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Envisioning Sustainable Infrastructure: An Interview with Tim Psomas

Tim Psomas, Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure

Envision™, the rating system developed by the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), has credentialed some 1,800 Envision Sustainability Professionals. To learn more about Envision and ISI, XL Group’s Design Professional team spoke with ISI board member Timothy G. Psomas, P.E., FACEC, ENV SP, former chairman of the board of the engineering firm Psomas and former chairman of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC).

DP: You were founding chair of ISI’s Board of Directors. How did ISI come about? 

Timothy Psomas: In 2010, when I was chair of ACEC, we met with the American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE] to look for ways to collaborate and deliver benefits for our combined memberships. Sustainability was of interest to members in both organizations. Along with the American Public Works Association [APWA], the three organizations joined forces to found ISI, which is the not-for-profit organization that holds the intellectual property for the Envision rating system. We launched in 2011.

DP: What was the concept behind ISI and its rating tool, Envision?

TP: The concept is closely related to the U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC] and LEED. You could say that Envision is a sustainability rating tool intended to do for infrastructure what the LEED rating system has done for buildings.

LEED has done a great job in raising awareness in the U.S. and globally. But it isn’t appropriate for projects like, for example, sewage treatment plants.  City public works officials would go to a council meeting to propose a new infrastructure project and be asked, “Will it be LEED certified?” But LEED doesn’t work for that kind of facility.

We saw that there was a need that wasn’t being addressed. Non-habitable structures, such as bridges, highways, treatment plants, industrial plants, pipelines, railways, dams, levees and other types of civil infrastructure weren’t appropriate for LEED but still needed to be designed with sustainability in mind.

We visited the USGBC and while they were happy to collaborate, they felt that adding these sorts of projects to the LEED model was beyond their immediate plans. So ISI and Envision were born.

DP: What other factors did you consider when developing Envision?

TP: We also started to look at the market. We felt it was important to get the entire infrastructure community—including owners, designers, contractors, material suppliers and equipment manufacturers—on board. We learned that while there were more than 900 sustainability rating systems out there, most were sector-specific and none covered every aspect of civil infrastructure. While every rating system has a good, noble idea, the problem was that if you have too many systems no one will invest the time and expense necessary to deliver sustainable projects. What was needed was a common language.

We also wanted it to be an open, paperless system, all web-based. If you go onto the ISI website,  www.sustainableinfrastructure.org, you’ll see that everything is open to the public. You can download the guidance manual for free. You can open an account, set up your own project file and run a project through the Envision rating system. We’ve made a lot of information and tools available on-line.

DP: You’ve said that Envision is much bigger than just “green.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

TP: While LEED tends to emphasize “green” projects, the focus of Envision is on sustainability as a whole—a much broader scope. We felt it was important to look at sustainability across three dimensions: environmental impact, community impact and economic impact. Various sustainability parameters within Envision take these aspects into consideration.

We wanted Envision to offer a way to assess the sustainability of infrastructure projects from a broader perspective, in terms of their overall contribution to the communities they serve. We wanted to help agencies and communities to think through environmental goals, yes, but also to evaluate costs and benefits over project lifecycles, and to ask themselves not only whether they were doing the project right, but if they were, in fact, doing the right project.

DP: How did Harvard University get involved?

TP: During the formation of the system in 2011, we got a letter from Harvard. Through the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design was also working to put together a rating system for sustainable infrastructure. It just made sense to pool our talent, focus our resources and commit ourselves to a common outcome. We spent a year negotiating and, toward the end of 2011, we combined our efforts.

Now that Harvard is on board, they’ll continue to bring research and academic rigor to the development of this tool. For example, we use a lot of metrics in evaluating project sustainability. Many were empirically determined by infrastructure experts. We’re hoping the academic community will help us refine the metrics based on more rigorous analysis and study.

 

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Harvard University will continue to bring research and academic rigor to the development of this tool.

 

DP: How long did the development process take?

TP: By the end of 2012, all elements were available on-line. The rating system was in place, the guidance manual was complete, we had trained our first group of Verifiers [more on this later] and the online training and the credentialing system were complete. We were in business early in 2013 and by the end of our first full year of operation, lots of people had been trained and credentialed as ENV SPs, our designation for Envision Sustainability Professionals.

DP: Once you had these elements available, how did ISI move forward?

TP: There were two major efforts. First, we needed to get the professional community up to speed by working with professional societies and organizations.

Another major push was getting the owners—the public sector—involved. APWA has been especially helpful in this. We stressed direct contact: talking to leaders in the public sector, often on the senior executive level, as well as to elected officials. The goal was—and is—to introduce public agencies to ISI, the benefits of Envision and sustainable infrastructure projects in general. We offer free organization memberships to public sector entities and reduced training rates for public employees, and we waive the testing fee.

DP: How important is it to get organizations to use Envision early in the planning process?

TP: While the rating system can be applied to a project at any point in its lifecycle, to be most effective, we hope to get the public sector to use Envision at the concept level. It provides a way to think through all the options at the earliest stage of a project. Ideally, public officials would incorporate the owner’s sustainability goal for a project—requiring that the project should achieve an Envision level of silver or platinum, say—right into the RFPs. Providing this guidance to the design team up front would result in better consideration of options and better decisions.

One of the challenges with infrastructure projects today is that a lot of the regulatory agencies have a single focus—one issue—such as air quality or seismic safety or flood hazard. But that’s not real-world. Envision helps make the case that, yes, that single issue—for example, preserving natural resources—is important, but if we put all of our mitigation investment into one aspect of sustainability, there won’t be anything left for the other aspects.

DP: How many people have been credentialed so far?

TP: By April 2014, some 1,800 professionals had the designation ENV SP, which means they’re trained in the use of the Envision rating system and are credentialed by ISI. ENV SPs will be part of the project team, documenting project sustainability credits and submitting the project to ISI for recognition.

Our goal is to get as many individuals credentialed as possible. The more people who get credentialed, the more folks will recommend Envision to their clients, or actually be clients. About one in four credentialed professionals is a public sector employee. Overall, we see some 20,000 ENV SPs within five years and roughly 100,000 by 2020.

DP: What are Verifiers?

TP: Verifiers have additional training beyond ENV SP credentialing. They’re individuals in independent third-party firms who work with ENV SPs on submitted projects to validate the assessment of a project. For instance, if a project owner wants a project to be recognized, the project team would prepare supporting documentation and submit it on-line. Verifiers are authorized by ISI to review the project and verify the credits.

DP: What’s next for ISI?

TP: One of our goals is to add an economic dimension to evaluating project sustainability. We want to provide elected officials and other decision makers with a sense of the economic impact of implementing a specific sustainability strategy. This would include both lifecycle costs and the economic value of social costs, such as air quality, traffic congestion and natural resources preservation. Another goal is to tailor the rating system so there’s one version for the construction phase and another for the operation and maintenance phase of projects.

Our academic committee is working with professors and department heads in civil engineering programs across the country who will use Envision as a key part of educational programs—on capstone projects, for example. Today’s students are intellectually very aware of project sustainability. Envision gives them the metrics to understand how to actually improve the sustainability of projects.

DP: How many projects are using Envision?

TP: We’re continuing to accumulate examples of projects using Envision. The rating system is really focused on planning and design, and civil infrastructure projects have very long lead times.

So far, the rating system has been applied to a number of projects retroactively. Going forward, we know of at least 150 projects that are using Envision, including water treatment plants, brownfield restorations, pipelines and highway interchanges.

Notably, a year ago, the City of Los Angeles awarded the $400 million Sixth Street Viaduct Bridge Replacement Project to HNTB Corp. The city stipulated that Envision be the sustainability tool used on the project.

Also in California, the state Department of Water Resources has adopted Envision as its sustainability model. In addition, the module of their project management training that deals with sustainability is Envision. This will provide the department with a consistent vocabulary and framework for sustainability. Another area under discussion is using Envision in project grants where applicants can earn an additional percentage of the construction value if they use Envision and achieve certain levels of sustainability.

We hope these examples will be models for other public agencies, as they see that early integration of sustainability is an important investment in our communities.

DP: What’s your long-term goal for ISI and Envision?

TP: It’s simple, really, but pretty dramatic. We hope to change the mindsets of designers, project owners and decision makers and to transform the way infrastructure is designed, built and operated.

For more information about the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure and Envision, see www.sustainableinfrastructure.org.

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