Tips for sustainability on site beyond targets and trackers

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This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

It’s the last sprint on site before the finish line. Everyone is working around the clock to finish a project. The last thing the team wants to hear is that there are sustainability targets not met that no one was paying attention to until someone highlighted them as part of the contract close-out requirements. Unfortunately, it’s a situation we’ve seen often.

It’s not enough to set targets at the beginning of a project, forget them once planning is approved, then expect them to magically be achieved by the end of the project. What does it really mean to say “achieve an air permeability of 3m3/h.m2” or “ensure materials are responsibly and ethically sourced”?

Ensuring sustainability relies on early and meaningful engagement with everyone involved. That means translating sustainability in way that helps everyone be successful:

Regulators & planners: set clear requirements and understand constraints, conflicts and implications for design

Client: set clear briefs that incorporate sustainability and work with the team to reconcile conflicting priorities

Architects & engineers: ensure designs, details and specifications meet desired outcomes by understanding implications of design decisions

Procurement: ensure tender packages include details of sustainability, that the supply chain understands what they need to deliver and prices it accordingly, not losing things during value engineering

Contractor/subcontractor: include best practices within method statements, but also engage with workforce on site and provide tools, infrastructure and training to help them succeed

Honest engagement from all sides can help not only improve outcomes on site, but advance industry knowledge by identifying what does and doesn’t work. Addressing problems head on collaboratively leads to more actual sustainable outcomes, rather than closing one’s eyes and hoping for the best or ignoring contradictions and negative data to report publicly only the positive bits.

We’ve seen many projects do things well, but many also lose money and time by doing things poorly. Here are a few tips:

  • Enable everyone to take responsibility for sustainability. Spreading the knowledge helps if staff move onto different projects, prevents long-term items from being easily forgotten and increases accountability. Plus, not all projects have the budget to have a dedicated sustainability person, so it must become part of everyone’s job.
  • Don’t hide behind procedures and documentation. It’s very easy to issue a requirements tracker or bury lines in contracts, but we all know no one reads them. The result is either death by procedure or playing the blame game after the fact. Of course, documentation is needed for clarity and liability, but more can be done to help ensure the message is communicated and that proper investment in people and resources is made
  • Educate on best practice and make knowledge sharing a two-way process (not only training operatives to improve practices on site, but also sustainability specialists learning from site operatives to understand what does and doesn’t work)
  • Understand there’s more to sustainability than compliance. The lack of resources within regulatory agencies and local authorities can mean less oversight, but it also means less assistance in the case of doing something new or difficult. Plus, there is still a duty to do what is required, and the team can be held accountable if something goes wrong later.

It’s incredibly rewarding when we see teams ‘get it’. When architects, engineers and contractors understand issues they weren’t even aware of a few months before, when they ask the right questions and challenge their own designs, the outcome is not only a better project, but better designers. They look at their other projects in a different light and increase the capacity of their own organisations, which can be a differentiator when bidding for new work.

If project teams are thinking about compliance-led sustainability requirements, the sustainability specialist can do more. Rather than chasing a BREEAM credit, the sustainability specialist can spend more time pushing the boundaries and seeking innovative solutions for complex projects.

That’s the area where KLH like to be, seeking new ideas with our industry contacts while capacity is built within the organisation of project team to meet regulatory requirements. We are seeing more and more clients requesting this type of support which is great news for the construction industry, as well as those of us that thrive on implementing new ideas!

Starting a conversation on technology and social media for engaging water users

In a few weeks, I am flying off to the Dead Sea in Jordan for this year’s International Water Association‘s (IWA) Jordan Water and Development Congress. I’ve been involved with the IWA for a couple years now, at first attending conferences, but more recently as part of the leadership team for the Public & Customer Communications Specialist Group, as well as a presenter at conferences, including the Efficient Urban Water Conference in Cincinnati earlier this year.

At the Congress in Jordan, I will be rapporteur for a few sessions under the Turning the Tide on Water Resources theme; co-leading the Specialist Group annual meeting; and, most interestingly, leading a workshop on information and communications technologies (ICT) and social media for the purpose of engaging water users and customers. It’s all part of a project we as a Specialist Group are kicking off to help provide resources to water professionals interesting in using technology for engagement, but unsure of where to start.

I was given the opportunity to write in more detail about the project for the IWA’s blog, which you can read in full here and see an excerpt of below.

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) can improve interaction between those who manage water and those who use it, even in rural areas or resource poor settings that lack consistent internet access. But, which technology is the right one for each community or region? With the vast array of tools available—from social media to apps and SMS to smart devices and more—water professionals need help navigating the options.

A Twitter campaign to map and respond to water leaks may be a useful tool for one community; while another community may need remote sensors that provide information to users to manage their own water use; and yet another in a rural area might gain the most from an SMS platform that allows people to understand and monitor water availability.

For those of you attending the IWA Jordan Congress, please attend the session or get in touch with me! For those of you not attending the Congress or involved with IWA, we’d still love to hear your thoughts. Put them down in the comments or contact me directly.

Engineers build more questions than answers with the Natural Grid

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to head to the first in a new lecture series run by the Thames Estuary Partnership. The lecture was called The Natural Grid and it was given by David Weight and Andrew Cripps from AECOM about an engineering idea they’ve worked on to address concerns about water scarcity in southern England, including London.

The basic premise of what they called the “AECOM canal” (perhaps not the most modest name) is a canal that runs north-south across the UK to transport water from Scotland in the north, which is not facing water scarcity (and is in fact having more trouble with flooding), to the Midlands and London south. Using GIS and contour maps, they have found routes for the canal that would be able to follow the contours of the land to travel by gravity, eliminating the need for energy-wasting pumps. The source of the water would come from Kielder Water, a reservoir that was built for industry that never came, so has excess water capacity.

The speakers gave a laundry list of benefits. The canal could provide flood relief by lowering the water levels to accept stormwater. All the way along the canal would be built a utility chamber so energy and broadband/data would have a right-of-way across the country. It would provide clean water for the agricultural Midlands and the ever growing population of London. There would be ecosystem benefits. There’s a chance that it could be used for marginal freight, like moving waste. There could be new or improved towns with waterfront access. More about the proposal can be found in their report The Case for the Natural Grid.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. And as London Mayor Boris Johnson made clear in the an article in The Telegraph in 2011 that inspired the AECOM team, at an elementary level, it makes sense–take water from somewhere where there’s a lot and move it to where there isn’t enough. As they said at the lecture, it’s not new technology, we’ve been building canals and aqueducts for centuries. But, also as they said at the lecture, it’s not the technology in question, it’s those pesky details like politics and funding (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what they said).

But for me, the issue is that when proposing a grand idea, it’s your responsibility to think through the details. This isn’t the Roman or Victorian age when you could just build whatever you want wherever. There are major social, environmental, legal and political implications that must be considered and to treat them as details to be sorted out later seems rather irresponsible. Coming from Chicago, I am all to familiar with the long-term fallout of major engineering decisions. The reversal of the Chicago river was a major accomplishment 100 years ago and vastly improved water quality and public health for the city. But the multi-million dollar proposals to deal with invasive species transfer, the changing politics that have led to higher water quality standards and Illinois’ exemption to the international Great Lakes Compact & Agreement, not to mention stormwater management, water allocation and downstream water quality implications.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, though. And I do believe that the public dialogue that comes from debating proposals such as this generally benefit us as a society (more people talking about water!). I’m not necessarily against an idea like this, I just think there need to be more questions answered, lessons learned from other places and projects and honesty about what it actually can and can’t do before it can be seriously considered. So, in the spirit of public dialogue (and, well, if regulatory agencies and politicians are actually discussing it), the following are just a few questions that came to mind as I listed to the lecture. Thanks to the Thames Estuary Partnership for providing a forum for discussion!

  • How would they handle land acquisition throughout the length of the proposed canal? It’s one thing to use GIS data to pick ideal routes based on contours and land use type, but it’s another to deal with actual landowners. Particularly if this happened to be a private enterprise without ability to seize land.
  • What are the implications for existing wildlife and ecosystems? What happens to wetlands, habitats, migration paths, etc. that the canal would cut through? Would there be plants along or aquatic wildlife in the canal?
  • What about invasive species? Like the Chicago Area Waterway System, would it become a superhighway for invasive species? Unfortunately, the answer they gave was a fairly dismissive “invasive species are coming anyway, this might just make the come faster.”
  • How would long-term maintenance be handled? Infrastructure maintenance is already a major problem everywhere. Again, their answer was fairly dismissive, stating that existing canals had maintenance problems because they were made with clay and this would be part concrete, part bitumen.
  • Which raises the question, if the canal is that channelized with hardscape, what ecosystem benefits does it really have?
  • What about management of the system? They talked about the ability for the water level in the canal to be lowered to allow space to handle flood waters. In Chicago, the waterway system is managed entirely by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (as I described in a past blog post). Would there be one entity to manage it, if so who, and if not then how?
  • Which begs the question, who would own/govern the system overall? Water in the UK is no longer nationalized, so the national government doesn’t really have the power to do it. Would it be a partnership between private water utilities? Would it be a private entity that bought and sold water between water utilities? Would it involve a public private partnership?
  • On a related note, who owns the water at the reservoir that would be the headwaters for the canal? Presumably that’s owned by a private water company. How would that transfer be handled?
  • How would it help towards stormwater management? If the canal itself is elevated for safety reasons, how would flood waters be redirected into it?
  • What are the implications for the Thames Estuary? The event was put on by the Thames Estuary Partnership, presumably not as tacit support for it, more for public interest, but the speakers didn’t explain how it may or may not affect the estuary.
  • What are the water quality implications from potential freight or waste traffic? What about from raising the water temperature due to cooling adjacent energy cables?
  • And, of course, the biggest question, who would pay for construction and long-term operations? And depending on who does, if there is any public money involved, what is the cost effectiveness compared to other ways of addressing water scarcity, such as demand reduction, reducing leakage, wastewater and local stormwater reuse and even desalination?