In what one official termed "our big experiment," the Obama administration convened an unusual four-hour closed session at the White House on March 9 for top industry and federal managers to figure out how to push sustainability into federal infrastructure procurement. Despite the administration's 2009 executive order directing agencies to use more clean energy and cut greenhouse gases, key issues loom on how to integrate long-term sustainability into project bidding, design and construction. Cost impacts remain a key concern.
"We either learn to make infrastructure sustainable or we're toast," said Paul J. Zofnass, president of EFCG Inc., an industry financial consultant and sustainability proponent who helped engineer the meeting for about 80 attendees from design firms, industry groups, and federal and military agencies. Government attendees were from the defense, transportation, housing and urban development departments, the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget.
Measuring Life-Cycle Costs
The meeting was sponsored by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. The program, industry-funded at Harvard University, has developed an infrastructure sustainability rating and measuring system called "Envision." Similar to LEED for buildings, it has a multi-tiered credit-award approach based on impacts in areas such as community, resource-use and life-cycle costs. The program linked last year with the Washington-based Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), which created its own rating system through the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Council of Engineering Companies and the American Public Works Association.
Industry participants generally applauded the federal outreach, but one attendee, who declined to be identified as one critical of clients, said, "There was mixed energy in the room, with about half wanting to move forward aggressively and the other seeing this effort was too hard." Another noted a dearth of contractor representatives and no participation from one key federal infrastructure builder, the Dept. of Homeland Security. He noted "lack of engagement" among some government attendees and concerns that short-term capital costs govern infrastructure procurement decisions. "We need sustainability formulas for the long term and accountability," he said, also noting challenges in developing uniform ratings for diverse infrastructure projects and in measuring broader societal impacts.
In anonymous comments submitted before the meeting, participants noted other sustainability barriers: the government's annual budgeting cycle, no enabling language in the Federal Acquisition Regulation, an inability to "monetize" sustainability in costing approaches, a perceived lack of competitive advantage, an aversion to risk and an emphasis on low-cost vs. best-value bidding. "Should we add 'depletion' costs for non-renewable resources consumed during construction projects and use that as part of a sustainability scorecard?" said Michael W. Creed, CEO of McKim & Creed.
"Zofnass and ISI can be a force for success if they keep up some pressure," said one industry participant. Said another, "If the administration wants to drive sustainable design into both the government portfolio and the private sector, don't tout one or two high-profile success stories. Make this a way of doing business, embedded and expected, not just an approach that's a good occasional sound bite or useful when convenient."
Envision developers say they will release this year a "pre-planning checklist" for assessing project sustainability as well as an "economic assessment tool to help owners determine the sustainable return on their investment."