Moving from Bottom-Feeders to Leaders

ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability

I spent this past weekend in Atlanta attending a workshop for ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability.  I was asked to go as a liaison for the ASCE Texas Section, specifically to discuss the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure's (ISI) Envision certification workshop that I had helped to organize as part of the Texas Centennial Celebration Conference in 2013. There were representatives from eighteen states in attendance, along with representatives from ASCE National, ASCE Institutes, and ISI, all there to report on their current sustainable activities and practices and also to brainstorm ideas for the upcoming International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure in Long Beach, CA.

After participating in these discussions over a day and a half, I was delighted (and somewhat surprised) that there are other civil engineers outside of VERDUNITY that share the same passions about designing and building sustainable communities.  They also share the same frustrations on how to get their clients to deviate from the status-quo and start thinking differently.  While we were going through all of the Section reports, the one thing that kept being repeated over and over was “how do we convince our clients/owners that they need to embrace sustainable practices?”  This is the very question that we at VERDUNITY have been asking ourselves every day for the past three years.  Here are a couple of things we've learned that I mentioned to the group in Atlanta: 

Understanding What “Sustainability” Really Means

First and foremost, we have to define what makes a project sustainable and be able to articulate that to our clients.  We all know and understand that the world contains a finite number of natural resources, and that we need to develop our communities in a manner in which we can meet the demand for essentials goods and services as it continues to grow over time.  But, that isn’t the key driver behind decisions that get made within local (or any) government today.  For them, it is about maintaining or bettering quality of life for their constituents within the limitations of the funds that are available today.  Unfortunately, being sustainable is not about today.  It is about the future.  And yet, the part of the sustainable equation that is often overlooked by decision makers is the long-term implications of a project.  If we want to convince our clients to embrace sustainable practices, we first have to resolve to think beyond today’s potential design fees and advise our clients to think about long-term fiscal, environmental, and social implications of every project.      

Integrating Perspectives and Project Phases

If you have ever sat through any presentation on sustainability, you are sure to have heard that one of the most important steps that we have to take if we want to design more sustainable projects is that we have to break down the silos.  That is all well and good, but what does that actually mean?  The discussions in Atlanta just reinforced that many civil engineers don't understand this concept.  It doesn’t just mean that we need to make sure that we coordinate with other disciplines of engineering.  While that is important, we also need to include planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, contractors, maintenance departments, owners, political figures, and stakeholders including local business owners, citizens, etc.  Including all of these groups at the conceptual phase of the project is critical to design, construct, and maintain projects that contribute to a sustainable community.  This concept sounds like common sense, and yet, civil engineers struggle to actually do this.  Why?

Moving Engineers from Bottom Feeders to Leaders in Sustainability

One of the attendees in Atlanta made this comment:

"We (civil engineers) are not leaders in sustainability; We are the bottom-feeders waiting for someone else to tell us what project to do.”

Despite the fact that I am a civil engineer myself, I couldn’t agree more.  We have traditionally assumed that the public outreach portion of a project is done during the planning phase, and that it is up to the planners and designers to lead that process and reach out to us to include us in that process.  We can’t keep thinking this way if we want things to change!  If we know that we need to be involved in the planning process, and the planners/designers aren’t coming to us to ask for our involvement, then we need to go to them or facilitate multi-disciplined discussions ourselves.  Our team at VERDUNITY has put quite a bit of effort into reaching out to the planning community. We have found they want engineers to be involved in the conceptual phase of a project, especially engineers that are willing to challenge traditional engineering practices to determine what the site specific solution should be versus applying a global standard to every project.

To climb the food chain in sustainability leadership, engineers must step outside of our comfort zone and challenge the traditional ways of thinking.  And, yes, we are even going to have to talk to people that are not other engineers.  We are doing this internally within our team, with our teaming partners, and with current and potential clients. If you’re an engineer, start these conversations. You will be surprised at the insight that will come with doing so, and we will all end up designing better projects in the long run, helping to build more healthy and sustainable communities for future generations to enjoy.

~ Kristin