Our changing climate is one of the biggest problems that challenge us today. Extreme weather events due to a warming planet are becoming more common, yet the infrastructure in place across the United States seems less capable of handling it. And unfortunately, underserved communities are feeling the greatest impact as they are the least able to prepare for and handle flooding, poor air quality and heat waves.
The engineering and construction community constantly finds itself at the center of these issues, but it isn’t clear where efforts should be focused to achieve real, manageable and financially sound solutions.
As chair of the Sustainability Technical Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, I conducted several roundtable discussions on infrastructure sustainability with each of the technical practice areas within the civil engineering disciplines. Based on the feedback I received during these conversations, constructing resilient infrastructure boils down to four key things:
- Construct infrastructure resilient to climate extremes. Unfortunately, most design storms — or the analysis of rainfall patterns that is used to design drainage for a project — are based on historical data with the assumption that our weather will not change. Most of us have heard of a 100-year storm, which is what designers often use to design structures. In reality, the assumption of an unchanging probability is not correct. Going forward, regional weather data and its utility for the practicing engineer will need to be reconfigured.
- Focus on reducing embodied carbon. Decarbonization or mitigation of global warming is based on evidence that a greenhouse effect has contributed to global warming systematically. Therefore, in order to blunt the effects of increasing temperatures, it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions primarily through increased energy efficiency with respect to carbon loading. Other approaches worth more consideration have to do with decreasing the embodied carbon, or carbon emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the life cycle of a building. Forward-thinking technology and innovation is required, particularly in the engineering and construction industries that are cautious when it comes to making big changes, especially when it comes to materials.
- Embrace nature-based design. Integrating nature-based design into sustainable and resilient infrastructure is essential. Natural systems can increase climate resiliency, reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and increase biodiversity. It’s long been understood that in the coastal or riverine environment, the closer our teams can design and build infrastructure to conform to natural processes, the more resilient and long-lasting the infrastructure will be.
- Consider a structure’s social and cultural impacts. Building infrastructure that specifically fits the needs of vulnerable communities is important. Engineering and construction professionals should consider how a piece of infrastructure over its design life will impact a community’s social and cultural needs, both now and in the future.
As ASCE conducts more roundtable discussions, additional information regarding the needs of the engineering profession are coming to light. The biggest need includes setting standards and practice guidance that is useable for a wide range of engineers — and not just conforming to their discipline (e.g., structural, geotechnical, etc.), but also to their service area or customer base such as housing, commercial development and large institutional infrastructure.
Weaving sustainability and resiliency into civil engineering is practical and useful and time well-spent.