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Giving back to our communities through Engineers Without Borders USA

March 21, 2022

Two of our practitioners reflect on the impactful work we are able to accomplish in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA)

This story was written in coordination with Clare Haas Claveau of Engineers Without Borders USA, who provided the introduction below.

Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) is partnering with communities around the world to meet their basic human needs. We’re building footbridges to provide pathways to opportunities. We’re installing solar panels to bring light where it is dark. We’re digging for water so hope can spring from the ground. But it takes more than materials to build a strong foundation.

EWB-USA’s volunteers are the heartbeat of our organization. EWB-USA is committed to creating a positive impact in the lives of our partners and our volunteers. EWB-USA and Stantec have partnered together to help communities advance infrastructure solutions since 2017. We are so grateful for this partnership and volunteers like Nerys Parry and David Wilcoxson and all of the Stantec employees who volunteer their time, their energy and their expertise in pursuit of our vision of a world where every community has the capacity to sustainably meet their basic human needs.

What inspired you to get involved with Engineers Without Borders USA?

David: I had been looking for ways to get more involved on a community level and I received an all-staff email from Jennifer Van Vleet, our EWB-USA champion, looking for volunteers. Initially I did not think I could add value but after reading a project description, I felt it was really something I could bring my specific expertise to, so I decided to apply for the Project Manager role.

Nerys: I had been involved with a particular charity for several years and had just stepped down from the board, so I was looking for a different opportunity. I’d also just returned to work after a year spent battling cancer and recovering from a significant loss, only to find myself alone at home during COVID, so I was looking for a new way to connect across Stantec. Then I saw Jennifer’s email and applied for the project manager role. I saw the role was in affordable housing, and since I’ve always loved working in property (although it had been a while), I was excited to connect over such meaningful work.

In San Antonio, Texas, 46% of renters are “overburdened,” or paying more than 30% of their gross income to cover rent.

Tell us about your current projects.

David: My project is in the Town of Ashfield, a rural community in western Massachusetts. The town is very small with a population of 1,737 that has had very small growth and a per capita income of only $26,483/year. Consequently, the existing wastewater treatment plant has had very few upgrades since it was built in 1998, with several of the existing facility components such as the effluent biological wetlands having been abandoned because it cost too much money to keep them maintained and operational. Our project looked at what types of automation could be implemented at the facility since they have a very slim operating budget and would have to apply for grants to be able to implement any upgrades.

Nerys: And my project is in San Antonio, Texas, the seventh largest city in the United States and the second largest city in Texas, with a population of 1,413,881. Median household income has declined in recent years, while median rental costs have increased. There are currently 488,645 households in the city, with almost half (45.62%) of households being renters, and 46% of these are “overburdened,” or paying more than 30% of their gross income to cover rent.

The client, Neighborhood Housing Services of San Antonio (NHSSA), owns several parcels of undeveloped land comprising roughly 12 acres referred to as Las Bougainvilleas, which they’d acquired over ten years ago. They were looking at developing the parcels for affordable housing, but were concerned about flood risk, as parts of the parcels are in the floodplain, which means that certain development restrictions would be placed on it, and any future residents might be at risk of flooding.

Our EWB-USA team was engaged to provide preliminary feasibility information to enable NHSSA to decide whether to proceed to the next stage of site development, and to then develop a roadmap for next steps for NHSSA to undertake based on their decision.

What impact will your projects have on the community?

David: The community of Ashfield will benefit as the operation of their wastewater treatment facility will be more consistent with the implementation of the ideas we have developed as part of our project report. It will also help their environment as the consistency of operation will avert discharge violations, which they currently do not have a reliable understanding of.

Nerys: In 2019, the City of San Antonio set a target to produce or preserve 18,681 affordable units—as well as help families attain or remain in affordable housing—across the city in the next 10 years under the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force. Helping NHSSA determine the best course of action with its existing land holdings will help the authority move forward with its plans to create new housing that is both safe and affordable, which means more opportunities for home ownership to residents—and greater sustainability impacts for the city.

The Town of Ashfield’s wastewater treatment facility will benefit from greater consistency of operation.

What challenges do these communities/organizations face in accessing the resources needed to prioritize projects like this?

David: The biggest challenge is money, closely followed by manpower able to conduct an assessment of this type. The treatment plant has a fulltime operator, but he is very much focused on manually operating the facility. He does not have the time or resources to investigate different operational strategies that would enable him to not have to be reactive to issues that come up constantly.

Nerys: It’s obviously money, especially with affordable projects. But it’s also about being able to source enough detailed information on the financial impacts certain risks like flooding, will have on the project, and to do so early enough in the project to be able to make an informed decision and confidently chart a way forward. The Stantec team provided the most value in estimating the flooding and the type of site work—and associated costs—that would be required under certain development scenarios. Having to pay to engage an engineering firm to do the same project would have been cost prohibitive, particularly when the outcome could have been that no development was possible, at least not in an affordable way.

How has the EWB-USA engagement helped them to maximize limited resources and generally better understand the project delivery process?

David: The EWB-USA engagement has really helped the town focus on the challenges it has with limited resources, and it has provided officials with an understanding of what is available to help them automate their process. This should also help them save operating costs, which come directly out of the town’s yearly budget.

Nerys: As mentioned above, the EWB-USA engagement helped move this decades-old development forward to the point where the executive director and team can start making project and funding plans. NHSSA had inherited this land, which had been sitting unused for some time, and could have continued to sit without further investigation. Through EWB-USA, they obtained the basic technical support that was difficult for the organization to afford given their other commitments.

After partnering on these projects, what tips would you offer other communities/organizations that are underserved or juggling limited resources?

David: I recommend that any community looking to improve its infrastructure issues reach out to EWB-USA as there are professionals that can help them solve these issues. It is never easy to fully realize that help is available and that there are people willing and able to help. I also recommend that they do not hold back on their own ideas as they know their community best and what limited resources they have available.

Nerys: Think outside the box—or the usual scope. The NHSSA project was not your standard community corps project, and was the first affordable housing project of its kind, as far as I understood. However, the executive director had the good fortune to meet an EWB-USA member and just thought to ask—sometimes that’s all it takes. Just because your project doesn’t fit in perfectly with the others undertaken by EWB-USA, it never hurts to ask.

Dwight Harrienger (left) from our Rochester, New York office at an EWB-USA project in the Dominican Republic.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned—or impressions you’ve taken away—after working on these projects?

David: Listen to the client and try to understand their situation. In our day jobs we typically work on large projects that have a reasonable budget for the design and construction. What we learned with the Town of Ashfield is that there are many more communities out there that do not have the resources, both in money and manpower, and you must listen to them on what would make the most impact for the smallest capital cost.

Nerys: We can offer much more through Stantec than just technical skills. We also have connections to so many experts across the company that we can provide a level of expert advice that is too often inaccessible to some of these communities. This includes sharing what is possible, what others have done, what processes/approvals/steps are required, the likelihood of success, and rough costs/timeframes clients should anticipate. This information is so valuable for these communities and organizations facing challenging mandates and tough decisions.

  • Nerys Parry

    As a marketing and communications manager and a Canadian federal real property advisor, Nerys has led real property and asset management frameworks, and she’s delivered strategies and reports for facilities, contaminated sites, and health and safety.

    Contact Nerys
  • David Wilcoxson

    As vice president and digital practice leader, David is responsible for managing our internal Water group for Digital Practice in North America. He is known for implementing process efficiencies throughout different design disciplines.

    Contact David
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