The latest news about sustainability in the engineering industry is from the ASCE Smartbrief entry about ASCE initiative. By the way, the smartbrief newsletter is a great service and I strongly encourage you to sign up. Back to the issue at hand… the ASCE Sustainability Task Force has decided to create a new program that will “certify civil works”. The ASCE president wrote (see blog post here) the following to explain the reasoning for this action:
We believe that ASCE and civil engineers should be the ones who establish good practices related to civil works.
We went green long ago; we just did not take credit for it.
If we fail to act, many other professions will be happy to do it for us and impose their ideas on our practice. We know better than others how to use our skills to benefit mankind by creating energy efficient and environmentally sensitive projects. Now, we will do just that.
I am a big fan of sustainability and green design, but I don’t know if ASCE’s certification program is such a good idea. For starters, if they want to emulate the LEED program then they are about 10 years away from market uptake, and probably 15 years from market penetration (and that is no guarantee). It took the USGBC quite a bit of effort and time to achieve consensus on how to define sustainability, and even longer to market the program to construction professionals. To assume that ASCE can replicate this process in the same time period is ridiculous. This plan cannot be ultimately successful because we are already too late. We must lower our CO2 emissions quickly, I don’t see this plan catching up to the LEED program in time to make a difference.
Also, Klotz’s own blog post betrays the real state of our profession. “We went green long ago… Now, we will do just that” [use our skills to benefit mankind by creating energy efficient and environmentally sensitive projects]. So did we really go green long ago, or are we just starting now? Let’s just say I’m not convinced.
Another problem is that the ultimate goal has nothing to do with sustainability, but “communicating that fact to the public”. It sounds like a PR gimmick from ASCE. It also sounds like a “me too” plan that does not have any original thought involved. If the ASCE sustainability task force is truly interested in sustainability, why is their best and most exciting piece of news that they are reproducing a program that someone else already does well?
The next problem I see is that this program may not be compatible with LEED Accreditation. The USGBC has spent a lot of time and money making sure their own program promotes sustainability in the construction industry, but also social and ecological sustainability. Studying for the LEED program promotes a greater understanding of what other professionals in the design field are concerned about. If civil engineers withdraw from that process then we are losing the greatest benefit of the LEED program, and certainly not learning a key lesson of the past years. Integrate, don’t isolate.
Klotz believes that “civil engineers should be the ones who establish good practices related to civil works” and that “We know better than others how to use our skills to benefit mankind”. I actually don’t agree. Engineers are technical specialists, we use applied science. Engineers cannot exist in a vacuum, we can’t set design criteria without collaboration with other fields. ASCE cannot unilaterally decide how to balance life safety versus sustainable design goals, this requires a public debate involving others.
I haven’t seen any of the proposal beyond this short release by the president, but to move forward quickly on this proposal would require a top-down decision totally within the ASCE organization. That would concern me as well. We cannot be responsible for setting criteria, designing our structures to meet those criteria, and then judging if we met our own criteria. That kind of system has no oversight and no motivation to raise the standards once they have been set.
Most importantly, it would represent a slap in the face of the other building designers (architects, mechanical engineers, etc.) who have been trying very hard to get us to work together. This “we know better” attitude is dangerous, and is the very reason that others are already trying to “do it for us and impose their ideas on our practice”. If ASCE wants to effectively manage sustainability then we need to extend our arms to all of the building design team and start learning what the others need and how we can support their efforts. Trying to siphon off of USGBC’s hard work for our own glory is not my idea of a good long-term strategy.
Obviously ASCE’s Sustainability Task Force did not consult me before they made their decision, but here is what my advice would have been:
- Look to support other initiatives that have already achieved success (LEED, Energy Star, etc.) rather than beginning a separate certification program. Put all of your effort into supporting those programs and finding a way to create synergy.
- All members of ASCE’s Sustainability Task Force should have achieved LEED AP status by now. LEED AP’s all learn a common language and use that to communicate their goals effectively. Klotz himself has a real chance to be a leader by acquiring LEED AP+ status, showing that he is serious about the process.
- ASCE needs to define what metric they are using to determine sustainability: CO2 emissions, energy use, money saved? I don’t see the ASCE organization achieving internal consensus anytime soon, just look at the comments on the blog page. Few engineers even believe the IPCC statements about anthropogenic CO2 emissions. It will be an uphill battle to say the least.
- ASCE should plug into the LEED program by determing baseline material needs for different building types similar to the energy baseline models used in the EA sections of the LEED programs. This would provide the most effective way for engineers to determine if they are truly creating sustainable designs or overbuilding all of their structures.
- Start an open dialogue about conflict of interests in the construction industry. Should an individual engineer be able to receive pens, pencils, and other marketing packages from material suppliers that might influence their decisions? Should an engineer be allowed to work for the ACI, AISC, or any organization that makes money from the amount of materials sold? Engineers are not so different from other professionals in this regard, and AMA is addressing this issue right now.
- Start asking professionals who are not civil engineers: “how can I support your efforts?”
Let me finish by saying I think that ASCE took a very important position by including sustainability in their 1996 code of ethics (see my earlier post & post about this topic). While it is wishy-washy language that would never hold up in an ethics investigation, at least they were trying. You can see how difficult this was for them to accomplish by checking the NCSEA model code of ethics. It is very similar to those of ASCE except that every provision regarding sustainability is noticeably absent.