Charting the path to infrastructure transformation with higher performing projects

The architecture, engineering, and construction (A/E/C) industry faces the twin challenge of combating climate change and addressing Canada’s infrastructure investment shortfall. Recognizing that infrastructure assets are being built to provide services for the next 25, 50 or even 75+ years, asset owners and funders increasingly want more sustainable and resilient infrastructure — with greater community benefits but also fewer of the negative impacts sometimes associated with infrastructure development of the past.

The private sector, carrying considerable weight in achieving these goals, can lead by example by embracing a blend of innovative tools, practical resources, and robust standards. At the 2024 CSCE annual conference (June 5 – 7), leaders emphasized how it can best move forward with a mindset of sustainability and change in the A/E/C industry. Canadian firms in particular have an outsized role to play here. With three of the top 10 firms in the world, Canada “bats well above its weight,” noted Gord Johnston, President & CEO of Stantec, as he began a discussion about the state of the industry with his counterparts Ian L. Edwards of AtkinsRéalis and Alexandre L’Heureux of WSP, in the conference’s opening session.

On stage at the CSCE 2024 Conference: Ian L. Edwards, President & CEO, AtkinsRéalis, Gord Johnston, President & CEO, Stantec, and Alexandre L’Heureux, President & CEO, WSP with moderator Hisham Mahmoud, Chairman & CEO of Qualus and Chairman, Cumming Group. Above: three Envision-awarded projects where WSP, Stantec and AtkinsRéalis / SNC Lavalin respectively, were the Envision firms: Centerm Expansion and South Shore Access Project, the Surrey Biofuel Facility, and the Samuel De Champlain Bridge Corridor Project.

In a wide-ranging conversation, the panellists explored the industry’s role in getting to net zero, mitigating climate change risks, repairing aging infrastructure, reinventing cities, advancing the energy transition and navigating technological shifts. These “imperatives for the modern world” have to be tackled concurrently, noted Mr. L’Heureux: that’s the formidable task facing the A/E/C industry. It is in a race against the clock, Ian Edwards said, to address climate change and infrastructure demands on all fronts. Global infrastructure spend, already reaching USD$2.6 trillion in 2023, is expected to grow to $3.5 trillion in 2024 — an illustration of both the challenge ahead and the opportunity at hand. The upturn in investment forecasted is one more marker for an industry that has never been more consequential than it is today, noted the panel moderator, Hisham Mahmoud, Chairman & CEO of Chairman & CEO of Qualus.

Leading a transition to sustainable & resilient infrastructure

With its significant focus on “Adapting to Climate, Technology, and Growth,” the CSCE conference in Niagara Falls spotlighted how the private sector can most effectively deliver higher-performing projects to meet the rising demand for infrastructure. This issue connects with several other fundamental questions: How should the private sector showcase the commitments taken to realize these goals? What is the best way to demonstrate the interconnected trade-offs and benefits of various infrastructure options? And how can the private sector translate the philosophy embodied by corporate sustainability plans and ESG into a practice that transfers to their clients and their communities?

There’s an answer to those questions, fortunately, and it comes in the form of the Envision® Sustainable Infrastructure Framework. Envision enables companies to achieve higher performance by making better infrastructure choices. It is, simply put, a framework for enhancing the sustainability of capital projects and is the only system of its kind specifically designed for use in all types of civil infrastructure.

The Canadian civil engineering community has been using the framework to lead and advocate for sustainable and resilient infrastructure since its creation in 2012. Canadian companies were Charter members of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, which, in collaboration with the Zofnass Program at Harvard University, created Envision. This early leadership from the private sector helped set the stage for greater adoption of Envision as a leading framework in Canada. Then in 2021, ISI formed a partnership with CSCE, significantly accelerating the use of Envision in the Canadian market and promoting its benefits to federal and local governments, which demand demonstrated sustainability and resiliency in project delivery.

From the outset, many influential infrastructure firms championed Envision, underscoring their commitment to sustainable development. That support is evident in the substantial investments made in training, cultivating a skilled workforce of Envision Sustainability Professionals who now number nearly 1,000 in Canada.

These firms have also applied Envision across numerous projects, leveraging it as a comprehensive approach to enhance sustainability performance, optimize resource management, protect and enhance the natural world, and make good on a range of other sustainable goals. Beyond these benefits, Envision-aligned projects contribute to mitigating climate change, supporting equity goals, and fostering robust stakeholder engagement and community goal realization, demonstrating that sustainable infrastructure is not only achievable but integral to holistic progress.

Applying a proven sustainability framework to projects

Taking the additional, optional step of pursuing Envision verification, 17 projects Canada have completed third-party verification to earn Envision awards, with another 19 registered to pursue verification.

Envision has been actively in use in Canada since 2013. The first Envision project to be awarded an Envision award, located on the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario, was the Grand Bend Area Wastewater Treatment Facility. It was also the first wastewater facility in the world be verified using Envision. The Envision firm behind the project, Stantec, went on to be the lead Envision firm on multiple projects over the past decade and established a dedicated team to deliver Envision services.

“Stantec has been fortunate to be engaged in the Envision program from the start. We have seen the improvement in the sustainability performance of our clients projects by working with Envision, and leveraged our dedicated Envision Team to share lessons learned across North America on how to use the Envision Framework in project delivery” – Brad Moore, Stantec’s Sustainable Infrastructure Team Lead

Stantec’s portfolio of Envision projects has a strong Canadian and international dimension. The most recent of these is the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project – The Battery, which earned an Envision Platinum Award. The firm has 12 Envision-verified projects and a sizeable number of ENV SPs. Its cadre of ENV SPs includes CEO & President Gord Johnston, who noted following the CSCE Conference plenary panel that he became an ENV SP to demonstrate the importance of “leading from the top.”

WSP and AtkinsRéalis also have a long history of Envision use. WSP has nearly 200 ENV SPs in its ranks. In addition to being involved in several Envision-verified projects in the U.S., WSP was also the lead Envision firm for the Centerm Terminal Expansion Project and South Shore Access Project in Vancouver. The project will advance sustainability in the Port of Vancouver, an essential Canadian port handing $1 of every $3 of Canada’s trade goods outside North America.

AtkinsRéalis, like WSP and Stantec, has a worldwide presence while retaining a strong Canadian presence, and has played a key role in establishing Envision in the Quebec marketplace. As SNC-Lavalin, now AtkinsRéalis, the company was the lead Envision firm for the iconic Samuel De Champlain Bridge Corridor in Montreal and the firm has other Envision projects in the pipeline.

These companies represent only a portion of the Canadian landscape. But with their considerable size, they’re powering a shift in the private sector and encouraging market transformation towards a more sustainable and resilient future in infrastructure development.

Like many other Envision-supporting organizations, these firms have discovered the framework is an effective tool to demonstrate commitment to sustainability among internal and external stakeholders. Myriad other sustainability tools and methodologies will be deployed on projects, but the Envision system stands as a valuable overarching framework and scorecard that promotes transparency and a common language around sustainable infrastructure.