A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to serve as a technical reviewer and judge for an east-coast university’s senior capstone projects. One of the teams selected a project that studies the effect of sea level rise on coastal wetlands. Their strategy to determine the effect rising seas might have on wetland ecology was to isolate an area of wetland and mimic increased tidal influence. Their methodology was to flood the area with 12 inches of pumped water over a period of 6 hours and then let it drain over another 6-hour period. This was to be repeated each day, with observations and testing to evaluate the water’s effects on soil, plants, and wildlife in the area.
The design aspects of the project were well done, with much engineering detail for the system, which pumps nearly 500,000 gallons of water daily from a nearby creek and releases it back to the creek at the end of the day. When the presentation was complete, the panel of judges were asked to provide questions for the students. The questions started with some technical detail clarification, but I couldn’t get past the single issue that was in the back of my mind throughout the presentation. So I asked, “Is this a responsible project?” After waiting for a response and hearing none, I continued, “Will the information you collect provide enough value to offset the capital cost, energy use, and unknown effect of diverting a large amount of creek flow?”. It was clear as I watched the wheels turn in the young minds on the other end of the virtual meeting that this question hadn’t been considered. They were tasked with completing a design, selected their project, and never looked back.
As engineers, architects, planners, and scientists, do we risk getting so caught up in the excitement of innovation and design that we forget to ask ourselves whether our project is responsible and sustainable?
The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI)’s Envision framework and rating system addresses this question from the beginning. In the introduction of its guidance manual, the purpose of Envision is stated to assess “not only individual project performance, but how well that infrastructure project contributes to the efficiency and long-term sustainability of the communities it serves.” Mead & Hunt fully supports this project delivery philosophy and has been developing a team of Envision-certified professionals to help our clients take action towards a better future. In looking at the big picture from a sustainability standpoint before the project gets started, we can make sure we’re not only doing the project right, but doing the right project.
A few days after the capstone presentations, I received a LinkedIn message from one of the students. She thanked me for the question, and for providing education that went beyond engineering coursework. Even if the mindset shift continues to happen one student at a time, asking the simple question, “Are we doing the right project?” before we dive into the design is critical in protecting our future.