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New Rating System "Envisions" Sustainable Infrastructure

By Paula Melton
April 30, 2012

Whether it’s a historic trestle bridge in a remote national forest or a complex metropolitan transit plan, there are vast areas of the built environment that LEED and other green building rating systems don’t cover. Enter Envision, the infrastructure rating system just launched by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University.

The U.S. Forest Service helped pilot the new Envision rating system when rehabilitating the 100-year-old Dominion Creek Trestle Bridge in Montana's Lolo National Forest.
Courtesy DJ&A, P.C.
The U.S. Forest Service helped pilot the new Envision rating system when rehabilitating the 100-year-old Dominion Creek Trestle Bridge in Montana's Lolo National Forest.
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“We believe there is eager demand,” says Terry Neimeyer, P.E., CEO at civil engineering firm KCI Technologies and head of the communications committee at ISI. One of the challenges has been that “the infrastructure side is so diverse,” Neimeyer adds. Despite that challenge, Envision aims to provide guidance and support for infrastructure projects of all types and sizes, assessing five key areas of sustainability: Quality of life, Resource allocation, Natural world, Climate and risk, and Leadership.

Neimeyer explains that Envision in its simplest form can be used as a preliminary self-assessment tool. This “stage one” checklist is intended for use in the earliest days of a project and asks yes-or-no questions like, “Do you have a buffer zone between your project and a wetland?” and “Are you using a local workforce?” The hope is that even project owners who do not plan to seek third-party Envision certification will be able to improve environmental performance by using this checklist.

“If you get enough yeses, that would encourage you to possibly go to stage two,” Neimeyer says, but that’s not necessary. “One yes is better than none. If we get people to think about this, they will end up with a more sustainable infrastructure project, which is a great direction to go in.” By completing this phase of Envision, project owners may also find it easier to document the long-term financial viability of infrastructure projects when funding is needed.

What Neimeyer calls “stage two” is third-party certification using a much more detailed version of the preliminary checklist. For example, instead of simply asking whether there is a buffer zone between the project and a wetland, the rating system requires a certain amount of space and offers more points for a larger buffer zone. ISI is currently in the process of credentialing verifiers for stage two and expects to certify its first projects by the end of 2012.

But the rating system goes beyond the single-project level. Stage three of Envision, due out in 2013, will focus on large, multi-stage projects and encourage a holistic system. For example, says Neimeyer, “Within a city you can have each project do its own stormwater management,” but you end up with small retention ponds all over the place. It would be preferable in most cases to move to regional stormwater management—a more efficient use of resources, he said, and the regional ponds offer better retention. Neimeyer adds, “It’s not just are you doing the project right, but are you doing the right project?”

Stage four, due out in 2014, will be robust enough to take a holistic look at multiple projects in an entire region—for example, the entire Mississippi River watershed. Case studies for the infrastructure projects piloting Envision are available on ISI’s website, www.sustainableinfrastructure.org.

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