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Sustainability--before now, few people could say exactly what it was but most believed they knew it when they saw it.

Peter Guthrie, speaking at the International Federation of Consulting Engineers conference in Seoul on Sept. 10th, helped fill in much of the missing information about what sustainability is and isn't.

An engineering professor at Cambridge University, Guthrie made clear in both his comments and the report he and a colleague produced for the conference: sustainability doesn't result when a project team gets together after many decisions on scope and siting have been made and try to shoot for LEED Gold or a BREEAM rating or something similar.

You have to bake it in early.

"Sustainability often is involved too late," said Guthrie. "I've been invited [to serve as a consultant] at stages where the design is fixed and sustainability is only meant to be the telling of a palatable story."

Can't say it more plainly than that.

As an answer, Guthrie and his co-author have created a "nesting" system in six phases--concept, inherent, strategic, tactical, operational and end of life--where later decisions are made in the context of previous experience. It's more fully described in the FIDIC report.

Of nearly equal importance is the section on risk.

Guthrie and FIDIC report that the main barrier to sustainable infrastructure is the perceived increase in project risk that taking on sustainability during project development involves. And that this leads to minimum levels of compliance.

Incidentally, this is what I've been hearing from sources in the Netherlands.

Guthrie and FIDIC say much about sustainability tools, but what jumps out is the conclusion that decision support tools, such as guideliness, assessment process options, weighting of factors, are more valuable and generally superior to ratings and calculators. The decision support tools generally come from design consultants, which are FIDIC's members.

The report says that stand-alone sustainability calculators, in the context of risk to the design professional, can impede important sustainability goals.

"There is a risk,' the report states,  "That stand-alone calculators, particularly ones recommended for compliance to regulatory requirements, are treated as design tools in order to maximise the chances of compliance. This can severely undermine other important dimensions of quality design including sustainability, aesthetics, comfort, usability and even constructability."