As an Infrastructure Sustainability Accredited Professional (ISAP), Genevieve has significant experience in major
infrastructure projects, providing strategic advice to clients from policy to strategic integration, as well as project level implementation and management.
Sustainable Impact asked her four central questions:
What are you seeing in the market that is putting sustainability at the heart of projects?
“There has been a real shift over the last two to three years in particular, in policy settings and legislation, as well as a change in public mindset around action on climate change. Major public agencies have enacted these policies through infrastructure procurement processes. This includes specific requirements around how critical issues like climate change as well as broad sustainability outcomes are managed and delivered.
“We have moved from sustainability being a side-issue in design and construction over the years, to a fundamental contractual requirement: a big seismic shift. In particular, in earlier phases of projects, we are seeing a focus on carbon emissions reduction, and more recently climate risk assessment. The recognition is that early
and strategic investment decision-making stages are where we need to focus to achieve the biggest gains.
We have moved from sustainability being a side-issue in design and construction over the years, to a fundamental contractual requirement: a big seismic shift.
And this is not the only change that we have seen. A more fundamental concept is pushing its way to the fore.
“The IPCC report is clear: we need to fundamentally decouple our reliance on fossil-based energy to operate as a society. This includes how we consume resources, such as in materials-intensive infrastructure. This challenges us to be smarter about how we use what we have already built. If we have a chance to meet our Paris goals, building new things cannot be the automatic starting point.”
Smith applies fundamental concepts from international frameworks such as PAS2080 Carbon Management in Infrastructure including a hierarchy of focus on how to reduce carbon.
“At the earliest stages of putting forward options to solve a built environment problem, the most effort should be directed into ‘avoiding’ building anything at all: meeting the need without any new construction by potentially changing aspects within a wider system. Emissions from wider systems change needs to be balanced into decision making here, such as increased use of existing assets and operational energy use. The focus should then turn to ‘switching’ to an alternative lower carbon project scope or approach, or prompting consideration of low carbon technologies and materials. Finally looking
to ‘improve’ resource use on the project, finding efficiencies and ways to extend the life of resources on the project.“There are many carbon reduction gains to be had by systematically stepping through this hierarchy. It’s an approach that encourages a wide range of opportunities to be surfaced.
“Ultimately, as many of us will be well across, the most significant long-term impact you can have is at the earliest stage, before a project has even come to light. The biggest question is: do we really need to build this at all?
What new trends or breakthroughs are coming through to enable change?
“It’s helpful to recognise that it is at a systems level that we need change, rather than just a specific industry challenge.”
So how do we unlock that challenge?
“From my viewpoint, there are two aspects to this. First, some flexibility in design specifications could allow use of some of the better -tested new materials, that have overseas implementation track-record. These are low hanging fruit, so the question is how you can trial their use here so we accelerate our learning on how they are used. You need a safe space to trial, and partnership between industry and asset owners is key.
“An example of this would be developing a more responsive risk management process. There is a lot of great work in the supply chain to put forward new materials, products and technology for use in infrastructure projects. Whilst these are gaining traction, it’s important there is the right contractual set-up to enable some risk sharing when there is the opportunity to do something new. There are often new aspects of the product, material or technology that have to be worked through, and this can lead to new risks that need to be managed. This can include aspects like
design standard modification to be able to use new or different materials, consenting approvals or conditions to monitor possible changes or effects, programme flexibility to bring on a new technology. We are in a transition phase right now where we need the ability to try new products and approaches on projects to support meeting sustainability goals.
“Secondly, at a New Zealand Inc. level, we have really poor data on materials and resources flows within the economy. That is what some of the focus will be from Government with the Waste Minimisation Act and the circularity lens it’s bringing to New Zealand. Our lack of data is hampering our ability to join the dots and understand how we can move more quickly to keep materials and resources circling within the economy. We want to move away from the ‘take, make, waste’ system we have at the moment.”
A hierarchy of focus on how to reduce carbon
For example, there are challenges with the supply of on-shore quality reusable materials and new low-carbon products: there are lots of great suppliers out there, but given the scale of what’s needed, geographically-imbalanced demand probably outstrips ability to effectively supply.
We’ve also got huge opportunity at our doorstep to use digital technology to enable alternative lower carbon designs, but we need to deploy them at scale. Building Information Modelling or ‘BIM’, for example, enables infrastructure to be modelled on software, and for designs to be changed easily. When connected to automated carbon accounting platforms, carbon data can be readily surfaced to inform design changes. Digital Twins are also appearing, as are modern, more modular construction methods, and GPS-enabled excavation; a wealth of ways technology is helping construction be more efficient and helping to make design changes without doing anything on the ground.
“So, to really unlock the challenge we have and enable change, we need more collaborative action to support new ideas making it through the system. We are talking about a number of elements in the planning, designing and construction of infrastructure that need to simultaneously change so we can collectively see these benefits. Everyone, from client organisations, regulators, designers, contractors and suppliers has a part to play: understanding what those specifics are and working together to try to fix them needs to be our focus.”
Is structural timber being explored in the infrastructure sector?
“A swap from structural steel to structural timber is a reality in major vertical infrastructure, and there is change happening in the horizontal space too. There are already examples of footbridges and boardwalks that are timber-based, and for retaining walls, swapping out concrete for timber piling, is proving viable from a long-term perspective even factoring in a replacement cycle. Decisions such as this need to include construction energy use and operational energy use (for buildings) over the life of the asset to make sure the best whole-of-life outcome is reached.
What is exciting is the exploration of use of timber in major road-traffic bridges, which is currently happening in the form of potential prototype development for consideration by asset owners. Big changes like this have significant potential to reduce carbon emissions as well as provide demand for new products and expertise in their use. “With the changes we’ve seen over the last three years, the goal posts of the climate challenge have become much clearer, and with challenge there comes the opportunity to innovate and the appetite to consider what previously would have been out-of-scope. We need the diversity of knowledge across our industry to come together to find and work through new solutions.”
Will it cost more to build things sustainably?
“There are a couple of ways of looking at this. There are always things that are cost savings, such as efficiency measures, and we’re all about trying to find efficiency, which is a win for cost and the environment. Then you have costneutral activities that make good sense to implement and that won’t cost you anything additional.
It’s important there is the right contractual set up to enable some risk sharing when there is the opportunity to do something new.
“Then there are initiatives that might take an additional level of investment where you might be asking what’s the return on it. At this point it’s important to take a whole-oflife of the asset perspective; the challenge is that relatively short duration design and build contracts are not necessarily long enough to recognise some of the benefits that come from the investment over time.
“The whole-of-life lens helps to answer the question for the asset owner: ‘what is the optimal investment now to realise the greatest benefits over the life of my asset?’ Infrastructure is typically designed for multi-decades, and it is how the benefits of that infrastructure for the environment and society are realised that matters. Long term, whole-of-life thinking is really at the heart of building sustainable infrastructure.
The biggest question is: do we really need to build this at all?
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