Sustainable Contracting Practices: Water Infrastructure

Oct. 19, 2020

The environmental challenge & opportunity for construction managers

About the author:

Tom Merritt is president of H.R. Gray, an Anser Advisory company. Merritt can be reached at [email protected].

Growing up in the Greater Cleveland, Ohio, area, I was exposed to a host of environmental troubles. Going to visit my grandparents as a child was always a special treat. Some of the visits took on an otherworldly mystique when the steel mills’ blast furnaces would fire up on a cloudy night, turning the sky an eerily glowing orange hue. 

Playing baseball at Edgewater Park, adjacent to polluted Lake Erie, could be challenging on some days when the beach was laden with dead fish and the winds blew toward the ball fields. Swimming restrictions due to unsafe water conditions and discolored water flowing from the faucet were unfortunately commonplace. Most viewed these conditions as a necessary consequence of the businesses that brought jobs to the community. 

Then, there was the infamous fire. On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River sparked into flames. It was not the first time this severely polluted waterway ignited, but this time it caught the nation’s attention, including Time magazine. As a result, Cleveland became the symbol of environmental degradation. Ultimately, because of this notoriety and the efforts of Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city, his brother U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes and a host of others, the federal Clean Water Act was created. 

These events had a significant impact on my direction in life, leading to a passion for environmental advocacy and the important role governments play. Now, many years later, I reflect on my career choices and the years spent in the public and private sector as a water quality professional protecting public health and the environment. I have seen many positive changes since my childhood and have been rewarded with the opportunities to share a cleaner North Coast with my children and grandchildren. 

Today, climate change and our impact on the environment are part of our everyday conversations. We ask ourselves what we can do, individually and collectively, to make the world a better place for future generations. The public and private sectors have turned their attention to their impact and what they can do to improve. Their efforts go beyond building “green” structures to include the project process from start to finish. In turn, the construction industry has been challenged to join the effort and find ways to reduce its effect on the environment as well. 

Historically, construction projects have significantly impacted the world’s environment. According to a report from Transparency Market Research, the volume of construction waste generated globally each year will nearly double to 2.2. billion tons by 2025. This equates to nearly 4,200 tons per minute or more than 6 million tons per day.

Fortunately, with public interest in environmental sustainability intensifying, we are seeing an increase in programs and projects designed to build more eco-friendly communities. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) reported that 72% of surveyed construction firms are expanding efforts to build low-cost sustainable buildings. By acknowledging our effect on the environment and utilizing the latest technology applications, we can find new and innovative ways to reduce our impact. There are several industry trends that I am excited about. 

Building Information Modeling

Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology has been widely accepted in the design industry and is now being used by contractors to effectively plan, design, build and monitor construction. Essentially, BIM creates a virtual model prior to the actual physical construction. This virtual model enables contractors to better anticipate problems, reduce costs and improve productivity. Incorporating BIM technology with emerging virtual or augmented reality can improve the design and detect errors early on. Optimizing design and construction will also lead to reduced construction material waste.

Adhering to the basic principles of waste reduction—reduce, reuse, recycle—provides opportunities to lessen the environmental impact of construction and demolition. We are seeing a growing trend of construction projects planned and designed with recovery of construction and demolition materials in mind. Both the U.S. EPA and Green Building Council have advocated this practice for years and it has gained momentum as contractors and communities begin to realize both environmental and financial benefits. 

Energy Solutions

Electrical power generation, consumption and supply, as well as their environmental impact are making headlines across the globe. The impact that energy plays in water infrastructure is essential to the health and well-being of communities and waterways. Demands on the existing power grid, extreme weather events and the potential of power outages can have significant impact on clean water distribution, storm water management and wastewater treatment. 

In her book “The Grid,” Gretchen Bakke, assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University, states that the U.S. cannot move toward a new energy future due to the under-funded power grid. As aging equipment becomes unreliable and in need of renovations and replacements, power outages become more commonplace. Despite a growth in renewable power sources, “our aging electrical grid isn’t capable of integrating them into our energy use, so much potential power is wasted.”

One promising energy solution is the development of microgrids. A microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability which enables it to disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously.

Anser Advisory is currently working with clients to integrate microgrid technologies into their project planning and design. Planning for microgrid technology involves incorporating the most energy efficient designs and equipment into a facility. It also includes placing critical energy loads machinery and systems on an isolated power circuit or “island.” These island facilities can be pulled from the power grid, enabling continued operations during a power disruption or as a cost-saving measure to optimize power use from the grid. In addition, isolated power circuits reduce costs associated with demand pricing in which fees are applied to commercial and industrial customers’ electric bills based upon the highest amount of power drawn during an interval (typically 15 minutes) within the billing cycle. Combining microgrid planning with renewable energy sources—such as solar or wind—delivers energy efficiency to utilities that will benefit communities today and in the future. 

Biosolids created during wastewater treatment can also provide potential energy solutions. Many communities are looking at methane gas, generated through anaerobic sludge digestion, and the remaining biosolids as materials that can maximize energy value. By generating power from these products, companies can also realize cost-savings and environmental benefits by reducing vehicle fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with hauling biosolids to regional farms for land application.

Sustainable Buildings

Building regulations and design practices are trending toward reducing the environmental impact of construction and promoting sustainability. Companies have many opportunities to make eco-friendly choices during the design phase of a project. Using recycled or natural building materials and renewable energy resources like solar panels are just a few examples. In addition, using existing and emerging technologies (like BIM described above) throughout the project will lead to reduced waste and increased material recycling. 

There are many ways to decrease construction effects on the environment but, before we can enact change, we need to understand our industry’s impact. The U.S. EPA and Green Building Council are among many great resources. Once we recognize the damaging effects construction has had on the environment, we can make meaningful improvements. Here are a few ways to reduce construction waste and improve
the environment: 

  • Train workers, contractors and suppliers on proper waste management and reduction goals for each project. 
  • Designate a waste management coordinator for each project. 
  • Take advantage of existing technologies and eco-friendly materials, and be open to emerging solutions.
  • Apply green building concepts throughout the design and construction process.
  • Take inventory of construction equipment and look for energy efficiency improvement opportunities.

Sustainable construction has made progress and will someday become the industry norm. By taking these steps now, we can reduce our industry’s impact on the environment and create a better world for future generations.

About the Author

Tom Merritt