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Is Envision just another ratings system?

Envision was designed to help clients and consultants define what smart, sustainable, and resilient means for them. How’s it going so far?

By Melissa Peneycad

I started my management consulting career 15 years ago. My job was to “re-engineer” processes, and even whole corporations, to make them more efficient. Profit and ruthless efficiency often went hand-in-hand. But sometimes projects required me to focus not just on profits and efficiency, but also on people and the planet—meaningful work. I’m now a sustainability consultant because of those projects.

         [Learn more about Envision and resilience here]

When I entered the brave new world of sustainability consulting at a boutique consulting firm, I managed, developed, and delivered environmental standards and rating systems for a range of commercial and industrial products and services—everything from building materials to personal care products to renewable energy.

What I learned there was that standards and rating systems can provide necessary guidance to clients—and even whole sectors—looking to improve what they make or deliver and how. I love creating order and structure so my clients can make better business decisions. I became adept at using the LEED and BOMA BESt frameworks for buildings, ISO 14001 for environmental management systems, and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for best practices in sustainability reporting. These and many other tools can help clients, communities, and even entire industries improve and communicate their environmental, financial, and social performance—the so-called triple bottom line (TBL).

Envision Enters the Scene
In 2012, the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System entered the scene. Released by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, Envision measures and rates the TBL benefits of all types and sizes of infrastructure projects—bridges, roads, power plants, pipelines, wastewater treatment facilities, and more. When Envision was launched, I was optimistic that it could be a difference maker because the framework:

  1. Was designed to be flexible. It has to be because of the diverse range of projects it addresses. This means no “prerequisites” or “must-dos” like in other rating systems. I hoped this flexibility would expand how project teams looked at sustainability and encourage more creative ways of solving our infrastructure challenges.
  2. Promotes integrated design. Envision asks project teams to understand how a project contributes to and fits into other systems and the community as a whole, versus focusing only on the performance of a piece of infrastructure in isolation.
  3. Gets project teams to answer two big questions: “What is the right project to carry out?” (in other words, should we refurbish? Rebuild? Replace with something else?) and “Now, how do we do this project right?” 
  4. Helps clients and communities define what broad terms like sustainable, resilient, and smart mean to them. Take sustainability. Envision contains sixty credits, each one representing an indicator of sustainability, such as:
  • Stimulate local growth and development
  • Improve public health and safety
  • Take into account stakeholder views and concerns
  • Last longer
  • Reduce energy needs
  • Protect farmland
  • Withstand climate change threats

Envision was set up to let design teams decide which credits are most relevant to their project and pursue different levels of achievement within each credit.

Envision in Action
One of the first times I used Envision was on a mixed-use community development project in London, Ontario. The developer wanted a “smart, sustainable, resilient community.” To help the client define these terms, we formed a sustainability subgroup to identify the project’s priorities. Envision helped the subgroup determine that the new community needed to

  • Promote healthy lifestyles
  • Conserve energy and use renewable energy
  • Be able to adapt over time
  • Withstand threats such as climate change and economic volatility
  • Contribute to local growth and development
  • Create a focal point and other multi-use public spaces for residents and visitors to gather
  • Maintain local character

Understanding these priorities helped determine the right project to do. We could then focus on earning the most relevant Envision credits, which guided design and helped us do the project right.   

What Do I Think of Envision Now?
Happily, I’ve seen how Envision doesn’t limit project teams to look at sustainability in a narrow way, and how it encourages creative thinking and multidisciplinary teamwork. These are significant assets. Envision isn’t just another tool, nor does it replace existing sustainability standards and frameworks. Rather, Envision fills a crucial gap. Before Envision was developed, design teams needed a tool to help them assess all relevant sustainability indicators for infrastructure projects. Envision is that tool.

One of Envision’s strengths is that it both draws on existing sustainability tools and standards and encourages the use of other sustainability rating systems or standards that may address very specific or specialized aspects of a project. In the case of the London community development project, for example, the developer may use LEED to certify specific buildings within the community.

I’m pleased to be among the first practitioners in North America to have applied Envision on a number of very different projects—community development, water treatment, roadway design. I can clearly see that Envision can help us design sustainable, resilient infrastructure and communities.

The Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Plant is North America’s first Envision-verified wastewater treatment facility

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