Public infrastructure projects, ranging from highway and bridge reconstruction to water treatment facilities and airports, can have a big impact on the health and safety of the surrounding community and the environment. This, combined with worldwide growth in urbanization, creates a significant challenge for policymakers, designers, planners, and engineers.

“Envision,” a tool released last month, provides a comprehensive framework for governments and industry to confront such challenges by evaluating infrastructure projects of all types and sizes based on environmental, economic, and community benefits. The goal of the rating and assessment system is to help policymakers assess and measure the sustainability features of projects, allowing them to set investment priorities based on which projects will deliver the most significant benefits for the surrounding community and environment.

“The development of this new rating system was based on the simple premise that you cannot improve something unless you have the means to measure it,” said Paul Zofnass A.B. ’69, M.B.A. ’73, sponsor of the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), which created the foundation for Envision and is partnering with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) to perform project ratings and accredit professionals for its use. “We believe that the importance of sustainability is so great that no infrastructure project, large or small, should be planned, designed, or built without at least some serious consideration of its sustainability ramifications.”

Envision rates projects on five key areas that were developed based on the research of Harvard experts: quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, natural world, and climate and risk. As an example, using the new system to measure the impact of a road project could reveal positive contributions to the environment through the use of recycled materials and low energy construction methods. However, if the road project increases congestion, urban sprawl, and divides communities, its quality of life contribution might be low.

The launch of Envision was the culmination of four years of research directed by the Zofnass Program. Led by GSD Lecturer and Zofnass Research Director Andreas Georgoulias, a diverse project team created the rating system after a series of workshops and conferences that engaged engineering firms, public officials, faculty, and more than 50 students at GSD, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Harvard Center for the Environment, and Harvard Business School. “Our interdisciplinary approach was a model for collaboration within Harvard and beyond,” said Spiro Pollalis, GSD professor and director of the Zofnass Program.

Even before its launch, Envision was already attracting attention in government and nonprofit sectors. In March, the Zofnass Program facilitated a discussion about the tool at a conference of engineering firms, and federal procurement representatives organized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Office for Public Engagement. As a result, federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Defense have reached out to learn more about how Envision could be used to assess and make decisions about the environmental and community impact of projects.

The Riverkeeper environmental watchdog group has also engaged the Zofnass Program to use the Envision system to assess and evaluate New York’s plans for the Tappan Zee Bridge. The state recently removed proposals to include public transit as part of the reconstruction of the 20-mile I-287 corridor. “Ensuring that all dimensions of sustainability are incorporated in major infrastructure projects is vital for the future of our cities,” said Anthony Kane, Zofnass Program Rating System Director and leader of the study.

The Zofnass Program was founded in 2008 at GSD with the support of Paul and Joan Zofnass and the primary goal of developing an objective rating tool for civil infrastructure projects. In 2012, Pollalis, Georgoulias, Stephen Ramos, and Research Professor Daniel Schodek edited “Infrastructure Sustainability and Design,” a book based on the contributions of leading academic and industry experts regarding key facets of sustainable infrastructure.

The Zofnass Program and ISI are now in the process of developing three companion tools to help companies and governments use Envision:  a pre-planning checklist for assessing project sustainability, a comprehensive guidance document and score calculator that allows users to analyze and rate a project’s levels of achievement for sustainability objectives, and an economic tool that will monetize non-cash benefits and costs of infrastructure projects in order to derive a sustainable return on investment.

“This new sustainable infrastructure rating system will evaluate, grade, and give recognition to infrastructure projects that provide progress and contributions for a sustainable future. Its purpose is to foster a necessary and dramatic improvement in the performance and resiliency of physical infrastructure,” said ISI Executive Director Bill Bertera.