex, dense environments and make them simple to understand, he said.

“BIM makes a huge amount of information accessible and understandable by everyone involved, resulting in better decisions and better outcomes,” he said.

BIM enables a planner to take a more holistic approach by assessing how long a project will take to complete, as well as the cost. The tool also looks at the sustainability of a particular project, ensuring planners have a clear understanding of a particular design approach, and how that impacts the city as a whole.

Ultimately, creating a more sustainable future is in the hands of the people.

“You need to have a forward thinking community that’s willing to invest dollars and try new ways of doing things,” said Rephlo.