An old Korean proverb says, "Even monkeys may fall from trees." In other words, even experts make mistakes, including, perhaps, experts on sustainable design and construction.
With the sustainability landscape populated by dozens of decision-making tools and rating and certification systems, engineers and building and infrastructure developers may believe the existing methods guarantee a simple, failure-proof means of attaining sustainability. But a rating system is no substitute for rigorous decision-making. That was a key concept driving the report on sustainable infrastructure released at the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) annual conference, which began on Sept. 10 in Seoul.
According to the FIDIC report, London's Olympic Park represents a shining example of early, effective consideration of sustainability. In vying for this past summer's Olympic Games, the bid team built on conceptual sustainability principles. The selection process pointed to a poor, run-down part of London that was seen as an ideal candidate for regeneration in preparation for the Games. Further, the site, while contaminated by industrial pollution, had excellent transportation links that were easily upgraded. Using the site also required costs, such as abating the polluted industrial area, placing overhead power lines below grade and displacing some businesses.
"Sustainability often is involved too late," said Peter Guthrie, the University of Cambridge engineering professor and former consulting engineer who was the main author of the FIDIC report. "I've been invited [to serve as a consultant] at stages where the design is fixed and sustainability is only meant to be the telling of a palatable story."
FIDIC is the Geneva-based federation of consulting engineer associations whose best-known products are its model contract forms. FIDIC also seeks to shape and document best practices—a formidable challenge considering the differences between highly developed countries such as Korea, whose government has expressly committed itself to green design, and Africa's poorer nations, which are often dependent on international development banks in order to create basic infrastructure. Several times during the conference, African engineers pointed out that their respective countries could not afford the extra costs associated with sustainability.
John Boyd, a retired senior executive of consulting engineer Golder Associates, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, replied that sustainable design, "if done properly, doesn't have to be more expensive" and should involve savings during operations.
Certification systems and ratings tools for infrastructure promise to open a new frontier in sustainable design. One of the most developed, the Australian Green Infrastructure Council's AGIC IS Rating tool, measures sustainability across the "triple bottom line" of environmental, social and economic factors. The voluntary scheme includes an assessment process as well as education and training.
According to Jane Scanlon, a sustainability adviser for Rail Systems' Regional Rail Link project team, based in Victoria, AGIC IS uses a 100-point scale, but scoring 75 points isn't necessarily a sign of failure.
"You don't have to do unbelievably well in all categories to get a good score, and you can focus on what's important to the project team," says Scanlon. For example, using recycled steel may not accomplish much in Australia, where the norm for re-use is 95%. Successful outcomes on sustainable projects are "contextual to each project," Scanlon says. That idea echoed Guthrie's warning not to distort a project team's sustainability goals by shooting for a rating system's highest score.
Of equal importance was the FIDIC report's contention that risks and costs hinder go-for-it attitudes. Guthrie and FIDIC argue that the main barrier to sustainable infrastructure is the perceived increase in cost and risk during project development, which often results in minimum levels of compliance.
Authentic sustainability can be achieved only by rigorous decision-making and analysis that begin early enough in a project to influence the final outcome, Guthrie's report says. Yoon-Hee Hong, vice president of sustainability management and business development at SK Engineering & Construction, dovetails with Guthrie's position. Hong said that 80% of project costs are determined in the design phase. In a resounding understatement, she added, "The front end is very important."