In the design industries, sustainable ratings are too often parsed for single structures. What makes this approach inefficient is precisely that it fails to account for a more comprehensive approach to promoting sustainable strategies. Moreover, what comprises “sustainable” in one rating system may be completely ignored by another. Rather than implementing such piecemeal methods, the design and building industries need to consider a ratings system that accounts for categories ranging from resource allocation to quality of life issues.
Enter the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It grew out of a studio from 2008, but the program has long since grown beyond its original vision. The program has created Envision, a voluntary certification system. Envision helps cities and infrastructures deploy sustainable strategies “for the design, delivery, and operations of large-scale urban developments and infrastructures.” To help users navigate all its features, there is a downloadable manual.
It entails four different categories that comprise the ratings system: Resource Allocation, Climate Change, Natural World, and Quality of Life. Within each category, there are subcategories with credits, which in turn are assigned points. The goal is to achieve points by “meeting the criteria” of a given credit. For example, in the Natural World category, credits are based on how to minimize the impact of infrastructure and urban developments on both local and regional ecosystems. Quality of Life considerations include minimizing the impact on health while promoting safety and security, as well as engaging and employing local people in the process. In the Resources category, the main goals include preserving access to current resources combined with minimizing the impact on the environment’s current state if improvement cannot presumably be a goal. This dovetails with the final category of Climate Change, which actually aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as promoting strategies that adapt to climate change conditions. The system allows designers to assess not only their design decisions in terms of sustainability goals, they can also assess costs as well as benefits not just in real dollars, but in terms of the impact and effect on people and the environs.
What’s even more interesting is that the program offers conferences and events to keep the public informed. One recent even was entitled “How Food Systems Shape Cities.” This and other programs are clearly designed to complement the mission at the ZOFNASS Program, but they also serve to educate the general public on different ways of understanding our natural and built environments and how the two work in concert.
To keep this system agile, there is significant collaboration between academics and industry professionals. There are researchers and academic advisors from the schools of Public Health, Business in addition to the GSD. Industry collaborators include representatives from architecture, buildings material, software, and even transportation sectors.
Real-world results have been promising. One project was a development of the Lakeview Bluffs located in Lake County, Ohio. This 1000-acre development was the site of heavy industrial use with a single-acre vineyard in its middle. With the help of the Zofnass ratings system, the developer was able to revision the area into a “sports-oriented master planned resort community” that included, amongst other things, trails and bike paths, a spa, and a winery amongst other elements. A completely different project involved a new city development in Tanggu-Baitang in China. With China’s penchant for grand master plans, the deployment of software that “quantifies the efficacy of holistic sustainable design” and its impact on cost provided a central decision-making tool that helped identify different development and design options.
With the realization that resources are finite and that development is an inevitable human force, infrastructural ratings systems such as Zofnass will offer developers and architects an important tool in advancing smarter, more cost-effective, and more conscientious projects.