Doing More, and Doing It Better

Sept. 13, 2013

By Elizabeth Cutright

By now, we are all well aware of the alphabet soup of ratings systems: LEED, WaterSense, Green Plumbers. We’ve heard of platinum projects and certified practitioners, but in the “results” column, the final numbers have been less than impressive.

For many of us in the water resource management profession, it’s been hard to get a clear-cut consensus on exactly which rating systems work best depending on the situation. Add local regulations and regional guidelines, and what you end up with is a hodge-podge of benchmarks, goal posts, and bottom lines.

Even worse, sometimes the rating systems seem to exist more as a “pat on the back” for a job attempted, rather than for a job well done. In other words, how can we achieve truly meaningful infrastructure rehabilitation and repair when so many efforts are guilty of “greenwashing”?

Earlier this year, greenwashing was once again thrust into the limelight when the numbers finally came in on the much-touted Bank of America Tower in downtown Manhattan. Unfortunately, the project’s final tally left much to be desired: the building produced more greenhouse gasses and used more energy per square foot than similar buildings in the area.

As Sam Roudman writing for The New Republic explained, the building is “not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.”

While the focus of the Tower’s flaws has been on its energy use, the hard numbers on water conservation are hard to come by. Though the building’s designers were lauded for including waterless urinals and a rainwater harvesting system, statistics on total gallons saved–particularly in comparison to other corporate headquarters–are essentially non-existent.

And that’s the main issue with a ratings system like LEED. Without truly quantifiable numbers, we are left with performance goals, but without performance standards.

John Scofield, professor of physics at Oberlin, said in testimony before the House last year, “What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want–namely, green publicity, not energy savings.”

So, should we do away with ratings altogether? Not necessarily.

Over the summer, while attending the American Public Works Association (APWA) Sustainability Conference, I sat in on a presentation by Kim Lundgren (Director of Sustainability, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc.) who spoke about rating systems and the way in which the APWA’s new Envision curriculum could provide a viable alternative. The Envision system was developed by the APWA in an effort to do away with the confusion and competing principles of previous ratings systems. The program’s objective is to bring together different elements of infrastructure design, repair, and installation in order to create an integrated approach. And because Envision is designed to dovetail with existing programs, as Lundgren explained, “The goal is not just [developing] the rating, but creating a way to measure the process.”

As the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure Executive Director William Bertera explained, Envision will provide “an integrated education/resource library, as well as a project assessment that recognizes the need to stretch the traditional design boundaries in which infrastructure projects are judged, not only by how they are delivered, but by how long they last, accounting for durability, flexibility, and utility of the constructed works.”

Because it can plug into other ratings systems (like LEED) while also establishing its own set of standards, Envision includes a credentialing protocol (60 credits) that can be applied to a variety of civil infrastructure elements, including water conveyance systems. Envision can be included at any point along the project’s life cycle and rates the project based on five main categories: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Risk.

Ultimately, the hope is that a program like Envision can be a win-win for all involved.

As Lundgren summarized, Envision provides an improved avenue towards infrastructure sustainability and better project compliance. She also emphasized that, while imperfect, ratings systems should not be abandoned wholesale, in part because “ratings systems push you to do more, and do it better.”

Elizabeth Cutright is a previous editor of Water Efficiency.

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