How one project changed the way a water and wastewater engineer thinks about design
Municipal water and wastewater engineering fees were once about 15% of a project’s capital cost. Then in recent years, political and market changes caused fees to drop by half or more. This commodification of engineering services means engineers often only do what is asked by a client. Low cost. Strong functionality. No “gold plating.” Project teams can only design inside the box because there simply isn’t time to explore innovation, let alone pay attention to a project’s immediate and future impacts on the community and environment. (And besides, until recently, most clients weren’t concerned with this anyway.)
As the markets have become stronger and infrastructure funding is increasing, so has the realization that our infrastructure needs are changing, mainly due to climate change and our aging water, transportation, and other systems. Communities are building up and out, but what lies beneath—the linear infrastructure that keeps toilets flushing and clean water flowing—is in rapid decay.
So now we’re in a situation where we’re demanding more from our infrastructure yet design fees are at an all-time low. This means we have to change how we design our infrastructure. But when you are used to doing things one way—which usually means the way you did it the last time, and the time before that (what we call “boilerplate” design)—it’s hard to find a new approach.
Ontario’s Envision-verified Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Facility will open in the spring of 2016. (Photo courtesy of KPS Services)
My First Look at Envision
A couple of years ago, Stantec embraced the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. Our Water sector leaders introduced my team in London, Ontario, to Envision to help us work more efficiently, address the changing needs of our clients, and test the framework’s viability. Breaking through the typical engineering design process to review and evaluate the way that we design using new tools in hopes of “doing a project better” sounded like a fresh perspective to pursue.
We discovered that Envision was a project assessment tool and also a guidance document for infrastructure design. My initial reaction was positive because Envision allows for flexibility, resilience, and complexity—characteristics that are becoming more and more appealing to facility owners, regulatory bodies, and political groups. And as a process engineer, Envision helped me approach project challenges holistically versus the boilerplate approach that was making me complacent. But I was also intimidated by the framework. It was all so new; there was so much to learn. Could we handle the change and still deliver our projects?
We used Envision for the first time on the Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Facility. We set up a team of Envision and technical experts and engaged design staff to push for a better design. It was a difficult challenge because Envision was new to most of the team. Added to that, we only had six months to design the project, half the normal time.
Despite these challenges (and others), using Envision was worth it. The framework helped all stakeholders understand and resolve community concerns, such as odor, water quality, budget, and construction noise. Furthermore, the team’s design solutions helped to bring the two owner communities together. Envision also allowed for discussions on what else the project could do for the community besides clean its water. Those discussions led to the on-site Grand Bend Wetland and Nature Reserve. This amenity will become the focal point for conservationists, tourists, university and college research, children’s educational programs, and the overall community.
Return on Envision
As is common with new approaches, implementing Envision required heavy upfront investment. The project team had to develop new processes and templates, which took time and fees. But the return on that investment has been significant. First, a project that addresses life-cycle costs and future conditions. This will mean savings down the road for the community, who won’t have to build a new facility to accommodate growth. Second, the templates and knowledge we developed can be repurposed on new projects for clients that want to think outside the box.
The “return on Envision” has also been personal. I now look at projects from the proposal stage onwards through an Envision lens, whether or not the project team formally adopts the framework. Having designed Grand Bend using Envision, the framework and concepts are easier to apply to any project. Our team has adopted a design culture of doing more for a client with fewer resources, and Envision is a way to do more; a way to have your project perform better and to not simply follow a boilerplate process.
So instead of boilerplate, I now try to preemptively seek ways to make projects better serve client communities: aesthetics, function, cost savings, building materials, sustainability, resilience, configuration traps, expandability, and more. Envision may be the solution to change an old way of thinking—by applying a sound framework to engineering design and further enhance community infrastructure. Change can be mean better, and I believe in the change Envision can bring.
About the AuthorMore Content by Gary Deonarine