The world operates and makes decisions based on money. Contractors bid on projects using material and labor estimates. And owners understand capital and operating costs. But what’s the value of a coral reef or a mangrove?

Calling a reef priceless diminishes its value when considering solutions to a particular project's environmental concerns, according to Paul E. Hardisty, with WorleyParsons of Australia. Speaking recently at the Engineering and Construction Contracting Association’s 42nd Annual Conference in Orlando, Hardisty told attendees that when you cannot plug in a dollar cost, those "priceless" entities, such as a coral reef, often get listed as zero.

To better protect natural attributes, Hardisty says, “take the environmental and social issues and put a dollar value on them.”

Hardisty presented the case for applying long-term, life-cycle analysis of all costs, to assess various options and balance financial, social and environmental outcomes. And, interestingly, he offered a new definition of sustainable: If over the full-life cycle of a project, it delivers more benefits to everybody—whether economic, social or environmental—then it’s sustainable. He added that only when those three things are jointly considered can a project be considered successful.

“All things can be measured and valued,” Hardisty says. In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme has placed a $1-million value on one square kilometer of coral reef. The same 2006 shoreline protection report pegs mangroves at more than $900,000 per square kilometer per year. Researchers reporting in peer-reviewed journals have placed dollar values on many other natural attributes. There also are costs associated with releasing gases into the environment and treating the associated effects on people who become ill.

When these other items are included  in the economic analysis, Hardisty says, it can change how you look at a project. After factoring the cost of treating people who suffer from a power plant’s emissions into the equation, for example, gas-fired power generation becomes cheaper than coal-fired electrical production.

At a wastewater treatment plant, Hardisty looked at a variety of options the facility could undertake to address environmental concerns and release cleaner water. He found that building an additional basin would meet the objectives better than the high-cost solution favored by the community and regulators, because of the associated energy costs over the long-term. That analysis ended a multiyear dispute, with everyone satisfied with the outcome.

“It all comes down to measuring success, because other things have value beyond the costs and benefits to the company,” Hardisty says. “Looking at the full lifecycle, with the environmental, societal and economic costs and benefits, provides a more realistic picture of success.”

Attendees seemed somewhat skeptical and questioned Hardisty about how he came up with dollar amounts for things that seem priceless and about how he convinces owners, engineers and contractors to consider the whole equation and not just the cost and benefit to the company.

Hardisty challenged those in attendance to look at problems more holistically and to unlock their creative engineering talents to achieve true sustainability.

What are your thoughts? Can rethinking sustainability along these lines benefit business, society and the environment?