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Arpad Horvath: Sustainability of Built Environment – The Paradigm Shift of Our Generation

The new paradigm is: The future has to be based on sustainability principles. It is the most significant investment we have undertaken. How far will it take us?


When the building of the interstate highway system in the United States was launched by the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, it was to become the largest infrastructure project the world had seen. The expectations towards it were big: increase the defense readiness of the U.S. (provide reliable highways for military movements) and provide the backbone for interstate commerce.

By the time the interstate highway systems was completed some 37 years and more than 400 billion dollars later, these expectations have been exceeded. The new highways cross-crossing America, from coast to coast and north to south, have contributed significantly to an unprecedented growth in productivity of the U.S. industry (by some accounts, contributing to 31% of the productivity growth in the late 1950s, 25% in the 1960s, and 7% in the 1980s [Economist 2008]) . The interstate highways have made more things possible than anyone could have predicted, and changed American life forever.

America – as well as the rest of the world – needs breakthrough investments into the built environment at a scale and relevance exemplified by the interstate highway system. As the backbone of every society’s workings, infrastructure’s mission is to contribute to progress and the natural evolution of civilization. This requires periodically reinventing infrastructure.

The flagship infrastructure investment of the 1990s was the worldwide spread of the Internet that had a profound change on how we live, work, and play. Just like the interstate highway system before it, the Internet has created jobs and eliminated jobs, opened up new horizons, spun new activities, increased productivity, brought many of us along on virtual road trips, and connected the world in Second Life. The Internet became the world’s superhighway much faster than the interstate highways were able to connect the far ends of the U.S. The electronics and telecommunications industries became part of the industries running our infrastructure.

Now we need a paradigm shift for our built environment: sustainable development. Every part of our buildings, transportation, water and wastewater, energy, Internet, and other infrastructure systems needs energy, and lots of it. We are rapidly learning how huge the environmental footprint of our society’s built environment is: greenhouse gas emissions, toxic discharges, water use and pollution, waste generation, human and ecological health impacts, etc. With life-cycle assessment (LCA), a systematic methodology to reveal the environmental impacts thorugh every life-cycle stage, we have learned that buildings, transportation, and water and wastewater systems are responsible for the largest use of energy, water, and raw materials in the world. Infrastructure that was once hailed as high achievement (see again the interstate highway system) is now cause for people to run away from (who wants to live next to a highway?).

What are we going to do to change this sad environmental performance? More knowledge and quicker action is needed. While other industries are trying to establish and mitigate their environmental footprint (e.g., the industries affected by carbon credits constraints in the EU and SO2 legislation in the U.S.), it is high time for the infrastructure professionals and industries to get organized and move forward with sustainable development. The built environment has enormous tasks, but also big opportunities ahead.

Most of the energy we use in constructing, operating, maintaining, retrofiting, and decommissioning infrastructure is fossil fuel-based. Carefully selected, produced, and used biofuels might provide the means of reducing our fossil fuel demand. Large-scale efforts such as the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley should bring breakthrough technologies for infrastructure as well.

We need to work with the supply chains of the built environment to understand how raw materials, equipment, products, and services can be made at lower environmental impacts before they get to be built in and used in infrastructures. We need to educate the current students and the future leaders of our society how to expect and achieve the highest environmental standards in the companies of the built environment they will run, finance, regulate. We need to support the current and groom the future researchers of in order to enhance their understanding of the complex, ever changing set of systems that comprises society’s infrastructure.

The new paradigm is: The future has to be based on sustainability principles. It is the most significant investment we have undertaken. How far will it take us?  

Arpad Horvath, Ph. D.
Associate Professor University of California, Berkeley
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Reference: America’s Splurge, The Economist, February 14, 2008.

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