Atlanta Historic Fourth Ward Park, Georgia
Article

The Value of the Envision Conversation

And 10 Lessons We’ve Learned that Improve the Conversation

Envision is a relatively new sustainability rating system for infrastructure, similar in purpose and structure to the LEED rating system for buildings. While it was officially released by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure just five years ago, Envision has already begun transforming the way infrastructure is conceived, planned and designed. One of the questions most commonly asked about Envision is “What is the benefit to MY project or organization?” 

Using sustainability principles and/or the tenants of sustainability rating systems to design infrastructure can result in multiple beneficial outcomes. The most important outcomes will vary from project to project, so the best way to illustrate benefits is to highlight actual project solutions identified while using Envision during project planning or design.

  • During early proposal development discussions, one team identified an extra pedestrian overpass bridge as an important infrastructure piece to connect the community, a principal Envision theme. This innovative idea helped differentiate the winning proposal and was ultimately implemented on the project. Envision also provided the basis for designing additional public space under a bridge, which increased both value and use of the property. (Related credits: QL1.1 Improve community quality of life; QL3.3 Enhance public space, LD 2.2 Improve infrastructure integration) 
  • A more robust energy-monitoring capability was added to a wastewater treatment plant’s SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system, allowing plant operators to view energy consumption at a glance for the whole plant, or easily drill down to individual processes and equipment. The equipment helps monitor and therefore likely minimize energy consumption. The project team also added better wayfinding signage for the site and added a spec requiring contractor to have an Envision action plan and Envision point person. (Related credits: LD3.1 Plan for long-term monitoring and maintenance; RA2.3 Commission and monitor energy systems; RA2.1 Reduce energy consumption; QL2.6 Improve site accessibility, safety and wayfinding; LD1.2 Establish a sustainability management system)
  • The designers of a rural generating station project decided to plant several acres of pollinator habitat on land that otherwise would go unused. (Related credit: NW3.1 Preserve species biodiversity)
  • Several infrastructure owners have used Envision to demonstrate their commitment to implementing sustainability. Those owners applied specific metrics from the Envision system to examine environmental, economic and community goals and benefits, including how the project addresses community concerns. (Related credits: Improve community quality of life; LD1.1 Provide effective leadership and commitment; LD1.4 Provide for stakeholder involvement)

In these examples, the project teams did not implement these improvements just to get higher Envision scores. Envision conversations led each project team to determine that these changes or additions would be beneficial for the owner, the project and/or the community. The Envision conversation was the beginning — the spark — but not the end. 

Whether the outcome is reducing emissions, restoring sites, prompting economic development, reducing waste, expanding training programs, decreasing water use, creating green spaces or minimizing energy consumption, Envision conversations often result in solutions that add value to a project. By sharing what we’ve learned working on eight of the 35 Envision projects in existence today, we hope to provide a framework for this conversation.


Lessons Learned

Envision projects have two significant and distinct phases: alignment and documentation, and we want to share our top 5 lessons learned for each of these phases.

Alignment

Alignment explores how the project scope aligns with the Envision framework and where sustainability considerations might benefit or adjust planning and design, as well as project and agency processes—even when not submitting documentation for verification. The framework’s holistic perspective prompts project teams to look beyond traditional project boundaries to owner operations and how the project affects the community. The system is configured to expand thinking from short-term and project specific to longer-term and broader, such as extending to integrate with surroundings, considering downstream effects, and providing long-term monitoring and end-of-life opportunities.

Here are our top 5 lessons learned for assessment:

  1. Start early in applying Envision to processes and designs. A project benefits most from Envision when early conversations offer insights into how to improve the project, as well as client programs or processes. Sometimes questions posed during an Envision review push the envelope beyond what an owner has done in the past; sometimes that conversation opens the eyes of stakeholders to processes that were never previously considered. For example, an owner might put sustainable procurement practices in place for a project and subsequently broaden the practice to all agency projects, even developing a Sustainable Procurement Policy. Whether supporting current practices or creating new ones, the dialogue generated through considering each Envision criteria offers an interesting perspective at any phase of a project, but is most actionable at the beginning.
  2. Involve a wide variety of project team members. Envision cannot and should not happen in a vacuum. It is vital to include many viewpoints and subject matter experts. That process and need is not limited to planning and design, but it’s very relevant when reviewing the project for Envision opportunities. 
  3. Make sure everyone on the team understands the Envision goals and expectations, including time commitments. Using Envision doesn’t mean adding costs to the project, but it does mean asking (and therefore answering) a lot of questions, doing some research, and potentially changing some design attributes or even client processes. It takes time, but if everyone is on the same page from the beginning and working toward the same goal, it goes much more smoothly.
  4. Ask questions! To complement #3, the team and others in the company should be open to answering project questions and the Envision team should be able to reach out to subject matter experts when needed. For instance, the Envision lead may consult with an acoustical specialist related to documenting pollutant emissions for CR1.2 Reduce Air Pollutant Emissions. This is definitely a company culture issue to ensure everyone is willing to support the process.
  5. Develop tools and use them to make the process more efficient. Although each project is different, there are many commonalities in going through the Envision process. Staff with more experience should use their lessons learned to make each application go more smoothly than that last. Creating tools, such as methods to organize and manage discussion notes and potential level of effort, promotes understanding, facilitates assessment and compresses timelines.

Documentation

Documentation comes into play for projects pursuing official third-party verification. Once a project team has agreed to submit for verification, the Envision lead will organize the team to begin collecting documentation to support the credits they intend to pursue. Narratives are prepared responding to criteria for each pursued credit and supporting documentation is added to substantiate the statements. 

Here are our top 5 lessons learned for documentation:

  1. Save documentation as the process and project progress. Guide the project team to save information that may be useful as Envision documentation. Set up a filing system so documents related to specific credits are organized appropriately and documents that may pertain to multiple credits are easily accessible. Even if some documentation is not used in the initial submittal, it may be helpful if credits need to be resubmitted.
  2. Use the economies of scale provided by related credits. Take note of the related credits in the guidance manual and write/review associated credits together to leverage language that applies to both/all. 
  3. Look outside your project to the community and regional connections for applicable credits. Use things like neighborhood or city master plans, regional climate adaption plans or transportation plans to tie project goals and results to larger community needs. Many of these plans are public information and can be found with an internet search.
  4. Answer the questions that are asked. Take into account the credit intent, level of achievement information and the relevant evaluation criteria. Ensure your documentation supports answering the questions that are asked, but don’t include unnecessary documentation. 
  5. Make documentation easy for the verifier to review:
  • “Clip” relevant pages from related documents to include with credit documentation (vs. including an entire report, unless necessary).

  • Label the first page of each supporting document and highlight relevant information so verifier can easily find the information.

  • On the cover sheet, explain your reasoning in basic language. An engineer in another discipline or a non-engineer could be verifying your project.

  • Provide evidence for “Not applicable” credits.

Beginning the Envision conversation early in a project expands options and opportunities to integrate sustainable attributes, to help you drive project innovation, reduce project costs by promoting design efficiencies, lessen long-term O&M costs, understand and reduce negative environmental impacts, improve project performance, and enhance integration into the community.