Envision: How the sustainable infrastructure rating system developed

November 5, 2015 Marty Janowitz

Paul Zofnass, Harvard, and the origins of the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System


I find that many of my colleagues gravitate toward the architecture and engineering consulting industry because it’s more than conventionally rewarding—it’s meaningful work. I’m no different. The sphere of sustainable design called to me as a way to foster progressive social transformation by channeling my passion for the environment.

I’ve learned throughout my career that the ability to envision and address future societal needs is a major component of effective resilient design. Several years ago, the emergence of sustainable infrastructure principles signaled the start of a transformational movement in planning and engineering.

Envision: How It Began

In 2008, Paul Zofnass, an industry-leading acquisitions specialist, invited Stantec to serve on the advisory board for a new initiative he established with Harvard University called the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. The program’s mission is to develop a holistic methodology for quantifying sustainability and to establish a widely applicable set of guidelines for infrastructure projects. Because Stantec was pursuing sustainability in our industry, we jumped at the opportunity. We could now leverage our expertise and provide the Zofnass Program with multidisciplinary guidance and infrastructure best practices. We sensed that we were on the cusp of major changes in resiliency and sustainability—and we were right. The Zofnass Program evolved into the intellectual engine behind the framework we know today as the Envision® Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System, implemented by the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure.

As the engineering and design world has grown, so has the number of rating systems—to a staggering figure totaling over 900. Yet of all the ratings systems, we still lacked a comprehensive practice that could be applied across all infrastructure asset classes: energy, utilities, water and wastewater, transportation—even information technology. Envision bridges the gap created by previous ratings systems by establishing a new common framework. Envision applies the same methodology and language, regardless of project type, and takes an integrative approach to designing a resilient project. It isn’t just about how to design a bridge and make it sustainable, but also deciding if it’s the right bridge—or if a bridge is even the right solution. 

We Have Envision. Now What?
However, designing the framework is only half the battle. The real test will be our ability to implement the Envision approach and principles as the new standard of practice. Harvard’s annual Zofnass Symposium offers industry leaders the opportunity to learn more about how Envision’s real-world applications lead to resilient projects. I am thrilled to participate in these events because they tie in to an area that Stantec believes in. Resiliency and sustainability are in our sweet spot because they call upon a multidisciplinary approach to addressing complex problems and are at the intersection of our capabilities and a significant societal need.

I’ve seen great things happen as a result of the Zofnass Symposium. We’re now aligned with groups like Harvard University Graduate School of Design, the Jonathan Rose Companies, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that are moving toward the same set of objectives, which helps us find allies in the sustainable arena. For example:

I look forward to the continued evolution of infrastructure as industry leaders recognize that sustainability is not just about engineering and hardening our systems to make them tougher, stronger, or shock resistant. It’s also about community adaptability and building strong networks—whether they’re physical, social, or digital. What’s most moving to me is when members of a community show up for one another, deal with the shock after a disaster, and take care of each other when their systems are failing. That’s not about concrete—it’s about “humancrete.” That’s what drives me.

About the Author

Marty Janowitz

As vice president of sustainable development, it’s no surprise that Marty believes sustainable design is both the right and the sensible thing to do. He aims for Stantec to be both an exemplary model and to develop progressive, sustainability-oriented services that draw on the entire firm’s capabilities.

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