Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Journal #3 - Environmental Practices in Construction

Next year I will hopefully be obtaining my master's degree in construction engineering/project management (which seems to have a different name at every school). Some of my potential future advisors have listed my possible research opportunities, and it looks like it is a strong possibility that the environmental impact of construction techniques/materials will be a likely one.

This got me thinking about what current measures (if any) are being taken to make construction more environmentally conscious. I am very aware of the movement for green design in buildings (LEED, Steinbrenner Institute, etc...), but have not heard of any specific practices in ensuring environmental practices in the actual construction process. My experiences this summer as a construction inspector/intern for C.E.C. didn't make me feel that there were any strict practices by contractors to ensure that they were eco-friendly during construction in any way.

So I googled "environmental practices construction" and the first hit was for AASHTO's Center for Environmental Excellence. It is a research organization founded by AASHTO, the safety enforcers of construction, that (from looking at the introduction and table of contents) has compiled all the environmental practices of all the state DOTs and has created suggestions and ways to incorporate them from the management level down in their Compendium.

The common theme in the introduction was that many organizations have already adopted "environmentally friendly" practices at the management level, but this has not trickled down to the actual construction site well enough. In one good summary of what the problem is:
Some DOTs have learned the hard way that having the environmental stewardship concept securely embraced among policy planners, senior managers and environmental staff does not guarantee that what happens in the field, on the jobsite, will be implementing the spirit or the letter of what was intended by policy or by planning and environmental commitments.
The Compendium hopes to start a trend where the construction workers at the lowest level are encouraged to be environmentally conscious in all aspects of their life, so that it becomes natural at the site. This is very noticeable on any construction site in the Pittsburgh area, as any worker or contractor could care less about how clean their site is, so long as any neighbors around the site do not complain to their superior. The ideas are good in the Compendium, and it appears that this organization has put in a lot of effort to make changes and continue to do so. Still, change will be slow, but hopefully with a new generation of workers things will improve on the site level.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Journal #2 - Valuing LCA Focuses

Well I kind of forgot about the journal for a week or so... Oh well these new entries will be so rocking that no one will notice.

In class last thursday the discussion turned to one specific topic for the last 15/20 minutes of class. The question was asked "How as engineers do you value one aspect of a design's environmental impact over another?" An example of this would be designing a product to use very little fossil fuels, but consumes a lot of electricity instead.

The discussion was pretty back and forth, where people took sides and switched positions often. It was pretty clear that the discussion could have gone on for another hour without much compromise or agreement. I felt that approaching the question from "what a moral engineer's duty is" was a poor idea and did not really address how environmental impacts were really valued in today's society.

I thought it would be better to discuss how the consumer base and marketing affect the design of a product. For example, a hybrid vehicle reduces fuel usage but may increase in electrical energy consumption. The design reduces hazardous air emissions from the vehicle but may increase in the release of other hazardous materials in the production of electrical energy. However, the design is based on the consumer's need to reduce fuel costs and increase gas mileage. The consumer can also feel moral and ethical benefits as the product is advertised as environmentally friendly. The life cycle phase that has a reduced environmental impact is then chosen by the consumer. This might not be right at all, as the technology has to be developed first by engineers and then is marketed to the consumer.

Still, this presents another angle where we can just blame the consumer and marketing instead of arguing as engineers. Booyah!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Journal #1 - The 12 Principles

As stated in both the introduction and conclusion of the article, the 12 Principles are to act as a guideline or blueprint in achieving an environmentally conscious design on any scale. Environmentally conscious can be defined as a focus on the inherent wastes of the life cycle of a design.

The concepts presented in the Principles represent a global trend in reduction of "waste" in engineering. Waste does not representing some form of thermal energy lost, but actions that do not add value in a design. This is seen in manufacturing, construction, and is applicable to almost every aspect of engineering. In this case, the Principles outline that every design should strive to eliminate, reduce, or anticipate any waste as it is a loss in time, space, and essentially money.

This concept directly challenges some of the fundamental aspects of the American business model that was forged in the early 20th century by industry giants such as Henry Ford. Mass production focuses on reducing time through separation of work, but in this process does not do anything to reduce wasted materials or energy so long as the production line continues to move. In the end the mass production system can be proven as inefficient compared to other production methods. The Principles further challenge this traditional production thinking with concepts of focusing on durability (not always the "lifetime garuntee") and not standardization ("one size fits all").

Although a push for a stronger focus on eliminating life cycle flaws in a design would be costly and inefficient at first, finding errors early and reducing them can create a more efficient way of approaching these problems in future designs.

Awesome First Post