Sustainability in infrastructure design and building remains a priority concern in civil engineering. Infrastructure construction projects still account for 33% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of global energy consumption. We know that greener solutions are important to mitigating the effects of climate change, and civil engineers play a key role.
But climate change also introduces a crucial, and potentially devastating, element of unpredictability to infrastructure projects—which may be where both the problems and potential answers lie.
U.S. infrastructure has needed shoring up for decades—the repair and maintenance of essential roads, tunnels, railways, energy systems and communications networks, for example—and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) promises to do just that by making a “once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure.” This investment includes not only addressing climate and building sustainably but also infrastructure resiliency (against adverse climate events) and providing universal access to clean drinking water, reliable transportation and high-speed internet.
It’s not just a matter of repairing or strengthening what already exists, however, according to a recent series on sustainability and infrastructure in Civil Engineering. The codes and standards civil engineers use to predict how well a building will survive an earthquake of a certain magnitude, for example, have to evolve in order to accommodate more extreme—and completely unforeseen—events.
Larry Roth, a former deputy executive director at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and a co-author of ASCE’s climate report, A Call to Action, explained: “It’s possible for a piece of infrastructure to meet all the tests for resiliency,” in a world where climate change isn’t a factor. But “as the climate stressors change and that infrastructure is subjected to greater heat than was anticipated or larger changes in hydrological conditions, it may be resilient to all sorts of external loadings—but not resilient to changes in climate stressors.”
Experts agree that civil engineers will have to be prepared to address the climate crisis on many fronts, and evolving codes and standards is only one. From a design perspective, climate change also presents unprecedented opportunities, including the chance to develop new thinking around low-carbon infrastructure, such as urban/light railway and renewable energy systems like solar, wind and hydropower.
Engineers across disciplines will also need to rethink how they use existing and renewable resources—something Linda Ratsep, Program Coordinator for Norwich’s Master of Civil Engineering (MCE) program, notes students commonly explore via independent research and capstone projects.
“One structural engineering student, for example, completed their capstone project on innovative uses of mass timber, a form of engineered wood that matches or exceeds the strength, flexibility and performance of concrete and steel to build high rise buildings—slashing waste, pollution, construction costs and time invested. However,” Ratsep explains, “the new materials have a height limitation that need to be considered by the engineering experts.”
The MCE faculty are more than prepared for the challenges of topics in sustainability and resilience because they are practitioners.
“Our faculty are licensed engineers with years of experience working in the field. They are working on issues of sustainability that are evolving in real time, and bring that knowledge to the classroom.”
To find out more about enrolling in the MCE program, please visit online.norwich.edu/MCE.