Challenges and opportunities: achieving net zero carbon in the infrastructure sector

Conall Boland leads our sustainability team in Ireland, where infrastructure projects in the water, transportation and energy sectors are key activities. He sees big challenges and opportunities for the infrastructure sector in meeting the 2050 carbon reduction targets.

07 May 2020

An interview with Conall Boland, Lead of Sustainability in ROI

Sustainable infrastructure - why should we bother?

Good question. I can give two reasons: number one, it will help reduce global warming and protect biodiversity, so we should absolutely bother. Remember, there is a specific target in the UN Sustainable Development Goals to make our infrastructure more sustainable. Secondly, it makes economic sense. By and large, if you achieve a sustainable design you will likely reduce the carbon in your infrastructure, and this usually translates into cost savings in the long run.  

Is there enough innovation in Infrastructure? 

Infrastructure delivery used to have very strong demarcation of roles between design team and contractor.  Design-build collaborations are now more common. We have learned a lot from working in teams with contractors.  Their appetite for lean, cost-effective solutions is helping us to deliver low-carbon designs.  Our staff are sharing our knowledge of environmental management, sustainability design, and helping improve site management practices. Advances in technology such as the use of BIN and VR are helping to foster innovative thinking.  

The roads and bridges don’t look too different to me……..

A lot of the innovation goes unseen – for example we are helping Scottish Gas Networks develop the use of robotics for gas main repair and replacement – in time that will reduce the need for road closures, excavated trenches, waste and traffic delays.  At the moment, I see innovation in areas such as off-site construction, and in building materials.  For example, we are keen to make more use of materials such as Cross Laminated Timber in structural design – it arrives to site pre-fabricated to high precision, can be erected quickly, and has low embodied carbon.  The structure does the same job as one made from steel or concrete, and the external appearance might be no different. 

What’s RPS’ track record in infrastructure?

We have successful delivered traditional infrastructure for decades – highways, pipelines, wastewater treatment and so on.  Reliability, safety and value for money were the founding objectives.  Sustainability was not a word back when it all started!  We were always dedicated to ‘quality engineering’ and achieving the best environmental outcome – which meant being efficient with materials, trying to avoid waste, reducing unnecessary transport. 

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How does that equate to sustainability?

Well, for example, I remember a colleague of mine spending hours and hours working on the earthworks balance for a section of the M4 motorway design outside Dublin.  By optimising the profile and alignment of the route, he managed to arrive at a net zero earthworks balance, meaning all excavated material could be reused and no waste spoil would be shipped off-site. Today, we would celebrate that as a low-carbon solution.

So, is it ‘back to the future’ then?

In some ways!  When I give a presentation on sustainable design, I sometimes start with a slide of a traditional thatched cottage.  Few buildings have lower embodied carbon: local materials – some of them renewable - very little transportation and quite durable.  Can we adopt and adapt some of those concepts for 21st Century infrastructure? That’s where the challenge lies.

That is a micro-project. What have the mega-projects taught us?

Looking at projects like Cross-rail and HS2, I can see the benefit of a client setting ambitious sustainability goals, and putting in place governance systems to follow through on ambition.  When this approach is taken at the outset, there is a requirement for everyone to up their game – designers and contractors alike.  For example, our involvement in HS2 projects propelled us forward in relation to Carbon Life Cycle Assessment.  We are now able to transfer the know-how gained on the big projects for the benefit of other clients.  The knowledge is taken forward.

Should clients invest in pursuing sustainability standards?

We have had positive experiences by and large with independent sustainability standards.  It has forced us to look at every angle, and to lift some stones that might otherwise have been left unturned in the search for sustainability outcomes.  We are currently taking that approach on our work for the Industrial Development Authority, where we are undertaking LEED certification of new office buildings.  Plus, achieving an independently verified badge for a project gives welcome recognition.  Our work alongside contractors Wills Bros on the St Erth’s Multi-Modal Transport Hub in Cornwall won a CEEQUAL excellence award in 2019.  That was a nice reward for the innovative approach we took for the management of contaminated land and invasive species.

What role will BIM play?

At design stage, integrating BIM with carbon measurement tools will give us a fast and accurate picture of the embodied carbon in a particular structure or installation. I think the real benefit of BIM will come from the management of our infrastructure over its lifetime – helping to make inspection, repair and renewal more efficient. The asset owner/operator will be able to manage the life cycle impacts much better than has been the case up to now. Our BIM teams are already working internationally on some exciting projects, from Texas to Melbourne, but I think we are only scratching the surface of the potential with BIM and sustainability.

Is there too much emphasis on carbon right now?

Arguably. Aspects like water resources and biodiversity should get more attention. Sometimes we can bring the various strands together. Like in Dungarvan, we worked with the client Waterford County Council and the EPA to develop a nature-based solution for treating the leachate from a closed landfill, using a constructed wetland system. As well as improving water quality in the estuary, our solution has improved biodiversity and the local landscape.

I have always been drawn to the environmental side of engineering – how do we achieve solutions that use less water, create less waste, result in less pollution – and so on. At this stage I can appreciate where infrastructure delivery fits into the bigger picture of sustainable development. Everyone likes to do a job that makes a difference. There is a lot more to be done on minimising impacts from infrastructure. That is something I can contribute to.

Conall Boland

Senior consultant - Sustainability

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