Research Paper Considers the Equity Lens in Envision and Other Rating Systems

Social equity, historically overlooked in the A/E/C industry, is receiving more attention of late as stakeholders have pushed for more diverse approaches to project delivery for communities. When considering equity in the A/E/C industry, it can be instructive to look at how different rating systems grapple with the concept, says new research, published in the journal Environmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability.

Sustainability frameworks all attempt in different ways to encourage social equity achievement, the authors find. Moreover, they argue that differences in how these systems understand and value the idea can contribute to substantial differences in actual project conception and implementation.

Titled “Social equity in sustainability certification systems for the built environment: understanding concepts, value, and practice implications,” the article cautions that project teams need to bring a clear set of goals regarding equity of what and for whom. Also fundamental are “the ideas of how to measure and evaluate the distribution of social costs / benefits in order to put social equity into practice.”

The research, authored by a team from HDR, Inc., was published at the end of January and can be freely accessed at:

“Equity and social justice refer to the responsibility of a society to ensure that civil and human rights are preserved and protected for each individual, and that all persons are treated equally and without prejudice. These issues are particularly relevant to infrastructure development, which often involves the provision of significant benefits as well as potentially significant impacts.” — Envision v3, Introduction, p. 15

Envision® and Equity

Envision provides a consistent, consensus-based framework for assessing sustainability, resiliency, and equity in civil infrastructure. The equity dimension is embedded in Envision and paired with the term “social justice.” The dedicated Credit titled QL3.1 – “Advance Equity & Social Justice” is designed to ensure equity and social justice are “fundamental considerations within project processes and decision making.” The evaluation metric to be used is the degree to which equity and social justice are included in stakeholder engagement, project team commitments, and decision making. Higher levels of achievement for this credit call for empowerment of communities to engage in the development process, or even positively addressing or correcting an existing or historic injustice or imbalance.

The “Advance Equity & Social Justice” credit is related to these other Quality of Life Credits: QL1.2 (“Enhance Public Health and Safety”), QL2.1 (“Improve Community Mobility and Access”), QL2.2 (“Encourage Sustainable Transportation”), and QL3.2 (“Preserve Historic and Cultural Resources”). It is also related to Leadership Credits LD1.3 (“Preserve Historic and Cultural Resources”), LD2.2 (“Plan for Sustainable Communities”), LD3.1 (“Stimulate Economic Prosperity and Development”), and LD3.2 (“Develop Local Skills and Capabilities”).

The Envision framework ties equity goals to a wide array of other project goals and activities. For example, in QL.1 (“Enhance Public Health and Safety”) the historic factors of equity and social justice within the project context are among the criteria that the project team should consider. This is to demonstrate that health and safety risks and impacts are not disproportionately borne by one community over another.

Holland Area WRF Anaerobic Digester Project Earns Envision Gold

The Holland Area Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) operated by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW) received an Envision Gold rating for sustainability for an anaerobic digester project. This project adds an anaerobic digester for solids reduction and biogas collection, treatment and cogeneration at the Holland Area Water Reclamation Facility WRF operated by HBPW.

In response to reduced landfill options for dewatered solids disposal, limitations on land applications of biosolids, and limitations on the volume of solids that can be stored at the WRF, anaerobic digestion provides a more sustainable option. The anaerobic digester at the WRF is expected to reduce the amount of wastewater solids from the water reclamation process by approximately 50%. The digestion process reduces solids by converting a portion of those solids to biogas.  The generation of this biogas in turn allows the WRF to produce electricity and heat from the wastewater being treated. The facility will treat the wastewater solids to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Class A biosolids standard, which allows many options for beneficial reuse including fertilizer. Anaerobic digestion also reduces the odor potential of the wastewater solids.

HBPW has demonstrated a continuous commitment to getting the best out of major infrastructure. This is the utility’s second Envision rating. In 2016, Holland Energy Park was the first base load power generating plant to receive an Envision rating.


“Envision goes beyond the basic efforts of project management and development, into areas that benefit the community in a holistic way,” explained Dave Koster, HBPW General Manager. “Our goal is to bring as much value to those impacted by the project as possible.”

“Options for disposing of biosolids are increasingly difficult to find and the costs are raising. The anaerobic digester allows us to address these challenges in a sustainable way,” said Joel Davenport, HBPW Operations Manager.

Melissa Peneycad, ISI’s managing director, noted: “HBPW and the project partners engaged with the community to ensure its needs and goals were understood and incorporated to the greatest extent possible, and the result is a transformative development for sustainability at the Holland Area WRF that will benefit the community for many years to come. Congratulations to the entire project team on the success of this project.”

“The Envision framework digs into details that ensure that the design and construction will benefit the community for the long haul,” said Sam Bender, HBPW Water & Wastewater Process Engineer. “It is an honor to work through this process knowing that what we build today will continue to have a positive impact far into the future.”


The Envision verification process recognized achievements on this project related to:

  • use of renewable energy to meet current and future demand.
  • demonstrated leadership commitment to sustainability
  • protecting surface and groundwater quality; and
  • alignment with community quality of life goals

View the full announcement in our project directory.