November 22, 2004
Multidisciplinary center tackles sustainable construction
By Matthew Early Wright
When the Three Gorges Dam is completed on China's Yangtze River in 2009, it will be the biggest hydroelectric dam ever built. The dam's environmental effects will also be big: It will destroy forest and aquatic habitat, submerge archaeological sites and displace millions of people from their homes. Critics claim these effects were brushed off while the project was being planned.
If the minds behind the year-old Center for Sustainable and Integrated Built Environment Research at Stanford (SIBERS) are successful, planners of major engineering projects like Three Gorges will one day place as high a priority on these costs as they do on coming in under budget.
"When we think about global sustainability, we can't leave out the effects the built environment has on the social and natural environment," said Ray Levitt, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of SIBERS. "We want to do something about this through research and education."
Broadly defined, sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. For SIBERS, it means helping to design projects that leave a lighter footprint on the land, so they can exist in harmony with surrounding ecosystems and communities.
To this end, SIBERS plans to focus on capital facilitieslarge structures like dams, bridges, roads and skyscrapersthat involve high-stakes financial and political interests and have the potential for big environmental effects.
Levitt and co-director Martin Fischer, also a civil and environmental engineer, advocate "triple bottom line" accountingan emerging principle in economics that measures success in terms of ecology, equity and economy. By convincing planners to adopt these ideals, they hope to change the way engineers think about planning large-scale projects.
Levitt said the conventional approach to business favors profit in the short terma result of shareholders' and lenders' demands to see a return on their financial investment.
"Often, the status quo dictates that such structures will not be built in a sustainable way," Levitt said. "The size of investments required creates enormous political forces, for and against. We're talking about big financial deals and big risks."
Groups like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank are leading the way by requiring triple bottom line assessments from projects, Levitt said. They are beginning to spread the practice among their private lending partners.
Levitt believes other investors can and must be convinced the triple bottom line will help enhance and sustain profits in the long term. He hopes to do this by widening the range of people and issues involved in planning.
"The idea is to bring multiple stakeholders into the planning process in ways they have not been involved before," Levitt said. "Historically, only the users of a facility and the investors were considered as stakeholders. Now we're talking about all the people affected by the project."
SIBERS is an "umbrella" organization, under which operate two distinct research groups: the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE) and the Collaboratory for Research on Global Projects (CRGP).
CIFE was founded in 1988 as a partnership between the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Computer Science to develop automation and integration tools for facility engineering. On the other hand, CRGP was established just last year to bring viewpoints from social sciences together with civil and environmental engineering to address global-scale construction projects.
"This is one of the first collaborative research projects between engineering and social science at Stanford that I am aware of," Levitt said. "That to me is a big successgetting people to work across those kinds of boundaries."
Levitt credits CRGP executive director Julie Kim with the idea of integrating CRGP with CIFE to foster collaboration under the auspices of SIBERS.
"She's done a wonderful job," Levitt said. "Her vision was that the two groups should get together to look at the construction industry in a broader way, to build on and extend previous work CIFE had done on multidisciplinary analysis and visualization tools for project planning."
Levitt has reached out to include academics of varied disciplines. For example, sociologist Richard Scott, economist Avner Greif and law Professor Tom Heller have all contributed time and expertise.
The center also has the help of Nobel laureate Douglass North, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of economics and history at Washington University in St. Louis.
Levitt says they hope to engage even more collaborators from outside Stanford. "There are universities that have urban and regional planning depth and expertise that we don't have at Stanford, such as UC-Santa Cruz and UC-Berkeley," he said.
Levitt also hopes to cultivate financial and industrial partnerships at home and abroad, and plans to develop relationships with firms in India, China, South Africa, Brazil and Malaysia. The center recently established its first major international research partnership with a group from three universities in Finland. TEKES, the National Technology Agency of Finland, granted the group more than 1 million euros over three years to work with SIBERS.
Sociologist and SIBERS collaborator Richard Scott emphasized the importance of the center and its mission. "How to manage development projects in a globalizing world without losing sight of environmental and socio-cultural considerations is one of the major questions of our time."
Matthew Early Wright is a science writing intern at Stanford News Service.