By John Nottage and Clément Boisselier

While Canada’s population continues to grow, with the flow on effects to transportation and energy needs, the focus of governments, municipalities and private partners is shifting more towards sustainable development that is not only beneficial to society’s targets but also built sustainably.

In the past decade, construction companies have become increasingly aware of their need to improve sustainability methods to satisfy tenders with potential clients and their shareholders. When it comes to buildings, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has been in place for more than 20 years and is now one of the world’s most widely used green building ratings. Infrastructure owners and Architecture, Engineering and Construction organizations (AEC) looking to accelerate progress toward sustainability and resiliency in the built environment, have long been hampered by a lack of a coherent framework and rating system designed for infrastructure.

That’s when the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) stepped in to create the Envision sustainability framework and rating system. Designed to help infrastructure stakeholders, it offers a consistent, consensus-based framework for implementing more sustainable, resilient, and equitable projects.

Envision includes 64 sustainability and resilience indicators, called “credits,” organized around five categories:

  1. Qualify of Life
  2. Leadership
  3. Resource Allocation
  4. Natural World
  5. Climate & Resilience

By evaluating achievement in these areas against the framework’s criteria, organizations have a powerful tool to define and work towards sustainability goals on projects—one that is becoming increasingly well-recognized across the industry. There are more than 60 Canadian companies and public agencies using the Envision framework as a blueprint for better infrastructure by embedding it onto their projects, or by taking the additional (optional) step of pursuing verification.

North American construction and infrastructure development company, Aecon, provides a strong example of Envision adoption.

“Aecon is proud to work with clients and partners to align our sustainable construction practices to the increasingly important Envision standards—leveraging the framework as a collaboration tool for shared sustainability benefits,” says Aecon’s, vice president, Sustainability, Prabh Banga.

The Gordie Howe International Bridge project, which Aecon is building as part of the Bridging North America partnership, was awarded the Envision Platinum award in 2021. The award is the highest distinction granted by ISI, recognizing the project across a range of categories including community quality of life, mobility, planning, materials, energy, water, economic prosperity, environmental impacts, air pollution, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and resilience.

To earn the Envision Platinum award, projects must demonstrate sustainability through the third-party project verification process, involving a comprehensive independent peer-review process conducted and overseen by ISI. The evaluation assesses the program’s performance across those 64 sustainability criteria and must reach more than 50 per cent of the applicable points.

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The Gordie Howe International Bridge project was assessed on initiatives such as its comprehensive environmental program that addresses over 450 conditions identified in the bi-national environmental assessment process. It also includes a community benefits plan with $20 million in direct community investments that create opportunities to enhance economic, social, and environmental conditions. Both plans were developed as a result of hundreds of consultation meetings with Michigan and Ontario residents, Indigenous Peoples, business owners as well as community and municipal leaders.

The entire project is located on previously developed lands, with part of it being located on a former (remediated) brownfield site. The project also includes providing a new prairie habitat and habitat for pollinators, installing a peregrine falcon box, and planting thousands of trees. To address the risk of increased intensity and severity of precipitation over time, the project also includes stormwater ponds, low-impact development, and bioswales that manage stormwater going into the public system or entering the waterway.

The project has a significant and sustained positive effect on the Windsor-Detroit region through employment, with thousands of jobs created through the construction process and a number of permanent staff once the bridge is in operation.

By using Envision, projects like the Gordie Howe International Bridge can assess and establish goals around the interlocking benefits and trade-offs of infrastructure development. The framework’s categories together address dimensions of human well-being, mobility and access, and community development. They cover material, energy and water management and use, and they incorporate other dimensions related to siting, conservation, ecology, emissions, and resilience.

“All of these aspects—the environmental, the social or community-related, and the economic—are reflected in Envision because they’re fundamental to understanding the true picture of sustainability on projects,” says Lourette Swanepoel, program manager for Envision Canada, a partnership between the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE) and ISI. “With infrastructure development, you have to look at the whole system, and often even juggle different types of systems in the same project and Envision is really the first system of its kind that provides the industry with that practical, holistic framework that spans across infrastructure types.”

In Québec, Aecon is about to take its next project through the verification process, with Envision Gold as the target. This is where a project would achieve more than 40 per cent of applicable points. Connecting to Montreal’s new Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) transit network, the Montréal-Trudeau International Airport REM Station will be the first zero emission rapid transit link to the city centre and beyond.

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Working collaboratively with the client, Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), Aecon and its joint venture partner EBC are using lessons learned from previous projects and applying it to this project. For Aecon, one example is in the way they have adopted Envision into procurement and achievement criteria on the project. This has led to positive results such as the use of sustainable procurement methods to reduce the amount of waste. For the construction waste that does exist, Aecon is ensuring that more than 95 per cent is recycled, using disposal sites nearby to reduce GHG emissions from transportation.

The ability to capture lessons from past projects, and leverage knowledge of Envision application, has been supported by the development of Envision education programs for staff and teams. With the Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SPs) credential, individuals are discovering new opportunities to grow their skills and abilities, while infrastructure companies and organizations are strengthening their project development and delivery, notes Swanepoel. “These are infrastructure professionals working in every sector, trained on the use of Envision,” explains Swanepoel.

Canada has almost 900 ENV SPs who use the framework to advance capital project sustainability and resilience, and building capacity to support the growing demand for Envision has been a key focus under Envision Canada, Swanepoel notes.

To enable team members build familiarity with the Envision framework, Aecon created Envision training modules, making them available on its online learning platform. By the end of 2023, 56 employees pursued the training and 35 became ENV-SP (Envision Sustainability Professional) certified.

“To achieve our sustainability targets in time, it cannot be the responsibility of a dedicated few across all of Aecon’s projects. It became clear that this would need to be a collective effort and the Envision training that we have integrated into staff learning has been incredibly beneficial,” says Banga.

“While most staff now have a basic understanding of our sustainability objectives, we also have nearly 40 staff members designated as ENV SPs who have been trained and assessed on their knowledge to apply the ground-breaking Envision concepts to their daily work.”

The YUL-Aéroport-Montréal-Trudeau Station now under construction (right) will connect the airport to Montreal’s new Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) light rail network. (Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architectes/Saucier+Perrotte Architects)

Sustainability: not only in projects, but across operations

Working with clients and partners across Canada, the United States and internationally, Aecon is working to deliver infrastructure projects that are driving the energy transition. This includes a wide variety of projects—from building some of Canada’s largest hydroelectric power projects to facilitate the conversion of clean energy, to executing the two largest nuclear refurbishments in Canada, partnering to deliver North America’s first grid-scale SMR and the Oneida Energy Storage project, and playing a key a role in the electrification of Ontario’s GO Transit rail system—to name just a few.

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But organizations like Aecon that use Envision are not only ensuring projects are being built in ways that maximize community and environmental benefits and reduce the negative impacts associated with infrastructure development. They’re also ensuring that sustainability is prioritized across their operations.

In addition to what Aecon builds, the company is also focused on how they build, says Banga. While providing sustainability solutions for clients, the company is also committed to reducing their environmental impact by acting responsibly in every aspect of the business.

“The construction industry is responsible for about 10 per cent of GHG emissions worldwide, so it’s imperative that if Aecon wants to be a responsible organization in the industry, we must be bold,” says Banga. “We have made significant progress toward achieving one of the most ambitious GHG reduction targets in the construction industry—to reduce our direct CO2 emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.”

Building on initiatives such as converting to battery-powered tools, EV charger installations on Aecon properties, and solar-powered signage on construction sites, the company is also actively advancing more complex initiatives that would decrease emissions more significantly, says Banga.

“We continue to expand asphalt recycling programs on our projects while trialling zero-emission construction equipment and exploring options for low-carbon concrete. We were the first construction company in Ontario to pilot a new low-carbon concrete from Carbon Upcycling Technologies at our Innovation and Training Centre. We were also the first construction company in Canada to pilot the innovative Volvo ECR25 Electric compact excavator on an active project site.”

Aecon also leverages procurement to advance key sustainability objectives and has integrated Envision standards into its procurement process. To further integrate sustainability into its supply chain, Aecon added ESG questions to its existing supplier surveys and posed questions to its top 500 vendors (by spend). In 2023, Aecon procured a total of $253 million in goods and services from the Indigenous economy.

“Using Envision as a guide throughout the entire project lifecycle as we build sustainable infrastructure has been the right decision to measure our goals against an industry standard that keeps us accountable through both the qualitative and quantitative data,” says Banga.

John Nottage is an Advisor, Corporate Affairs, with Aecon Group Inc

Clément Boisselier is an ENV-SP, Specialist, Sustainability and Environment, with Aecon Group Inc.

[This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: Completion of the $6.4-billion Gordie Howe International Bridge project is planned for September 2025. (Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority)

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