Envision the Future: A conversation with Denise Nelson and Michaella Wittmann

To celebrate Earth Week, and to mark the growing adoption of the Envision certification process, we brought together two superstars of sustainability to have a conversation about the topic. Denise Nelson, PE, ENV SP, LEED AP, is vice president for public education at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), which instated Envision for evaluating and rating the community, environmental, and economic benefits of infrastructure projects. Michaella Wittmann, LEED Fellow, ENV SP, is the director of sustainability at HDR, which under her direction became actively involved in ISI coordinating the efforts for HDR to document the first-ever Envision-verified project.

Are you seeing significant momentum being created by Envision for transforming infrastructure?

Denise Nelson: “ISI’s mission is to help infrastructure owners make more informed decisions about the sustainability of their infrastructure projects. We created Envision to achieve this mission and transform infrastructure. Our founders (the American Society for Civil Engineers, American Public Works Association, and American Council of Engineering Companies) and our partner (the Zofnass Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design) kick-started the momentum with the release of Envision in 2012. Professional societies began educating their members. Private companies became ISI members committed to using Envision in design and construction. Infrastructure owners began testing Envision on pilot projects. Universities began incorporating Envision into their curriculum on sustainable development. Professionals began earning the Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) credential. Communities big and small, in the United States and far beyond, started contacting ISI about using Envision.

To date, we have more than 13,500 website account holders and 4,300 ENV SPs in over 20 countries. We have heard of thousands of project self-assessments and have 12 verified projects. Hundreds of companies have become ISI members. We’re seeing the ENV SP credential show up in job descriptions. We’re seeing requests for proposals for infrastructure projects requiring the use of Envision. We’re seeing financial incentives tied to achievement in Envision. Most importantly, we’re seeing improvements in the way our industry designs and constructs infrastructure.”

Michaella Wittmann: “HDR is using Envision as a decision-making tool and rating system across a wide variety of project types. Examples include two combined-cycle power plants, a water supply program, streetcar projects, interstate construction projects, stormwater management projects, and wastewater treatment facilities. Many clients have asked our engineers to use Envision, and almost all of our clients are interested in the tool in cases where HDR has brought it to the table. It seems to provide a very understandable framework with clear sustainability goals that work across a wide variety of project types and project characteristics.”

Tell us about an interesting sustainable solution on an Envision-verified project.

MW: “One innovative sustainable solution is being integrated into the Holland Board of Public Works’ combined cycled natural gas power generation plant. Waste heat from the plant will be used for a new snowmelt system at the plant site, and will allow for the expansion of an existing snowmelt system in downtown Holland, Michigan. Specifically, the snowmelt system draws water off of the plant’s circulating water system. One of two snowmelt system pumps will send 7,000 gpm of heated water to the system. Water will be recirculated back to the site where it will be deposited in the cooling tower basin.”

What has been the biggest surprise in implementing Envision across the industry?

DN: “We originally intended for Envision to be a rating system of individual projects. However, we’ve been surprised by how the industry is adopting Envision for other uses. We’re seeing people go beyond evaluating one project to evaluating and comparing project alternatives in order to aid the selection process. They are also evaluating and comparing multiple projects to help prioritize the list for scheduling and budgeting purposes. They are using Envision to aid the value engineering process. Funding agencies are encouraging the use of Envision by offering increased aid to projects earning Envision awards. Design competitions are requiring Envision scores in their submittals. Communities are revising their design standards to align with Envision. We’re hearing from infrastructure owners who want to use Envision in entire programs or community-wide.”

MW: “HDR is seeing the same. We have many large-scale, long-term programs that are using Envision to select the right project(s), and then are integrating Envision into design guidelines and technical specifications to drive sustainability in projects.”

What are some specific benefits of Envision?

DN: “There are many benefits of using Envision, and I have been surprised to find a wide variety in preference for one benefit over another. I think the most important benefit is having a standardized, open-source procedure for promoting and documenting deliberate decision-making on a project. Envision’s 60 credits cover a wide variety of topics, and the framework encourages project teams to consider each topic on every project. This forces us to be deliberate and encourages us to think about the options. Then we have the documentation so we can track the results of the decisions and the performance of the infrastructure.”

MW: “Many of HDR’s clients use Envision in order to tell their stakeholders that they are using a comprehensive approach to integrating sustainability into their projects or programs. Sustainability and resiliency are increasingly important to both public and private stakeholders, and being able to point to a third-party process is desirable to many of our clients.”

Any comment on public versus private implementation of Envision?

DN: “Envision is adaptable for any type of infrastructure: publicly-owned or privately owned, domestic or foreign, road or pipeline, etc. We’re happy to have the support and involvement of so many private-sector companies providing planning, design, construction, and maintenance services to infrastructure owners. It will take the education and involvement of all infrastructure professionals to transform the industry.”

What does the future hold?

DN: “This year we expect a significant increase in the number of ENV SPs, verified projects, and ISI members. We recently launched a new website with improved access and features to support users. We’re increasing our outreach with conference presentations, webinars, publications, and more. For the latest news and events, visit our website, subscribe to the ISI Envision enewsletter, follow us on Twitter (@ISIEnvision), join our LinkedIn group, or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

ISI’s research and development team is considering potential improvements for a future version of Envision. The technical committee, an advisory committee made up of industry experts, is making recommendations. We anticipate releasing a new version of Envision in 2017 for industry review and comment followed by a formal release in 2018 for use on projects.

We are also developing a version of Envision targeting the construction phase of projects. The construction work group, a subset of the technical committee, is developing this version. We anticipate this tool to be released on the same timeline as above.

In the future, we may also develop a version of Envision targeting the operations and maintenance phase of projects. This version is anticipated to have a regular renewal period to track the performance over time.

The future holds a shift in the way the industry approaches infrastructure development: Movement toward whole-system design targeting collaboration and synergies, implementing lifecycle planning, and performance tracking with data analysis to create a feedback loop.”

MW: “We plan to see the use of Envision continue to increase. Even in projects on which there isn’t a goal of an Envision verification or rating, Envision is proving effective in driving a sustainability conversation. Envision is also opening our clients’ and engineers’ eyes to think more broadly about sustainability. Specifically, they are starting to think about a project as part of an integrated system, or how the project fits into the context of a larger setting or community. Also, the topics of conversation are broadened to more commonly address topics such as resiliency, risk, and the value of sustainability.”

Find more blogs celebrating Earth Week all week on HDR’s blog, BLiNK, and visit ISI’s blog for more updates on Envision.