Brownfields, synchronized: Pros and cons of aligning development goals with remediation
November 03, 2021
November 03, 2021
Thinking of developing a brownfield and looking for ways to save time and cut costs? Consider layering your remediation and construction timelines.
Brownfields have a lot of potential. You likely already know that if you’re reading this. But if you’re a residential land developer who typically looks at greenfields and feels curious about the brownfield market, I’m here to help you understand a few nuances. Urban intensification has created a greater need to develop abandoned or underutilized sites in the cores of many major cities. As a professional geoscientist with nearly 20 years of experience in environmental assessment and remediation for brownfield projects, I’m here to say: Brownfields can transform into valuable assets for communities.
While remediation can obviously take place before your team begins site grading or construction, I’d like to discuss an approach that’s worked well for my clients in the past: Aligning development goals with remediation needs. Tackling both at the same time. Here are key considerations—three pros and one con—of layering your timelines for remediation and construction.
If you have a need for speed—if you’d like to get residential units to the market faster—aligning your remediation and construction might be the way to go. You can compress your schedule by layering in different project aspects that can happen concurrently.
For example, consider instigating the design and zoning process with the early site development tasks (soil and groundwater assessment, remediation, building demolition, and earthworks/grading) to reduce the lag time between receiving the environmental approvals and the municipal development approvals. In some cases, municipal planning approvals may be dependent on land being conveyed to the city or municipality. Early remediation planning will address potential challenges with likely municipal conveyances. This requires early coordination between various disciplines and design teams, which will pay dividends down the road as the assembled team unites behind the end goal: Community transformation.
When layering on timelines and coordinating with the various disciplines and design teams, you may be able to reduce the requirements for active remediation on your site. Risk assessment can help with that. And that can speed up your project timeline and save costs as well. Initiating the risk assessment early in the process will allow you to incorporate engineered risk management measures into the building design, which can accelerate the schedule and limit delays to implement engineered barriers.
In certain scenarios, risk assessments can demonstrate that leaving small amounts of contamination behind won’t have long-term health impacts to humans or local ecology.
For example, if soil contamination exists 20 feet below ground, a developer can design a parking garage—with separate ventilation from homes or apartments—to encompass the contaminated area. The ventilation and air exchange in the garage would keep the air quality in the garage at an acceptable level. This type of planning is possible when your environmental consultant and design team are working concurrently.
When a risk assessment allows you to leave some contaminated soil behind, it saves the cost of performing active remediation (where your team would have to either treat the soil or remove it and bring it to a landfill).
Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Build buffer time into your project schedule.
When you align your development plan with the necessary remediation, it can reduce costs and the amount of required soil handling for the construction project. There are several site development elements (excavation, shoring, dewatering, backfilling) that may be required for the remediation phase as well. Conducting the early earthworks and sub-grade construction elements in concert with the remediation can reduce overall project costs since some project tasks will overlap.
For example, if you need to move a lot of soil as part of remediation, there are benefits in aligning that with construction. It can lead to cost savings, because you’re only paying the incremental costs for environmental soil disposal. If you need to dig a big hole for construction anyway, why would you dig a big hole, fill it back up, and then dig that hole again? If you don’t align your development plan with remediation, you may end up handling more soil than necessary.
This speaks to the important communication that should happen at the beginning of a project. If a developer includes an environmental consultant at the early stages, that consultant can identify areas where the construction and development can overlap with remediation. If remediation is part of the development planning, then there is a possibility to explore financial assistance from municipalities. Some municipalities have brownfield incentive programs as part of their community improvement plans that can include grants for environmental assessment and remediation costs as well as development charge exemptions.
The main drawback of aligning construction and remediation? Potential schedule delays. When layering your timelines, you’re obviously counting on the remediation going well and government agencies responding in a reasonable timeframe to get necessary approvals. You assume the remediation will get the results you expect—and in the right timeframe.
If one of these things doesn’t go as expected—perhaps the remediation or regulatory approval takes longer than you anticipated, or the remediation doesn’t produce the result you need in terms of establishing a clean site—you’ll face schedule delays.
The best strategy here? Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Build buffer time into your project schedule. If you think something will take two months, plan for four months instead.
This alignment concept won’t work for every project. The alternative may work better for your project, where remediation and construction act as two separate processes. First, a team remediates the site and gets it to a standard where a government agency signs off on the environmental condition of the site. Then, the owner can develop the site without worrying about the environmental quality of the soil and groundwater.
When you tackle the remediation ahead of development planning, it leads to peace of mind. With the environmental work completed, you can lock into your development timeframe. If you’re stressed about a tight timeline—where one delay could derail the entire project—then it may make sense to deal with the remediation ahead of time and move forward from there.
I’ve really enjoyed working on brownfield sites throughout my career. It’s rewarding to see how spaces once perceived as liabilities can become economically viable and full of life.
While the alignment strategy won’t work for every project—like I said, it really depends on the individual situation—I’d encourage you to at least contemplate layering your timeframes for remediation and construction work. You might spot ways to speed up your project and save some money while creating wonderful new places for people in your community to call home.