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At Harvard, information is the infrastructure facility that will optimize everything else

Dan McCue Tuesday, 31 July 2012


After Renewable Energy Magazine spoke with George Kendrick, of Stantec, about the chapter on wind farms he contributed to Infrastructure Sustainability and Design, we had a nagging feeling that there was more – much more – afoot than simply the creation of a guidebook for 21st century engineers and designers.

At Harvard, information is the infrastructure facility that will optimize everything else

Kendrick, an environmental scientist and senior principal at the project management and engineering consultancy spoke both of broad vistas and interesting things going on at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design – activities that could, if taken to their logical conclusions – help to revolutionize how we do renewable energy, energy efficiency, and , in short, how we live.

Behind the book and all of it is an entity called the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Hoping to learn more, we caught up with Andreas Georgoulias, a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and one of the editors of Infrastructure Sustainability and Design.

The Zofnass Program, Georgoulias explained, was founded in 2008 by siblings Paul and Joan Zofnass, with the aim of developing and disseminating methods that assess and quantify sustainability for infrastructure projects. As part of their efforts, the programs professors and industry partners developed a system of uniform, voluntary guidelines for sustainable design and construction that have already been adopted by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Public Works Association and others.

“The rating system is out there, everybody can start using it, and it’s led to a certification process that’s going to get underway September 1,” he said.

Georgoulias, a man best described as ebullient in manner, described Infrastructure Sustainability and Design as a "coherent" and "integrated" publication, the product of scores of people who had been working together for the past two years.

"So that's a very brief introduction to our program at Harvard," he said. "We are going to keep producing results on different topics within the broader subject of infrastructure sustainability, including water, energy and transportation, and we are going to continue to work on quantifying what you might think of as the sustainability "externalities" of infrastructure projects, looking at issues of funding, issues of technology and so forth."

When I spoke with George Kendrick a few days ago, he pointed out that while we've all become familiar with things like the LEED building standard in the US, there are surprising few standards for larger scale projects. What were some of the challenges you all faced when you got together to consider all this?

Well, that's really what inspired the Zofnass program in the first place and why we and our partners in industry have been working so hard.

When it comes to buildings, there is a lot of research; there are a lot of databases you can refer to… but infrastructure is different from buildings, fundamentally. First of all, the projects that you are dealing with are much larger. Secondly, we might not need eight highways, we might need only one; We might not need five airports, we might just need one or two; so whereas with buildings, we have lots and lots of projects to draw knowledge from, the knowledge base for these enormous projects is, relatively speaking, quite small.

At the same time, we were up against the challenge of no one having collected all this knowledge for specific types of infrastructure, like wind farms, for example.

Toward that end, George Kendrick did an excellent job putting together the most up to date knowledge on sustainability in this area. However, the challenge of infrastructure is not only to optimize the different types of infrastructure, but how the different types of infrastructure work together.

With buildings we don't have that. One building can be sustainable, while the building next door may be totally unsustainable, and one has no influence on the other. However, with infrastructure, it's an entirely different story.

For instance, if the water system doesn't function well, then other elements of infrastructure may perform poorly. If the transportation system doesn't function well, then energy usage may be affected. So there is a lot of interdependency when it comes to infrastructure and this is very, very different from buildings.

Another challenge that we are facing involves the metrics. How can we define what is an appropriate standard? How can we define what is feasible? What specifications do we rely on, for instance, for energy efficiency in each of these kinds of large-scale projects? Some of the materials used in many different kinds of projects are the same, some may be different, and some are the same, but are being used in an entirely different way. However, the need for standards is very important and we are working on that.

Now, speaking more broadly of challenges, one of the big challenges related to infrastructure is that most of time, these projects have multiple owners. With a building, typically, you've got a single owner. But with large-scale construction projects, the ownership structure can get very complicated.

For instance, a project may be partially owned by the government, or by two different government agencies with two different sets of requirements and operating standards and expenses... and all of that has to be recognized is assessing how a project works on a specific site.

These are some of the challenges that we have been trying to tackle over the past few years, bring all available resources to bear on them.

A moment ago, you mentioned the importance of infrastructure elements working together. But it seems like, given how infrastructure projects are typically done -- in a piecemeal fashion, when money is available -- that's a touch goal to achieve...

Absolutely. And as a result, I think there's a real need to fund projects differently. In addition, governments have to start including a sustainability requirement in their RFPs; that's why, in addition to industry partners, we are also working closely with government officials and different government agencies.

We are having workshops at Harvard where we invite the people responsible for monitoring, controlling and approving these projects to be part of the discussion. A couple of months ago we had a session at the White House with representatives from several government departments and we discussed the mandate for sustainability at the federal government level, what is happening, and what we can do to improve it.

Right now, we're in the process of following up on those discussions with the Pentagon and others. We're also creating an executive education program to work with the people in charge of projects and to talk to them about how to improve them, because as you said, these things are often done in a piecemeal fashion, and even if the engineer provides a sustainable, long-view solution for a project, if the owner doesn’t want it, it probably won’t happen.

Getting back to my conversation with George Kendrick, he seemed to think that local zoning regulations, for the most part, lay the groundwork for sustainable development. Do you agree?

Well, I would say this: In general, we are trying to promote higher standards than you generally find in local zoning regulations. If you look closely at these regulations, what you find quite often are regulations that are conflicting in some way, or they might ask for something on the one hand but prohibit it on the other; So we are trying to provide a method whereby decision-makers can make better, more sustainable decisions.

For example, dealing with the issue of resource allocation… this is essentially what we are trying to do. We are providing an independent set of metrics and armed with them, every decision-maker can decide what is important for them.

Our system doesn’t provide all the answers. But at least, it’s out there, its objective, and everyone can decide what is more important for them – be it local job creation, be it energy conservation, preserving the natural landscape… altering the character of the community, preserving the character of the community, fostering more development, future growth… these are all different objectives that we look at in our work, but always through a framework that is sustainable. It’s up to the local community to prioritize what they want. Ours is a voluntary system. It is not the law.

However, if one does not give decision-makers an objective set of metrics, it's very difficult to achieve overall sustainability. I guess you can say our goal is to create a set of parameters through which one can assess different outcomes. Our hope is that in reviewing and using these standards, the project owner might start thinking about how to go above and beyond what is required... about how to actually help solve the problems we are facing globally right now, like resource depletion, climate change, the need for energy conservation and so on…

What have you found the most interesting about this effort?

First, that it is about the integration of infrastructure systems, and not the optimization of a single project’s success.

Second, one has to compare the costs and benefits. You cannot only talk about the benefits of sustainability. You have to have an objective system to quantify the costs, and to actually have an honest, meaningful discussion about the costs associated with a sustainable investment. This is a system we are working on right now.

Another interesting thing is that no matter what technologies are available, if the community does not want it, it’s not going to happen. So we have the paradigm shift from looking at how to optimize the project to actually looking at how to present the different sustainable options for that project to the general public, to decision makers who might not be engineers, or to project financiers and bankers, who might have to evaluate the viability of the project… sustainability definitely should be part of that, but it is not right now…

I think these three would be the key lessons out of the workshops we’ve been having for the past three or four years.

Could you tell me a bit about that workshop process?

We are planners, designers and engineers at Harvard, so we understood what the industry was asking from us. The challenge was how to create a system that was useful for the project’s owners who might not be planners, designers and engineers…

One of the first things we realized is that the people engaged in a project are really different. An engineer for instance, doesn't mind designing or relying on a very elaborate tool if it results in a better design; projects owners, meanwhile, typically want something simple and very straightforward. This is an issue that's very important to them, and also, I might add, to the community and other stakeholders.

So as our conversations went on, one important challenge we had to address was how to balance science and engineering -- the complexity of these projects -- with the simplicity and clear objectives that the community and project owners wanted. That took us some time.

We started by looking at the different rating systems that are out there -- we found many building rating systems, more than 100, but very few, as I said, about infrastructure. And any system that we found about infrastructure was about specific project types, for example roads… or parks.. no system looked at all infrastructure types together…. So after doing all of the review, we started creating major themes or categories that would provide for an ability to look at infrastructure in an objective and coherent way.

These included:

Resource allocation, dealing with issues revolving around materials and energy usage; Natural World, dealing with the impact projects had on environment; Climate Change, dealing with carbon emissions and the adaptability of the project to extreme weather phenomena; Quality of Life, looking at the impact of the project on the people, the community and to local values; and finally, Leadership, dealing with issues related to project governance and stakeholder consultation.

 

From there, we started to develop "credits" for the elements of each category. These were hashed out at workshops and with focus groups held here at Harvard, after which our conclusions went through a process revision and revision and revision... until we arrived at the rating system that we published.

So in the end, did you arrive at different certification levels for these projects?

Yes. We are having silver, gold and platinum and a certificate of achievement, for projects that don't quite rise to the silver, gold and platinum level.

A key to the certification process is that a project needs to achieve a certain number of points in each of the broader categories I mentioned above to achieve a certain level of certification. For instance, we're not going to give a gold certification to a project that’s doing very good in resource allocation, but is destroying the environment and doesn’t care about the community.

Every project needs to satisfy the minimum of every category of the five, with the number of credits or points determining whether they get silver, gold or platinum certification.

Is the graduate school at Harvard actually doing the certification?

No. The certification will not come from the Zoffnass program or Harvard because, as an educational institution, we see our role as being to do the research that underpins the certification.

Administration of the program and the actual certifications will be done by our long-time partner, the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure.

Speaking of the education. How popular are the Zofnass programs courses with students?

The program is very popular. So far we have engaged more than 200 students in different aspects of the research and we have been offering one or two seminars or classes every year at the graduate school.

The interesting thing is it does not only attract students from the design school, it attracts students from the business school, from the school of public health, the school of engineering and graduate studies, from MIT, so it has been a very popular program and I think that's precisely because it strives to identify a major challenge for the future and looks at it on the project level and from the perspective of what they can do about it.

Of course, we're still talking about broad issues and global challenges, but doing so in terms of real projects and existing technologies. This is something that is very, very new and interesting to the students.

And though our classes, we provide the students with exposure to the engineers and the government officers who have been working on these projects. So they are getting first-hand insight into the project and the challenges involved in them. We discuss the conflicts that exist within the realm of sustainability, the challenges, and how to actually go about and achieve sustainable goals.

Are there great examples of infrastructure development that you consistently point to in these seminars? Or, for that matter, great failures?

Absolutely. But again, we try not to point out a single project, but how different systems work together, and of course, this all comes about through holistic design.

So for instance, we might show them a community that is facing sprawl, where someone living there has to drive a lot of time, where there is no mixed-use planning, no public transportation, and we show them how that infrastructure consumes so much more in terms of resources than a well designed, integrated community. I mean, that one example is on a magnitude of three to five times of initial resource consumption.

We also invite the projects owners and stakeholders from as nearby as Boston, Mass., and as far afield as Abu Dhabi and China, to come speak with us and share their perspectives and experiences, and to explain how their projects have evolved over time.

For example. Masdar City in the UAE has a target of reducing energy consumption in an urban environment by 80 percent; that’s a very, very ambitious target while at the same time striving to be a zero waste, zero carbon community… and that involves the best and brightest engineering and technology companies in the world. So in our seminars, we strive to show how a project like that has moved from inception to where they are now, and how the developers have dealt with critical, real-life issues like the global financial crisis.

I mean, coping with what has happened in a changing world is also part of sustainability.

It seems to me that the fact you and I are even having this discussion suggests something fundamental has changed in regards to the overall philosophy of infrastructure. Has it?

First of all, there are many different definitions of infrastructure. When we started looking at these definitions, we found several of them. Nevertheless, we defined infrastructure as the system and networks that make society viable. So what supports our society? Concrete and stone and steel and bridges and roads… and these are systems that distribute food, energy, and so on.

Now, the major change that has happened in infrastructure from 50 years ago and 100 years ago to today, is that information is playing a bigger role. Because we are living in a much more interconnected society, we now have systems in place that allow us to understand how people use infrastructure and how they consume resources. We can take a step back and look broadly at the patterns of resource allocation. We can look at what the patterns of transportation are and why they are that way. And we have the systems to actually respond to these patterns, and determine how we may be able to optimize our infrastructure use.

In the past, infrastructure systems were planned from year zero and capacity projections were based on assumed patterns of behavior. The planning engineers would do a study and say, "Okay, 20 years from now we'll have this much demand, 30 years from now we'll have this much demand, and 50 years from now we'll have this much demand.

In fact, that didn’t prove very effective. I mean, it’s very difficult to predict the future. So as you said, there’s been a change in philosophy.

So right now infrastructure systems are becoming more and more adaptive. In fact, they may not be one big system. I think what we're moving toward, in fact, are systems that have lots of components that we can change when things break down. We're seeing big monopolies evolving into many smaller systems, so instead of having one big water treatment plant, for instance, you might have lots of smaller facilities.

Similarly, we're seeing a push toward smart grids to optimize electric energy consumption at the unit level. And the same thing is happening in transportation and in several other areas.

For us information is becoming the established infrastructure facility that will optimize everything else.

 

For additional information:

Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure

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