Envision can help move the sustainable design conversation beyond “do no harm”
By Eric Dunford
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a celebratory site tour of the recently completed Low Level Road project in North Vancouver, British Columbia. As we walked the site’s bridges and pathways, lead engineer Kip Skabar and landscape architect Emily Dunlop pointed out unique features and innovations that contributed to the project’s Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) Envision sustainable infrastructure rating system’s Platinum Award.
As we stood on a suspension bridge overlooking a steep, rocky ravine covered by a mix of new native trees and shrubs in Moodyville Park, Emily remarked, “You know, many people think that if we do nothing, the plants on this site would just regrow on their own. But it takes a lot of planning and effort to restore an ecosystem like this once it has been disturbed.”
This got me thinking: Too often, people think about our impact on the environment as solely negative. Preserve, protect, conserve—the language and objectives of sustainable design are often based on a sort of environmental Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.” Conservation may be possible for some projects in remote or restricted areas, but what about in areas where human activities have already altered the landscape? How can we do more to proactively revitalize and restore the natural features of our communities through our approach to design?
From Conservation to Restoration
This idea of limiting or preventing damage has also been embedded in the tools and frameworks that designers use to promote sustainable practices. Many specify or require
- Reducing energy and water consumption
- Avoiding development on natural areas
- Selecting recycled construction materials
Recently, however, designers are moving past this idea of limiting environmental impact and toward actively restoring environments we’ve already impacted. The sustainable design conversation has now turned to a vision of designing and building projects that remediate, restore, and otherwise add value to the communities and environments that host them.
A great example of this trend is the Living Building Challenge and the push for “net positive” buildings, which use renewable energy and innovative design to meet all energy needs and actually generate electricity that is returned to the grid.
Envision: Making Restoration a Priority
The Envision rating system promotes restoration as an explicit goal of design. Half of the framework’s 60 guidance credits provide targets for restorative actions, such as reducing ambient noise or remediating brownfields, covering the full breadth of triple-bottom-line sustainability issues.
Envision sparked conversations around restoration for the design of Ontario’s Grand Bend Wastewater Treatment Facility. Built on the site of an existing series of lagoons, the new facility—opening next spring—will treat wastewater using typical mechanical treatment, but also includes a constructed wetland to further treat water before it’s returned to the watershed.
The project team and local environmental agencies also identified opportunities for on-site habitat restoration beyond the wetland. As a result, the design calls for the restoration of a portion of the site to its ancestral condition as a tallgrass prairie, which has been almost entirely wiped out by agriculture in southwest Ontario. This restored ecosystem is likely to support endangered and threatened species, including the iconic Monarch butterfly and the Bobolink, a native bird species.
Grand Bend shows how ingenuity mixed with asking the right questions of the right people can aid our design teams in restoring the natural world while still meeting the practical and technical requirements of our projects. Tools like Envision provide a platform for our project teams to have conversations around restoration opportunities and potential, helping us reframe the conservation discussion to focus on opportunities for positive improvement.