Ask ten people “what does sustainability mean to you” and you’ll get ten different answers.  There will be common threads throughout the responses, likely the first things that come to mind like “green”, “renewable”, “LEED”, or “the capacity to endure”.  However, the deeper meaning of sustainability is likely to be missed unless one has been exposed to the building body of knowledge surrounding the theme of sustainability, or it’s close partner resiliency.  Sustainability starts with a mindset, one that begins with the end in mind.

While sustainability certainly embraces renewable and green concepts, the main focus is on something a little closer to the pocketbook – costs.  Recently completing the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision credentialing program, I gained a deeper understanding of the inextricable linkage between sustainability in our built environment and the costs associated with quality of life in our present day society.  Costs from increased energy prices, droughts and water shortages, maxed-out power grids and roadway networks, and unprecedented damages from natural disasters (think Hurricane Katrina or most recently, Hurricane Sandy) may have once been viewed as isolated incidents.  Now they combine into a trend of increasingly expensive investments in rebuilding what was damaged and mitigating future damage through civil works.

This trend is borne of a societal approach to economic development and life in general:  that scarcity is an issue someone else needs to worry about.  (Check out “Scarcity and abundance in the digital age” on Seth Godin’s blog.)  Left unchecked, decisions about land development, materials selected, and building codes in most of the U.S. are made with resources not truly a factor of consideration.  The problem is that as we collectively move forward, electric cars and wind energy aren’t going to fix our resource woes.  Only a change in mindset will; and the engineering, architectural and construction professionals/industry will be the one’s who take point in making this happen.

The U.S. isn’t the only country with the challenge of incorporating a mindset of sustainability into the mainstream.  I’ve had the good fortune to travel across Europe and the Middle East during my career and have seen good and bad in both locations.  I was (am still) enamored with my house in Germany that used geothermal; structural CMU-block and reinforced concrete versus timber; and was built with the intention of lasting for 100 years.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, is skiing in Dubai…enjoyable for certain, but utterly shocking when the ecological footprint is contemplated. 

For those interested in changing their mindset, for developing an appreciation for what’s involved in increasing sustainability in our built infrastructure, start by looking at the material with the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure.  If resiliency is your forte, check out The Infrastructure Security Partnership.  Finally, if you want to gain a full appreciation for the ecological impact of our way of life, and the way of life in 140 other counties, check out material on the Global Footprint Network. Of particular interest, is information comparing the Human Development Index to the Ecological Footprint they’ve collected in collaboration with the UN’s Development Programme.

“The difference between what we are doing and what we are capable of doing would solve most of the world’s problems.”  Mahatma Ghandi

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals. 

 

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