Measuring Sustainability – The Envision™ Rating System

The Envision Rating System logo.Performance rating systems for buildings, such as LEED, have become popular in recent years.  New rating systems have been proposed for other types of infrastructure, but most are specific to a particular industry or region.  The American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), the American Public Works Association (APWA), and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) each saw a need for a more comprehensive system, not to supplant existing rating systems, but to extend them to a broader range of infrastructure projects including Energy, Waste, Water, Transport, Landscape, and Information.  They decided to join forces to form the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) to develop and maintain a civil infrastructure rating system.  In collaboration with federal agencies, universities, consultants, professional societies, and municipalities, over 900 rating systems were evaluated to identify gaps, develop goals, and refine approaches.  In 2011, ISI and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard Graduate School of Design merged their two systems to create the Envision rating system for sustainable infrastructure.

Envision is a system of objective criteria and performance metrics that can help identify ways to improve the sustainable performance of infrastructure projects.  The evaluation spans the project’s entire life cycle including planning, design, construction, and operation.  And they are analyzed not only for their technical merits, but also for their social, environmental, and economic effects.  Envision also provides an opportunity for infrastructure owners and designers to be recognized for minimizing negative impacts, and even restoring previously-done damage.

Projects are assessed on 60 criteria in five categories:

  1. Quality of Life – Rates the effect of the project on the health and wellbeing of individuals and of the community as a whole.
  2. Leadership – Gauges the level of commitment by all parties involved in a project.
  3. Resource Allocation – Measures the use of renewable and non-renewable resources for the project.
  4. Natural World – Examines the effect the project will have on the preservation and restoration of the natural ecosystem.
  5. Climate And Risk – Evaluates the level of harmful emissions and the projects resiliency to short-term hazards or altered long-term conditions.

Innovation points are assigned in each of the five categories for both exceptional performance and the application of methods that push innovation in sustainable infrastructure.  There are up to five Levels of Achievement in each category:

  1. Improved – Performance that is above conventional.
  2. Enhanced – Sustainable performance that is on the right track.  Indications that superior performance is within reach.
  3. Superior – Sustainable performance that is noteworthy.
  4. Conserving – Performance that has achieved essentially zero impact.
  5. Restorative – Performance that restores natural or social systems.

To be certified and to qualify for awards, at least one person on the project team must be trained and credentialed to use the Envision rating system.  This person, called an Envision Sustainability Professional, guides the project team in applying Envision to their project.

ISI Verifiers provide independent, third-party verification of an Envision assessment.  Professionals trained by ISI in the verification process work under direct contract with ISI to assure quality, consistency, and an absence of a conflict of interest.  Verifiers work with the Sustainability Professional during the rating process and verify the documentation, levels of achievement for individual credits, and the overall rating score of the project.

ISI Verifiers must:

  • Be credentialed as an ISI Sustainability Professional before ISI Verifier training begins.
  • Have at least 10 years of professional experience.
  • Have a current license, certification, or credential if applicable.
  • And be active in the profession.

The Envision rating system is web-based, and is intended to be used throughout all phases of the project, so it can be revisited and updated as many times as needed.  When the project team and the Sustainability Professional have completed their evaluation, they can submit the project to ISI for verification, but it is not a requirement.  ISI assigns a Verifier to review and confirm the points achieved.  The Verifier will make a recommendation for award based on the points achieved.  There are four levels of awards: Bronze (20% of available points), Silver (30%), Gold (40%), and Platinum (50%).  Verification can be expensive.  A review of a project costing between $100M and $250M costs $28,000 for ISI members, or $33,000 for non-members.

The ISI:

  • Establishes the qualifications for a Sustainability Professional.
  • Creates educational, training, and testing products.
  • Develops metrics for evaluating the economic benefits of sustainable infrastructure projects.
  • Coordinates with international, federal, state, and local agencies and non-profit organizations.
  • Presents awards for exceptional performance and innovation.
  • Conducts research associated with the development of Envision.
  • Manages the ongoing evolution of Envision.

So far, Envision is oriented toward the U.S. market and regulatory environment.  Perhaps later it can be extended to be applicable globally.  The high cost of certification can be a problem.  It can drive up the cost of sustainable projects without adding anything to sustainability.  It is encouraging that Envision grants extra points for innovation, which is normally discouraged in the political arena.  If the Envision System can be used to help people appreciate the benefits of car-free development, it might give decision makers the courage they need to try new approaches that have the potential for unprecedented sustainability.

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