Sustainability has been a focus of the news cycle and academic journals for the past several decades. Most recently, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia, we have seen the direct impact changing weather patterns have on infrastructure and the strain natural disasters can place on cities. As science and technology continue to advance, our understanding of the long-term social and environmental impacts of infrastructure projects grows. Large cities with antiquated wastewater systems, like Philadelphia, are upgrading their infrastructure to include permeable surfaces and enhanced greenspaces. Low-lying areas, such as New Orleans, are installing new infrastructure to ensure their communities are protected against changing climate conditions. Government organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are incentivizing developers and municipalities to focus on sustainable infrastructure through funding and regulatory actions.
In light of these factors, LEED was created in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to assess buildings for sustainability and reward those that demonstrated a commitment to reducing environmental impact. Today, LEED certification is required by many cities and developers, particularly when a project uses taxes or other government funding. Harper currently has over15 LEED certified employees on staff, with over 30 projects that have achieved LEED certification.
Realizing a gap in assessment for and recognition of sustainability in infrastructure projects, the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design partnered to create the Envision Certification in 2010. Since then, 37 projects have earned Envision Certification, including the City of Seneca’s Water Treatment Plant (WTP) which earned Silver Certification in 2017. While Envision does not yet have the same mass exposure as LEED, the increase in project certifications (2 projects in 2013, 3 projects in 2014, 4 projects in 2015, 14 in 2016, and 14 in 2017 as of September) indicates Envision Certification is gaining market appeal. In March 2016, Harper added its first Envision Certified Professional (ENV SP) to our team when a member of our Environmental Systems Division (ESD) earned her credentials to become one of the first Envision Certified Professionals in South Carolina.
A unique element of Envision is its holistic approach to projects. Evaluation occurs across 60 criteria in five main areas: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Risk. These categories underscore the Envision Rating System’s emphasis on all areas of the project. Quality of Life and Leadership explore how the project, and project team, interact with the surrounding community while the remaining three areas assess how the project impacts, and plans for, environmental factors. The nature of the evaluation demands communication among the Owner, Design Team, Contractor, Subcontractors, Key Stakeholders, and a myriad of other teammates. Only those projects that are truly collaborative can earn Envision Certification.
Collaboration is beneficial to all members of a Project Team as they plan for, and implement, infrastructure improvements. These types of projects, particularly in water and wastewater treatment, are often viewed as intrusive or ugly by the local community because function and budget can trump elegance. Furthermore, the direct benefits to the community are not as tangible as a retail center or even a park. However, by including the neighborhood association, community leaders and others impacted by the project throughout the design and planning process, project teams are seeing a direct correlation between increased community buy-in and decreased push-back during the project review and approval processes.
The City of Seneca’s WTP on Lake Keowee in South Carolina is a prime example of the benefits of attention to collaboration. Completed in June 2017 when it received Silver Envision Certification, the project was a partnership among the City of Seneca, Harper Corporation’s Environmental Systems Division (ESD), Hulsey McCormick & Wallace (HMW), and Goodwyn Mills Cawood (GMC), as well as the local neighborhood association, environmental advocates, and other key community stakeholders. Bob Faires, Director of Utilities for Seneca Light & Water, said, “We found the collaborative process beneficial throughout the project. From the beginning of the design to the grand opening, we actively engaged the community to develop a water treatment plant we are all very proud of.”
Achieving Envision Certification for any project requires a collaborative effort among the Project Team and members of the Community. The Seneca WTP Project Team focused on communication and sustainability throughout the project, starting with initial design and continuing the focus throughout construction. The data collection, submission, review and certification process took more than a year and a half and included input from all project stakeholders.
Located on a prominent peninsula in the picturesque Lake Keowee and at the back of a neighborhood, the existing WTP had been a point of contention among members of the community for several years. When plans for significant upgrades were announced, the City of Seneca and their design and construction partners saw an opportunity to reduce the tension over the plant by increasing community involvement in the upgrades. As the project progressed, the Project Team remained in constant communication with key stakeholders and general members of the public, letting them know about design elements, as well as opportunities to participate in the project. Local subcontractors and suppliers provided a significant amount of the labor for the project, a positive impact on the local economy, and members of the neighborhood association were invited to the tearing down of a particularly contentious bulk chemical tank.
Collaboration among all stakeholders allowed the project to be completed under budget and ahead of schedule. The end product is a facility that is Envision Silver certified, meets the need for increased water capacity in and around Seneca, SC, and is no longer a noise and aesthetic concern for the surrounding community.