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.

Envision Awards in the US and Canada

By the end of 2015, nine projects earned Envision awards. These projects represent a variety of infrastructure types across the US and Canada.

Water pipes, wastewater treatment plants, stormwater systems, roads, energy generation, and more. Nine projects have completed third-party verification and received awards across the US and Canada as shown in the illustration.

These projects are:

  1. The William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery, Anchorage, Alaska, received an Envision Gold award in July 2013. This brownfield redevelopment incorporated sophisticated recirculation technology that reduced the water and energy normally used by conventional hatcheries by 95 percent while supporting sport fishing industry. The project restored and improved a public park-like setting and viewing areas with trails, boardwalk, and educational signs while protecting the on-site stream.
  2. The Snow Creek Stream Environment Zone Restoration, Placer County, California, earned an Envision Platinum award in November 2013. Another brownfield restoration, this project also restored historic wetlands and the stream environment zone by removing fill and debris and reestablishing vegetation and wildlife habitats. This project also created a public park with walking paths.
  3. The South Los Angeles Wetland Park in the city of Los Angeles, California, earned an Envision Platinum award in January 2014. The purpose of the wetland was to enhance the quality of stormwater runoff by treating runoff from a 525-acre contributing watershed and create a new public park in a community with little green space.
  4. The Sun Valley Watershed Multi-benefit Project in Los Angeles County, California, earned an Envision Platinum award in August 2014. The project consists of several improvements in the watershed to manage stormwater runoff, provide flood protection, improve watershed health, increase open space and recreational opportunities, and increase wildlife habitat.
  5. The Line J, Section 1 Pipeline in the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) of north central Texas earned an Envision Silver award in October 2014. This two mile, 108-inch diameter pipeline delivers water from reservoir for use to meet potable demand. The project improves the ability to meet growing water demands and future projections.
  6. The Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Facility in Ontario, Canada, on the shoreline of Lake Huron, earned an Envision Platinum award in February 2015. The project expanded the capacity of the facility by converting an existing lagoon into an extended aeration mechanical treatment facility and wetland nature reserve.
  7. 26th Ward Wastewater Treatment Plant in New York City, New York, earned an Envision Silver award in August 2015. The project added setting tank and pumps to expand treatment capacity as well as incorporated other upgrades to improve resilience at the existing treatment plant.
  8. Low Level Road in Vancouver, Canada, earned an Envision Platinum award in September 2015. The project involved the realignment and elevation of approximately 2.6 kilometers of road providing space for two new rail tracks and eliminating three existing road and rail crossings to provide direct access to major port terminals.
  9. Tucannon River Wind Farm in Columbia County, Washington, earned an Envision Gold award in November 2015. The wind farm includes 116 turbines atop 80-meter tubular steel towers and produces an average of around 101 MW.

University Seeking Industry Partners for Envision Decision-Making Research

Our guest bloggers are Leidy Klotz and Tripp Shealy, civil engineering faculty members at Clemson and Virginia Tech, respectively. They are collaborating with ISI on a research project related to Envision.

It’s comforting to think of ourselves and other professionals making long-term decisions for infrastructure as super-rational people. And in many ways we are. But most of us are also humans and therefore susceptible to some of the same decision-making quirks as everyone else.

That’s why we are thrilled to be partnering with ISI and Envision on a recently-awarded grant through the National Science Foundation’s interdisciplinary INSPIRE program. Basically, the grant is exploring how people like us (engineers, property owners, developers, public officials, and other decision-makers) choose to make infrastructure more or less sustainable.

In addition to Tripp and me, our team includes renowned behavioral scientists at Columbia University (Elke Weber and Eric Johnson), as well as a policy expert, Ruth Greenspan Bell. Tripp and I provide the infrastructure perspective, along with our ISI partners, and Elke, Eric, and Ruth bring in relevant insights from the behavioral sciences. The project appeals to them because decision biases and interventions have been studied mostly at the individual consumer level. Upstream decisions made in multi-stakeholder environments are largely unexplored, which is a critical omission in light of their potential impact. In other words, they recognize that providing more sustainable infrastructure is a massive societal challenge.

We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us in the next three years of the project. And we’re looking for industry partners to pilot different versions of the Envision rating system, share their own decision-making processes, and even help us uncover new research questions. If you’d like to get involved, please let us know! Contact Leidy Klotz or Tripp Shealy.

Climate Change Data Sources

Our guest blogger, Tonya Graham, from ClimateWise®, describes how ClimateWise® helps infrastructure developers understand how climate change is likely to affect specific project sites. Ms. Graham is a member of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals.

According to the National Climate Change Assessment, temperatures are increasing, sea level is rising, and snow and ice cover are decreasing worldwide. Accompanying these are increasing trends in extremes of heat and heavy precipitation events, and decreases in extreme cold. All of these trends are expected to get markedly worse. They represent vulnerabilities to our communities if our infrastructure is not designed to withstand them.

The Envision climate and risk category addresses climate change from two angles: first by recommending the reduction of emissions contributing to climate change and second by assessing and addressing the risks.

The emissions subcategory calls for the reduction of greenhouse gasses and other air pollutants. Performance in these credits is demonstrated by meeting quantifiable metrics. The resilience subcategory is defined by more qualitative metrics. The first credit recommends a climate threat assessment. The following credits relate to the adaptation plan to address traps, vulnerabilities, and hazards. Local climate data and projections are necessary for the resilience subcategory.

Envision assessments occur at the project level, and the climate projections found in national resources are typically too coarse to be applied to a specific project site. Fortunately, more detailed climate change data is available for those who know where to find it and how to access and use it. The U.S. Department of the Interior has regional Climate Science Centers around the country that focus on making downscaled climate change data available for use within specific regions. Using data from the global climate models that are most relevant to their region, these centers are able to offer raw data at a finer scale for planning.

Advanced technical skills are necessary to turn the raw data into something that can be used in the design of infrastructure. Fortunately, it is getting easier to find support in this level of assessment, and it is also getting cheaper as the field improves on its data analysis techniques. Depending on the data available, an assessment might include threshold events (such as average number of heat wave days) along with expected changes to temperature, precipitation, vegetation, and sea level rise.

These projections are typically done at the city, county, or watershed scale and are useful for supporting community-wide, integrated adaptation planning. Several cities have already developed climate change projections for their local planning efforts and that information can be used in the design of local infrastructure projects. If a city has not yet undertaken such an effort, it is a relatively simple process for an infrastructure development firm to contract out for an assessment.

These assessments typically provide a comparison of current, mid-century, and end of century projections based on different emissions scenarios that allows designers to incorporate appropriate climatic changes based on the expected useful life of a particular project.

In adaptation planning, the project team will determine what vulnerabilities are associated with those changes: What does this particular change in temperature or precipitation mean in terms of this project in this location? Will this structure maintain its structural integrity under those projected conditions? Will the infrastructure rebound and be functional following an extreme climate event?

Incorporating climate change considerations into infrastructure design and construction is a much needed change to our project approach, particularly because so much of our nation’s aging infrastructure needs to be re-built in the next two decades. We need to be making smart investments of public and private resources as we move into an era of increasing natural disturbances.

The ClimateWise® team offers a variety of services that can help infrastructure developers address Envision credits, including translating climate change data into information that is easy to understand and incorporate into a variety of planning and design processes. Our team develops climate change projection assessments and facilitates organizations and communities through processes to develop vulnerability assessments and full adaptation plans. To learn more about how we can help with your project, visit www.climatewise.org or contact Tonya Graham.

Trends from Verified Projects

Seven projects have earned envision awards (and more are coming soon). So far, there are 2 Silver, 1 Gold, and 4 Platinum awards.

On average, these projects:

  • Addressed 39 of the 60 Envision credits. Five were found to be not applicable, and 16 (including 4 innovation credits) were not addressed.
  • Addressed one innovation credit. Innovation points have been awarded in the Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, and Natural World categories.
  • Addressed all five categories. The percentage of points earned per category ranged from 31% in Natural World up to 66% in Leadership.
  • Addressed credits at all levels of achievement. The percent of credits addressed by level of achievement ranged from 11% for Improved up to 34% for conserving.


Water Sector Strides Toward Sustainability With Envision

Our guest blogger, Lindsey Geiger, ENV SP, from the American Water Works Association (AWWA), describes how AWWA encourages and supports its members in pursuing sustainable solutions to improving infrastructure systems. Ms. Geiger is a member of ISI’s Envision Review Board and serves as an Envision trainer and verifier.

Today’s water sector faces many challenges. Increasing populations strain existing water and wastewater infrastructure systems, particularly in urban areas. Many of these systems are aging and already in need of repair. AWWA’s Buried No Longer report estimates “investment needs for buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years.” Further, with the changing climate, some regions of the United States are experiencing droughts that are more severe than ever before. In these regions, alternatives are being considered for water supply portfolios, including water reuse and long-term conservation planning.

For water providers faced with such costly challenges, it’s imperative that the solutions they employ are viable within the communities they serve and provide for long-term economic and resource needs.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) encourages and supports its members in pursuing sustainable solutions to improving infrastructure systems. The AWWA Sustainability Policy Statement exemplifies the organization’s approach:

The American Water Works Association urges water utility staff and governing boards to strive for increased sustainability as they fulfill their missions as water providers. AWWA supports an approach to sustainability that takes into account economic, environmental, and social elements. Sustainability should be considered with regard to the total water supply, including drinking water, wastewater, reuse and stormwater, and be integrated with meaningful metrics to demonstrate progress in all aspects of management from water supply options to infrastructure, financing decisions, and everyday operational choices.

Adopted by the Board of Directors Jan. 23, 2011. Revised June 8, 2014.

AWWA recognizes that Envision is a valuable resource that contributes to sustainable approaches across the total water supply. The rating system gives water-sector professionals the necessary tools to design, implement, and operate systems that will endure through the challenges of growing and expanding communities and urban centers.

As a charter member of ISI, AWWA aids in the development of Envision and educates AWWA members on the rating system’s sustainability methodologies. AWWA members are taking steps toward a more holistic approach to infrastructure improvements, applying sustainable principles and achieving positive results. AWWA Service Provider member Brown and Caldwell demonstrates how Envision can be used to assess multiple stormwater best management practices (BMPs) across all five categories of sustainability metrics: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, Climate & Risk. (ISI Envision Sustainability Methodologies for Stormwater BMPs—Sustainable Return on Investments, Valerie Fuchs, Brown and Caldwell, presented at the Sustainable Water Management Conference, March 2015, Portland, Ore.).

With the goal of keeping the water industry at the forefront of sustainable practices, AWWA fosters further exploration of sustainability assessments that include a wide range of factors. AWWA has credentialed ENV SPs on staff who are available to discuss the benefits of Envision, assist in using the planning tools, and the development of customized training workshops. Utilities use these workshops as an engaging way for staffs to learn about the Envision Rating System, which allows for hands-on practice using the tools and getting comfortable with navigating the guidance manual. Participants who complete these accreditation workshops qualify to take the Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) credentialing exam. Utilities recognize the importance of having credentialed professionals on project teams as a way to implement sustainable infrastructure that optimizes project efficiency and effective management of resources.

AWWA members are taking steps to increase sustainability and improve project efficiency. AWWA has held accreditation trainings for DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project team members and for staff of the City of Westminster, Colo. These members now look for new ways to incorporate sustainability principles across their capital project portfolios.

If you are interested in learning more about how AWWA helps the water sector navigate ISI’s Envision, please contact Lindsey Geiger.

Celebrating 3,500 ENV SPs World-wide!

While 98% of Envision Sustainability Professionals are from the US and Canada, there are credentialed users around the world in Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Panama, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Greece, Israel, Qatar, United Kingdom, Argentina, Australia, Oman, Spain, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey.

There’s good distribution across the US with at least one ENV SP in every state. The map below indicates the number per state. The states with the most ENV SPs are labeled – California is clearly leading the pack! Not shown are the 30+ ENV SPs in DC, 1 in Guam, and 1 in the North Mariana Islands.


Canada’s population of ENV SPs is steadily growing. The chart below indicates the number by province or territory.