Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Journey Into Sustainability

A Personal Journey into Sustainability

A few days ago I was asked to speak at a local APWA luncheon on the topic of Envision. I usually do pretty technical talks but on this occasion I thought I'd try something different and make it a little more personal by describing my own journey into sustainability as a lead-in to giving an update on Envision itself. The Prezi below shows the gist of the talk - so go ahead and click through it - but without my narrative it's not really informative, so I thought I'd add some notes below that map out my journey!


Loughborough

I did my bachelor's degree at Loughborough University of Technology (if you need help pronouncing it click here: Loughborough !). At the time I was an idealist who wanted to change the world to make it a better place.  I decided to do chemical engineering because I was good at maths, chemistry and physics, but I selected a degree with the long title of "Chemical Engineering with Environmental Protection" because I thought I would be able to somehow stop all those nasty chemical factories from hurting the environment!  As it happened, I ended up doing a year's internship with Severn Trent Water running pilot poop plants for their R&D group and so my glorious love for poop plants and wastewater engineering began!

Western Australia

Fast forward 15 years and I was by then working for Black & Veatch, based in our Kansas City office. (Actually we were stuck in the basement of our Overland Park HQ at the time, but that's another story!) Then I got the opportunity to move to Perth, Western Australia for 18 months working on their 3 largest wastewater treatment plants. It was an excellent experience all round but in particular I got to experience 3 things: wonderful espresso coffee (I know! who'd have thought?), awesome food (but generally crappy service!), and... sustainability.  The last one was taught to me by Susanne Cooper, who is a senior manager for Sustainability at SKM, the firm we teamed with on the program in Perth.  She has such a passion for sustainability that it's infectious and it really resonated with me.  I'm still very thankful for the way she opened my eyes and passed on that passion to me.

Back in the USA

When I left the US for Australia in 2006, the topic of sustainability was barely on the radar.  When I returned in 2008 it was EVERYWHERE! There was a real buzz about sustainability wherever you looked.  When Costco has Sustainability on the front of its magazine, you know it's going mainstream! So, that was the good. The not-so-good was the confusion and misinformation about what sustainability actually means. I heard a couple of examples of "greenwashing" where unscrupulous folks just tagged their project with the word "sustainable" to somehow magically make it so when in fact it was a very un-sustainable project on several counts!

So, what is a sustainable design?  Is it low energy? Is it recycling of resources? Is it neighbor-friendly design?  It can be some or all of these.  The "Triple Bottom Line" concept is a useful approach to figuring this out. Gauging how sustainable a project is can be a no brainer in many cases using common sense (e.g. reuse something instead of throwing it out or reducing waste materials), but in other cases taking a very narrow view of something you think is sustainable can actually cause environmental damage if you take a broader perspective.  Some recent articles talking about fracking actually show it may be having a positive impact on water resources, for example.  That is counter-intuitive, but shows how we need to take a broader perspective.  In one of my early blogs I talked about how LCA is a useful tool in this regard.

Envision

And so, recognizing that it's tricky to come up with a simple way to measure sustainability, the clever folks at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure came up with a great assessment tool called Envision.  What is Envision? Check out this factsheet. Why use Envision?  Here's my list of reasons:

  • It's a real "standard" endorsed by three major national organizations: APWA, ASCE and ACEC.
  • If everyone uses the same approach it facilitates clarity in communication.  Some requests for proposals (RFP) that I've seen for infrastructure projects have been vague on their requirements for sustainability or prescribe you use their specific approach which others may not know.  Picking a standard tool like Envision makes it easier to specify and respond to sustainability requirements in proposals.
  • It's open and transparent.  The guidelines are well written and honest.  There's also a genuine openness at ISI for feedback to make this a system that will work. The ultimate goal of ISI is truly to drive sustainability into our designs.  I give credit for this to Bill Bertera, who's doing an excellent job guiding ISI.
  • Its web-based, so it's easy to access
  • The tools are user-friendly
  • And finally, for all Apple product users... it's cool (or great!) So use it!

To wrap up my APWA talk, I gave some recent news and stats for the adoption of Envision. It's still relatively new, but I feel we're starting to build up steam. Denise Nelson at ISI kindly provided the following info:

·         We have over 3,400 credentialed users and another 1,000 enrolled.
·         We also have 54 trainers who have provide 25 in-person training workshops that trained over 400 people. There are several more scheduled. 
·         As far as projects go, we have 6 awarded projects, 11 additional projects registered for verification, and several more on path for registration. One project just completed the verification process, so any day now we’ll announce the 7th award!
·         The updates in June were big news:
-          new online training
-          revised guidance manual
-          revised exam
·         We recently posted a new fact sheet focused on public sector use of Envision. 
·         We recently started an ISI Envision monthly email newsletter
·         There were also two great magazine articles recently:  
-          Rubin, Debra.  “Envision Tool Moves Project Sustainability Beyond Buildings,” ENR (June 2015).
-          Nelson, Denise.  “Advancing Sustainable Infrastructure with Envision®,” CE News (June 2015).

There are several exciting things coming up soon:
·         more magazine articles, including one in Mexico
·         conference presentations and sessions
·         posting a revised Checklist
·         an ISI YouTube channel
·         restarting the committees
·         outreach at 5 upcoming public sector conferences



So, at the end of my presentation I can honestly say that 20 years on the idealistic young engineer from Loughborough University who wanted to change the world is more optimistic than ever that maybe we can change the world for the better and Envision is a great tool to help us do that. Will you do the same?




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