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How to spend all that infrastructure money from the Obama stimulus package in a sustainable way?

By Joep Meijer on February 13, 2009

With the new administration, the green building industry cries victory and LEED is getting ready to help all federal and government agencies spend money on making buildings more energy efficient. That's great – but what about all that money that is going to be poured into concrete, steel and asphalt in upgrading our existing infrastructure and creating more mass transit infrastructure? Who will make sure that the money is not just spent, but that it is spent on what works, especially from the point of view of sustainability? There is no LEED for transportation projects, after all.

If we are going to inspire and influence this administration, we should make certain that sustainability attributes are part of every request for proposal and contract evaluation. There are parallels from the old world with some tantalizing ideas – including life cycle assessment (LCA) as a fundamental part of tender and evaluation procedure.

Let me share some experiences I have had in Europe related to spending tax dollars on infrastructure.

Searching for the most environmentally friendly alternative
When Departments of Transportation (DOT) design their transportation solutions, they make cost estimates. How can we get the most bang for our buck? The input data for these cost estimates can be run through a life cycle costing model, including both initial cost and maintenance. There is a striking similarity between these data and the data needed for an environmental life cycle assessment: they are the same. Over a decade ago, several European DOT’s started asking questions about the energy footprint of infrastructure projects. They used it to select the most environmentally friendly alternative after considering functionality and cost. It was a great experience. Over the years they realized that it was not much more difficult to include all life cycle impact categories and extend energy to a full scale LCA. The Dutch DOT has a tool called DuboCalc that does just that (Dubo is a Dutch popular abbreviation for sustainable building).

Competitive tenders including sustainability
Some governments are truly interested in including sustainability in their tenders. A question I often get is, "How can we do this?" Being a consultant, my answer is long and complicated, hmm? Well, not really. Why not start with asking competing vendors to tell you their sustainability story and make sure you take that into account in evaluating the best party, maybe even at a small increase in cost. If you do this for a year and evaluate what kind of stories competitors bring to the table, you get a feeling for what the industry can handle and you become more specific with your criteria. After a while, you are confident enough to move from qualitative requirements to quantitative ones, and over even more time you find yourself drafting sustainable functional requirements, not prescriptive measures.

Think about the commissioning party for the construction of a railroad asking his regular providers of concrete beams to identify the carbon footprint of their standard product and to present a different product with a lesser footprint. Basically asking them, "What can you do?"

Green purchasing for every dollar spend
The Dutch national government has adopted a policy to spend money only on projects that have been screened for sustainable performance. Every dollar from January 2010 will be accounted for in this way. How can they do this? They started a communication platform with the industry and included LCA in their decision making process. They have developed a tool that allows everybody to submit their own data according to a national standard for product LCA’s. Wow!

If Obama had such a tool, he could mandate the use of it and start building a benchmarking database for U.S. infrastructure projects to establish a sustainability scorecard related to dollars spent. We could learn a lot from this database after a year and select the best practices in order to start using them more and more.

Exciting developments are starting to sprout here in the U.S. Examples are: Green Highways Partnership; the committee for Sustainable Leadership for Concrete Pavement, from the National Concrete Pavement Technology Center and many others. Initiatives range from using locally recycled content to the use of different binders for new roads. All of them are starting to cast the light of sustainability in some form or fashion on the U.S. infrastructure.

I hope these initiatives can find some stimulus from Obama's package and that Obama provides us with a package that works to create jobs and greater sustainability.