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The Envision Rating System: Not just for designers

Envision can help all project stakeholders—not just technical experts—understand and apply sustainable design

By Marsha Anderson Bomar

Almost 10 years ago, I participated in the design and construction of my office building and entered the conversation about LEED certification knowing very little about how to define sustainability. My view was therefore shaped by the criteria that would garner points: Was there a transit stop nearby? Would we buy carpeting manufactured within a certain radius of the site? Would we haul off our waste and recycle as appropriate? Although there is value in using these items to measure sustainability, it seemed a prescriptive system and did not lead to creative solutions.  

Then about five years ago, I was on the board of the Transportation and Development Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). We talked a lot about sustainability. The traditional approach was to talk about pavements and energy but little else. As a transportation professional, I became familiar with tools developed for road projects, like GreenRoads, GreenLites, and INVEST. They all stimulate alternative strategies to deliver sustainable transportation infrastructure design, construction, and rehabilitation projects. 

Connecting the Dots
But the real game changer is the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. One of the biggest differences between Envision and other frameworks is Envision’s ability to demonstrate the connectivity of decisions – how one aspect impacts the value of another element. For example, preserving views and local character when developing a site can improve community quality of life, preserve historic and cultural resources, enhance public space, protect wetlands and surface water, and more.

            Related Item: More on resilience and Envision

I am currently working on a water supply project for the City of Atlanta where a quarry that is no longer being mined is being transformed into a reservoir. As we review the technical documents and participate in team discussions, Envision is helping us find ways to move certain elements up the sustainability achievement scale. This resulted while we answered questions in two of Envision’s five sections: Natural World and Resource Allocation. For example, the pump station will have a pervious path from the property entrance to the building. Parking will be provided near the entrance to minimize driving on the site and to protect the adjacent water supply from potential vehicular pollutants.

Engaging Decision Makers
In addition to being a transportation design professional, I’m on my hometown’s City Council and periodically serve as Mayor Pro Tempore. At budget time, city departments give council a wish list of capital improvement projects and we have to decide where to allocate our limited resources. How can I compare the sustainability merits of a stormwater project to a transportation project to a wastewater project?

The answer is Envision. All of the other sustainability rating systems I’ve seen focus on evaluating only the project in front of you. But the first question posed by Envision is, “Are we doing the right project?” Starting with a healthy discussion of whether there is a better approach to solve a problem is a giant step in promoting sustainability. Added to that, Envision can be applied to all types of infrastructure and helps to determine life cycle costs, not just upfront construction costs. This makes Envision something of a crystal ball, helping stakeholders understand how much a project will cost not just now, but down the road as well. 

We have specific goals as a city and a lot of community engagement. In last year’s budgeting process, we had our Citizen’s Budget Committee review all of the requests and learn about how each contributed to achieving our goals. Some of those are social, some are economic. The committee was also given information to understand not just construction costs but operations and maintenance. Their recommendations came to the council and we made decisions on projects that provided the best overall value to our city, not simply based on the traditional low bid approach. Envision helped drive this whole process.

Going Beyond Certification
Like the other systems, Envision has a rating component where projects get scored and can achieve certifications (bronze, silver, gold, or platinum). To me, however, Envision’s real strength is how it helps teams think about complex projects in an organized way. When I ask my colleagues to explain how we will have a meaningful community engagement program, specific metrics in the Envision Quality of Life category help make it clear how to go from simply meeting basic requirements to something much more robust. If I ask about the Operations and Maintenance plan and resources, credits in both the Leadership and Resource Allocation categories help project teams explore those aspects.

With my technical background and ability to translate techno-speak into plain English, I am often called upon by other council members or the community to help them understand the concepts around sustainability. Envision provides an effective way to help all stakeholders understand sustainability and prioritize how they want to focus their community’s limited resources.

Also by Marsha Anderson Bomar

Envision is helping the City of Atlanta sustainably transform this quarry into a reservoir. 

Envision provides an effective way to help all stakeholders understand sustainability and prioritize how they want to focus their community’s limited resources.

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