Are better roads and buildings the solution to climate change? Not entirely, but infrastructure is an important part of the fight, and it encompasses far more than highways and high rises.
Brad Richardson, Head of Palladium Infrastructure, explains that more so than green infrastructure, resilient infrastructure will be key in the coming years in both withstanding the increased threats of natural disasters and meeting sustainability commitments. “If you look back 20 years, after 9/11, we started to look more at security within infrastructure, and then after that, the conversation shifted to ensuring that our buildings are as green as they can possibly be. Now, we’ve accepted the realities of climate change and its effects on buildings we must look to resilience as a key design factor.”
“All of these things have changed the way we design infrastructure,” he explains. “Disaster resilience, security, and sustainability all come together for one project and it’s becoming extremely complicated to meet all those needs, meaning that the skills required by a design team are far more diverse before you even get to the construction phase.”
Richardson also points to the part that better buildings can play in sustainable cities, from using green facades to soak up heat and produce oxygen, to creating and storing clean energy via solar panels and batteries.
“But it is complex, as many of the city power grids cannot adequately accommodate such thinking. If every high rise building in a city is selling clean power back to the grid, how would that integrate into the power needs of a big city?” he asks.
And he’s not the only one thinking about it. According to John Dionisio Jr, Managing Director at Global Infrastructure Solutions Inc, it’s a hot topic in the sector. “The nexus between infrastructure delivery and net zero commitments is a topic that many, including myself are spending time and energy thinking about.”
He adds that in the U.S., the transportation and industrial sector account for upwards of 45% of the energy-related CO2 emissions across the country, making the sector an integral part of reaching net zero.
“With increased governmental stimulus to build infrastructure projects globally, the opportunity to deliver that infrastructure sustainably through energy efficient means will likely take centre stage in the next few years,” Dionisio explains.
“The detailed feasibly work to study and enable new technologies like Hydrogen, program management work to deliver projects safely and affordably, the engineering needed to design and quantify the environmental profile of assets, policy making to ensure regularly certainty, and ideas to help drive long term changes in consumer behaviour towards electric vehicles, for example, present a fascinating opportunity for decades to come.”
“2050 will be here before we know it and we’re far from net zero,” he concludes.
But preparing for a changing climate and supporting net zero goals aren’t the only factors in building more resilient infrastructure. Richardson adds that the pandemic also offered its own unique challenges and opportunities for those in the infrastructure sector, and it went well beyond how to improve hospitals.
“We were even thinking about how to improve or change public infrastructure like pedestrian walkways and removing the buttons to cross at road crossings so that people were not touching things and spreading germs.”
Ultimately, he says that resilient infrastructure is about flexibility when situations call for it. “In hospitals, that’s meant having spaces that could be turned into extra areas for quarantine because as we saw during COVID-19, many health care centres ran out of room in their isolation wards.” As telemedicine grew exponentially during the pandemic, giving people a chance to speak with healthcare providers without leaving home and infecting more people, it helped to lighten the load on hospital wards.
But as Richardson explains, it adds another layer for infrastructure experts to think about. “Now we need to ensure that hospitals have the technology to allow telemedicine to happen more effectively and make the buildings more flexible and adaptable for remote clinical work.” The 'hospital in a home” that was once a novel idea is starting to become a reality, if not a necessity.
All of these factors come together to create a layer of uncertainty, says Palladium Infrastructure Director Sally Falls. “These change the way we need to design infrastructure to meet our future needs and the unpredictable or unknown conditions and environments our buildings will have to withstand and be designed for.”
“But this is also happening in the midst of more economic uncertainty,” she adds. “We have seen supply chain issues and rising inflation due to COVID-19 and we’re now looking at a global recession in 2023.” Falls explains that all of these come together to make it critical to get the business case right and deliver infrastructure that meets communities’ needs, is well designed, and considers all the factors that Richardson lists.
“Getting it wrong is far too costly on many fronts, from the economic to the environmental, and more time carefully considering all these complex issues in the early stages of a build can avoid very costly mistakes which communities and governments can ill afford,” adds Falls.
In the midst of economic uncertainty, the pressure is on infrastructure leaders to ensure that their work is not only cost-effective but built to withstand the many uncertainties of the future. While this isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, as the effects of climate change worsen and become more extreme, and future pandemics loom, the stakes feel higher than in years past. Never has more attention been spotlighted directly on the sector to start thinking about and solving for these uncertainties.
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