Sustainability starting point

September 2013 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

One of the goals of CE News is to provide succinct overviews of what civil engineering firms around the country are doing to improve their businesses, projects, and communities – to review and capsulize trends regarding "business and technology for civil engineers." Sustainability is one such trend that impacts both how you run your business and what you design for your clients. Just a few years ago, "sustainability" was mostly a buzzword heard in environmental circles. Today, it increasingly is a foundational principle for firms and for designing projects.

A case in point: A number of larger engineering firms now annually release reports publicly detailing their sustainability goals and achievements. Amid all of the definitions, explanations, and statistics are many practical ideas that, depending on your firm – number of employees and offices and whether you own or lease your building(s) – can be a starting point for implementing a sustainability program and in some cases saving money. So, after reading a few of the latest reports from several firms, here's a short list of sustainable ideas and practices (in addition to the obvious things such as placing recycling bins in the lunch room and buying paper with recycled content):

Buildings and supplies

  • Replace landscaping with native plants that require less water.
  • Use reclaimed water for irrigation.
  • Install low-flow fixtures and dual-flush toilets.
  • Install water- and energy-saving appliances in kitchen areas.
  • Install motion sensors to control lighting, particularly in less-frequently used rooms.
  • Retrofit lighting systems (interior and exterior) to use more energy efficient technologies such as LED.
  • Install low-e windows.
  • Repurpose unneeded office furnishings by contributing them to local nonprofit organizations.
  • Donate used and unneeded office supplies (such as three-ring binders) to local schools.
  • Strategically source office and cleaning supplies and furniture from vendors that will ensure environmentally friendly products and have their own sustainability programs.


  • Train leaders and managers on the firm's sustainability program and goals.
  • Designate individuals with authority and responsibility for sustainability.
  • Establish printing guidelines that reduce the use of paper and toner.
  • Set default printer settings for two-sided printing.
  • Encourage electronic deliverables rather than paper.
  • Scan hardcopy files at project closeout instead of sending them to records storage.
  • Establish an electronic bulletin board where employees can post household items they want to recycle, give away, share, or borrow.
  • Use video conferencing when possible instead of travelling.
  • Allow employees (as possible) to work full-time or part-time from home to reduce commuting (a large source of energy use and carbon emissions).
  • Allow flexible work schedules so employees can work 40+ hours per week in fewer days to reduce commuting.
  • Promote staff expertise in sustainability by supporting attainment of LEED AP, LEED Green Associate, or the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure's Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) credentials.

In a recently released white paper, "Sustainability Goals that Make an Impact," (download at, CH2M HILL suggested the following best practices:

  • set multi-year organization-wide goals;
  • design robust, business-focused processes to monitor progress; and
  • involve stakeholders in the goal-setting process.

As leaders in designing systems and structures that greatly impact the environment, civil engineers have a significant opportunity to promote sustainability. What better way to demonstrate that leadership than to start with even some small steps within your own firm?

Bob Drake

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