The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Advancing a new sustainable infrastructure paradigm and practice in the Northwest and beyond

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Michael Singer Shares his Vision for Integrated, Community-focused Infrastructure Systems

July 14th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--

By Nancy Rutledge Connery, longtime infrastructure renewal advocate

This Spring, CSI jumped at the opportunity to host groundbreaking artist and designer, Michael Singer at the Olympia Center, where he shared with us his unique aesthetic vision for beautiful, integrated infrastructure systems that provide multiple community benefits to local residents. Thank you Nancy for bringing Michael to Washington and for sharing a bit about his work with the CSI Blog. For more examples of Michael Singer Studios’ infrastructure design work, please follow the links below or visit

I am delighted to introduce Michael Singer to the CSI Community.  Michael’s efforts to advance sustainable infrastructure for more than 25 years have yielded a wealth of real-life examples that illustrate and validate the core mission of the Center.  They are also stunning projects—a term rarely used for things like solid waste facilities, floodwalls, parking structures, and co-generation power plants.

Our paths crossed serendipitously in 1991.  I had recently completed my tenure as executive director of a joint-Presidential/Congressional study on the state of the nation’s public works in Washington, D.C, after completing a related project in the State of Washington, which led to the development of the Public Works Trust Fund.  Michael Singer was an artist based in southern Vermont who had sculptural works in major museums and public art settings throughout the world.  He had just been unceremoniously recruited, along with Dallas-based artist Linnea Glatt, by the City of Phoenix Arts Commission to help design the City’s first solid waste transfer and recycling facility (pictured below)—a task that neither had applied for nor claimed any special knowledge.

Ironically, I was already familiar with this project because I had heard long-time Phoenix Public Works Director Ron Jensen publicly announce in 1989 that he wanted this new facility to be the “…2nd biggest tourist attraction in Phoenix after Camelback Mountain.”  This was a pretty radical statement for a traditional engineer to make but I knew that Ron had to break through stiff local resistance just to get the facility built and even more to convince more than a million Phoenix residents to recycle for the first time in their lives.  He believed in aiming high and was ultimately vindicated.  Michael and Linnea helped him to achieve and vastly exceed his goal, though the process was anything but smooth.  (Ask me for details later, if you’re interested.)

I met Michael in person for the first time at a conference in Phoenix organized by the National Endowment for the Arts where we were both invited to speak before the new transfer station was completed.  Our conversation had actually begun on the telephone a few weeks earlier.  Mainly, he asked tough but really interesting questions I couldn’t answer.

The conversation has continued for 25+ years and I still struggle with his questions, the pace of which has never slowed.  In the meantime, the major focus of Singer’s work has shifted to what he likes to call “Integrative Infrastructure.”  In “Infrastructure and Community,” a publication he produced with Environmental Defense (available at, he describes it in part this way:

Rather than using a predetermined approach, successful infrastructure aligns facilities with individual settings. Design that is responsive to the habitat and to specific light, wind and water conditions increases efficiency and reduces environmental impact. Design that attends to the needs and interests of local communities cultivates positive relationships between the agencies responsible for utilities and the populations that they serve.

I have personally witnessed many of his projects, written about some of them, and collaborated with his studio on several more. Working with him and his studio has been a dazzling learning opportunity.  To impolitely quote myself from that same document, “…these examples serve as dynamic touchstones for next generation infrastructure design.”

Recycling Facility in Phoenix, Arizona

“Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt were hired as artists by the Phoenix Arts Commission and the Department of Public Works to provide the conceptual design for the 27th Avenue Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center. The project, a 100,000 square foot facility on 25 acres, transformed an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” piece of infrastructure into a dynamic facility that stands out proudly within the city’s landscape. At the forefront of the design was the mission to create an aesthetically beautiful and functional facility that would engage the public to promote recycling while simultaneously creating a sense of communal pride in this critical piece of civic infrastructure”

“Renewal, innovation and transformation were the key concepts behind the re-thinking of the 27th Avenue project. The engineering site plan was re-imagined to improve truck and small vehicle circulation patterns, move the self-haul area closer to the visitor’s center, balance earthwork cut and fill and expand and integrate landscape areas with the main building as terraces and courtyards… The building core where the recycling takes place was fitted with numerous skylights with solar tracking mirrors to optimize daylighting. The facility design also added a multipurpose community room, laboratory, viewing galleries, exhibition spaces and office spaces for private and nonprofit organizations. While the project was once derided as a Taj Mahal of trash, the facility was actually completed for $4.5 million less than the original engineering plan budget.”Excerpt from MichaelSinger.comLearn more about this project.

SWA Waste-to-Energy Facility in Palm Beach County, Florida

This recently-installed facility “…produces electricity from waste, reduces landfilling by over 90%, displaces the need for fossil fuels and powers approximately 44,000 homes. The Studio developed the conceptual aesthetic and environmental design for this new $700M Facility, assisted in establishing design criteria, and was involved in design and implementation oversight throughout the construction process. The SWA and Singer Studio goal was to utilize aesthetic enhancements, environmental design and educational outreach to create a place that engages the public and presents itself as a locus of civic pride and commitment to the environment.”

“The Singer Studio conceptual design included numerous aesthetic, functional, environmental and educational elements and programs that have been incorporated into the built project. Large areas of translucent panels are integrated with the primary facades to naturally light interior spaces and in specific areas allow for views into the facility. A skybridge connects tour groups from the LEED Platinum Visitors Center to the main process building to witness the internal waste-to-energy process. The entire facility is designed as a singular rainwater harvesting system to capture and store two million gallons of rainwater for use within the waste-to-energy process and for site irrigation. This harvesting system, combined with air-cooled condensers and the re-use of wastewater from an adjacent facility, creates one of the most innovative industrial water systems in the nation. As a result the facility uses no potable water in its process and produces zero (or net negative) waste water. The air-pollution controls in this new facility are also the most advanced and the cleanest compared to any similar facility in the nation. Other notable features of the design are the extensive use of green walls, an innovative oval stack to minimize visual impact, a naturalized landscape and advanced stormwater management practices.”Excerpt from MichaelSinger.comLearn more about this project.

Sculptural Flood Wall in Grand Rapids, Michigan

“The City of Grand Rapids invited Michael Singer to propose a public artwork in a site of his choice within the city limits. Singer chose 600 feet of riverbank along the Grand River between the Blue Footbridge and the Fulton Street Bridge where he observed severe erosion of the river bank… With the aid of city staff and his team engineers, Singer was able to realize a sculptural environmental regeneration project that restores the river’s edge in a manner that creates habitat and engages the public, while simultaneously meeting the necessary engineering requirements of a flood wall. The 300 foot layered sculptural element is comprised of granite, concrete and pockets of soil and vegetation. The sculptural wall functions as a flood wall while softening the river’s edge with native vegetation and creating small niches that shelter birds and other wildlife living along the river. The sculptural wall is reminiscent of stone foundations from an earlier time, emerging through the steep side of the riverbank. The indigenous plantings as well as the patina of the stone encourage associations with the past. The project also includes a fully accessible walkway to the river’s edge to connect the public to this natural and historic place central to Grand Rapids. The Riverwalk Floodwall became a key precedent for further redevelopment of the river’s edge and riverfront walkways in downtown Grand Rapids.” – Excerpt from Learn more about this project.

Cogeneration Power Facility Design for NY

“Trans Gas Energy (TGE) asked Michael Singer to work with Stephan Solzhenitsyn of TRC Environmental Corp. on the early stage planning of a new cogeneration gas fired power facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The plant was engineered to use natural gas to generate 1,100MW of electricity and up to 2 million pounds per hour of steam; about 10% of New York City’s peak steam and electric energy needs. Singer began his process by bringing together a team of outstanding professionals in design, planning, science and engineering. The Singer Team goal was to bring the state-of-the-art engineering design found inside the power plant to the architectural structure and exterior site. The team investigation centered on the question: can there by a close relationship between a power plant and its surrounding community and a communion between functional needs and environment, natural systems and innovative design?”

“One of the primary concepts is to wrap the main power plant building exterior walls in green houses, taking advantage of these highly structured walls, natural light, CO2, waste heat, and harvested rooftop rainwater already inherent in the project. These greenhouses could grow local food, wetland plants for nearby restoration projects and even host alternative uses such as a community heated indoor swimming pool and hot yoga classes. One associated concept was to utilize some of the greenhouses for algae biofuel research that could also tap a portion of the facility CO2 output. The facility was also planned with an extensive naturalized green roof for avian wildlife and rainwater collection.” – Excerpt from MichaelSinger.comLearn more about this project.

For more innovative examples of integrated infrastructure design, such as the Studio’s Living Shoreline Seawall Renewal and Living Docks projects, or to view Michael’s sculptural gardens, fine art, or green building designs, visit



Crossing the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Investing

July 8th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy, Transportation, Waste, Water

This summary was produced for the CSI Blog by Mercer
Thanks to Alex Bernhardt and Shounak Bagchi!

The world today is in dire need of sustainable infrastructure (SI), most notably in developing and emerging markets. As the global population continues to grow, the need for sustainable infrastructure grows with it. The New Climate Economy estimates that within the next 15 years the global requirement for new infrastructure assets will surpass US $90trillion (more than the current value of the current capital allocated towards all infrastructure projects).

Despite the growing attention and support for sustainable infrastructure projects, overall progress has been suboptimal. Current allocations and projected plans of investments still fall below the estimated $6 trillion per year needed to spur healthy economic development. Further, investors lack a formal approach to sustainable investing, many in the investment community require additional education on the topic, and those willing to make an allocation to this sector often have difficulty finding suitable opportunities.

To further understand what is happening on the ground, identify key barriers to investing, and propose possible funding gap solutions for SI the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) partnered with Mercer to engage in a multiphase project commissioned in November 2016. This paper further supplements Mercer’s previous research in Building a Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure to offer the reader granular details on the SI financing gap, testimonials from those in the investment community on participating in this space, and possible approaches to fully embed SI within the investment decision making process.

Learn more and download the full report!



Stormwater Management: Lessons from Our Forests

June 21st, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy, Water

By Alexandra Ramsden and Jennifer Barnes
Reposted with permission from the Sightline Institute.
A new report from the Urban Greenprint project recommends biomimicry-inspired design elements for Northwest cities to wrangle their rainfall!

Take a moment to recall your last hike through a Pacific Northwest forest. Maybe close your eyes, listen for the quiet of such lush flora around you, and breathe in the evergreen scent.

If you’re really imaginative, and if your hike was recent, you might also recall the rain. Perhaps you see drops suspended from pine needles, or you feel the buoyancy of the leaf litter below your feet. What you don’t remember, likely, is seeing gushers of stormwater runoff, like you might in a city.

That’s because Earth’s biosphere has about 3.8 billion years of design experience at managing its rainfall. Compared with the typically impervious urban environment, where about 80 percent of rainfall becomes runoff, in a healthy Northwest forest, just 0.2 percent of rainfall does.

A new report from the Urban Greenprint project looks to capitalize on that natural expertise, employing principles of biomimicry to improve how we build our cities. “Seedkit: Design Concepts Learned from Pacific Northwest Forests” identifies properties of forests that cities and towns can imitate to manage the massive quantities of rainfall for which western Cascadia is known.

Here, we summarize the report’s nine components, including the purposes they serve in the forest and the potential to mimic those functions—and their feel—in our built environment. The full report has more, such as questions about materials and product development and images of design concepts.

1. The obstacle course of a layered forest

If you think back to that hike, chances are you imagined a mix of taller and shorter trees, tiers of leaves and flowers, lichen and ferns and moss, and fallen wood, fungi, and other matter underfoot. Together, these make up a multi-layered canopy that, when it rains, helps to break up, slow, and hold water, as well as shield sunlight. From these dispersed drops and small pools, the water has a better chance of evaporating before it even hits the ground, reducing the absorption load of the earth by 10-20 percent in a typical Northwest forest.

How could we mimic that in the urban environment, so that less rain even reaches the pavement? A series of angled rain- and sun-screens is one idea to slow the flow of rainwater down the surfaces of our buildings. They could include mesh materials that separate and hold the rain in more evaporation-prone droplets. Below these, landscaping like planters and bioswales could catch the remaining trickle.


A design concept of rain-/sun-screens, by Jennifer Barnes. Used with permission.

2. The sponge service of textured flora

The vegetation of a Cascadian forest works as a living sponge. From the canopy to the forest floor, different surface textures hold water in greater and lesser quantities, again facilitating evaporation.

Designers could incorporate such texturing into their buildings in many ways, some playful, some sleek. Living walls, meandering downspouts, and sculpted or vegetated gutters slow or even make use of stormwater running down a building—and they look beautiful to boot.

3. Evergreen needles’ drop-by-drop interceptions

There’s magic to the way a conifer looks after a rainstorm, each needle suspending at its tip an ornamental drop. Of course, this splitting, splashing, and holding is yet another means for the forest to intercept and evaporate more rainfall.

How might an urban space mimic this intricate arrangement? Wire sculptures, awnings, and screens hold a variety of answers and can adorn buildings from rooftop to ground.


Shoal revisited (mesh sculpture) by Jes used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

4. Conifer cones: water-smart seed pods

No Northwest forest picture is complete without pine cones. To release their seeds at the best time, conifer cones respond to moisture levels in the air, closing when wet and opening when dry. (Fun fact: Pine cones can serve as an indicator of forest fire potential. If the cones on a forest floor are all open, it means fire danger is high.)

Some buildings already incorporate similarly dynamic elements, such as sunlight-responsive facades and wind-responsive canopies. Could they also get smart to water and humidity in the environment, helping to slow or capture rainfall when it is present?

5. Leaves: Micro-lungs flapping in the breeze

Transpiration—did that word just send you back to a middle school science class? As a refresher, transpiration is the process of water movement through a plant: in through the roots and out through other plant parts. Ninety-five percent of transpiration occurs through the pore-like stomata on plants’ leaves or needles.

What might transpiration look like in the built environment? It could be as simple as flapping fabric: banners, flags, canopies, or fabric-wrapped walls. An absorbent and loosely attached bolt of fabric could divert gallons upon gallons of water from drainage systems, returning that moisture to the air once wind and sun return post-shower.

6. Bark’s textured wrapper

The nooks and crannies of tree bark, grown and fissured over decades or centuries, provide countless spaces to slow or store rainwater and increase evaporation. Though building facades can’t actively grow, they could feature some bark-like texturing in their material: stamped metal or ceramic panels, textured cladding, and poplar bark are all available to builders already, and designers could develop new “bark” options.

7. Moss: An absorbent rain-screen

A Pacific Northwest resident likely would not be surprised to learn that there are over 12,000 species of moss. Moss’s water content typically matches that of its surrounding atmosphere, and its leaves are concave to collect and hold water. Moss lacks “true roots,” so it can grow nearly anywhere. And the undersides of moss repel water so they can be used for photosynthesis.

Porous building materials, living walls, wood rain-screens, and newer synthetic materials could serve as absorbent rain-screens, to soak up and hold rainwater. Replaceable, breathable, and attached directly to buildings, such materials release moisture through evaporation after the clouds blow away.

8. Mycorrhizae: Smart networks for sharing

Mycorrhizae are the symbiotic webs connecting fungi and plants. They serve as a sort of natural internet to collect and pass along information and to distribute nutrients among organisms.

While many cities already employ smart systems to manage energy or monitor water leaks or usage levels, they could step up their game. Imagine dynamic systems that, say, monitored and responded to changing weather systems, opening valves to redirect stormwater or rescheduling irrigation based on a rain forecast. A smart, connected water management system would disburse resources exactly as needed.

9. The forest’s holistic success

The specific Northwest forest elements listed above, in combination with countless others, weave a balanced water cycle because they operate together in a holistic system. If designers approached buildings with the same model in mind, they could blend multiple strategies to emulate natural processes.

The Watershed office building going up in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood has in fact done just that, anticipating it will reuse or treat fully a half-million gallons of rainwater annually on its corner, just under the Aurora Bridge and mere blocks from Lake Union. Firms Rushing and 55-5 Consulting worked with Weber Thompson designers to explore several of the strategies listed above. For example, the team looked at whether the façade could include multiple downspouts, evaporative porous fins, absorptive moss beds, and percolating gutters. (This exercise also led to a competition submission as well with Eleven Magazine. The winner has yet to be selected, but the team is hopeful.) Although not all of the strategies explored were integrated into the final design, this project has been an example of a dramatically altered design process which could be carried through the industry to further improve the way water is handled by the build environment of Seattle.


The Watershed office building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Image courtesy of Weber Thompson.

A sylvan city future

Urban dwellers across Cascadia are debating what they want their changing cities to look and feel like, how they will manage worsening housing shortages, and how these urban centers will remain thriving and diverse centers of culture and opportunity.

If we looked to our much lauded natural surroundings for inspiration, Cascadians could learn a great deal about how to build better cities. Biomimicry holds promising techniques to inform how we manage everything from stormwater to energy use, improving overall performance and efficiency—and perhaps even aesthetic, giving the urban street scene a little more of that special feeling Cascadians treasure when out amidst our region’s rich and complex forests.

Sightline Institute is a community-sponsored resource: Make a donation here to support their work. Alexandra Ramsden and Jennifer Barnes are guest contributors to Sightline Institute.

Alexandra leads Rushing’s Sustainability Studio in providing consulting for sustainability strategy development, LEED and Built Green management, charrette facilitation, and training. Her expertise lies in guiding teams to identify project or company-appropriate sustainability solutions. Alexandra’s passion for looking to nature for design solutions inspired her to co-found Biomimicry Puget Sound. She is a guest contributor to Sightline Institute.

Jennifer is an architect and sustainability consultant with over 20 years of project experience. She splits her professional life between her company, 55-5 Consulting, and the Urban Greenprint, a project that applies biomimicry at a city scale.  Jennifer is co-founder of Biomimicry Puget Sound and is active in the Northwest green building community. She is a guest contributor to Sightline Institute.



Working With the Market for Green Stormwater Infrastructure

June 19th, 2017 · No Comments · Water

 carrieBy Carrie Sanneman, Program Manager for Willamette Partership

Willamette Partnership is a conservation non-profit based in Portland, Oregon. At the Partnership, we envision a world in which people create resilient ecosystems, healthy communities, and vibrant economies by investing in nature. Since 2004, we have been a regional source for innovative conservation solutions that work for both nature and people. Our approach is rooted in a strong sense of place and community, and it depends a diverse coalition of partners from conservation, business, government, agriculture, and science. We are particularly interested in how infrastructure investments can leverage nature-based solutions for a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable future.

A new report by Willamette Partnership and Storm and Stream Solutions, LLC summarizes how stormwater managers can spur cost-effective implementation of green stormwater infrastructure while tapping new sources to finance that investment. It’s called, “Working With the Market: Economic Instruments to Support Investment in Green Stormwater Infrastructure.”


Download the pdf by following this link!

Over the next 20 years, communities across the U.S. are likely to invest upwards of $150 billion in stormwater infrastructure and the associated impacts on water quality, hydrology, and health. Tomorrow’s stormwater solutions will need to meet broad watershed goals, provide benefits to the local community, and be flexible in the face of a changing climate – all without a big price tag. This daunting task has stormwater managers thinking twice about how to get the most out of their infrastructure dollars. They are looking to green infrastructure for a cost-effective multi-benefit alternative to concrete and steel, and for creative ways to raise the capital to install those projects.

Green stormwater infrastructure manages rain where it falls and keeps urban runoff from reaching water bodies. It is often highly cost effective, and provides numerous benefits to the local community, including economic development, enhanced climate resilience, and improved health and air quality.

At Willamette Partnership, we see nature as our original infrastructure. This report provided an opportunity to bring our expertise in market-based conservation and scaling policy innovations into collaboration with powerful partners in the stormwater sector. Authored by Carrie Sanneman, our Clean Water Program manager, and Seth Brown, principal/founder of Storm and Stream Solutions, LLC, the report delves into a suite of policy tools, called “economic instruments,” that recognize and deliberately work within the economic system to create action or drive investment toward environmental goals. They include incentives, subsidies, trading, and mitigation. Economic instruments are a useful tool for stormwater managers because they can:

  • Increase the coverage of green infrastructure on public lands, private lands, new development, and urban retrofits;
  • Provide flexibility and reduce cost for regulated entities trying to meet stormwater requirements;
  • Provide a vehicle for both public and private investments; and
  • Enhance the efficiency of delivering benefits associated with stormwater infrastructure.

Stormwater managers can use this new report to learn how to encourage implementation of green infrastructure on private property, like this living green roof. Photo: Simon Garbutt

This report is a product of the National Network on Water Quality Trading (National Network) 2016 fall dialogue, which gathered over 50 experts in stormwater management and water quality trading for a two-day interactive dialogue about the paths for communities to best apply these economic approaches to meet their stormwater goals. The dialogue workshop was convened in collaboration with Paula Conolly and Mami of the Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange, Dan Vizzini of Oregon Solutions, Seth Brown of Storm and Stream Solutions LLC, and in partnership with Water Environment Federation’s Stormwater Institute. The content and takeaways from that dialogue are heavily featured in this report, including a) the motivations that drive investment in stormwater infrastructure; b) a set of program options that work with market forces for more effective and efficient investment in stormwater infrastructure; c) the issues that limit these approaches; and d) the ways to get beyond these hurdles.

Storm and Stream Solutions LLC, Willamette Partnership, and the Water Environment Federation’s Stormwater Institute will host a number of events to describe and discuss the report’s content.

Carrie Sanneman is a project manager for Willamette Partnership and their lead on water quality trading and market operations. Carrie holds an interdisciplinary Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School and Bachelors of Science in Biology and Environmental Studies from Iowa State University.



CSI Helps City of Olympia Reimagine $14M Project

May 24th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Transportation

SophieBy Sophie Stimson, Senior Planner at the City of Olympia

The City of Olympia was facing a $14 million road project to widen Fones Road. Recently, members of the public started to question the scope of the project. While it included bike lanes and sidewalks, they viewed the road widening as inconsistent with the City’s land use and transportation vision.

CaptureFonesRD Staff wanted to explore whether we could re-envision a project that would cost less and better meet our community vision.  We requested help from the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) to coordinate a ‘value planning’ exercise for the Fones Road corridor.

CSI convened a multi-discipline consultant team to complete the exercise. The team planned a field trip and charrette process to explore the Fones Road corridor.  City transportation planners brought in a range of other City staff – parks and land use planners, utility engineers, economic analysts, and more.

Capture2With data and maps in hand, this group of about two dozen fanned out to explore the area on foot, and responded to thought-provoking questions developed by the consulting team. While many people had travelled the corridor routinely, the experience on foot took people by surprise.

The full-day design charrette was structured to generate ideas. Teams of consultants and staff generated creative responses to the issues they’d identified along the street. A few key take-aways from the process include:

  • A greater understanding of the population the street serves. Multi-modal improvements to the street would serve a large, dense population of low-income residents who were currently underserved by the street unless they drove a car.
  • There were hidden assets along the corridor. A large wetland had the potential to serve as a park. A regional trail intersects Fones Road, and improved access meant residents could walk and bike more easily.
  • Changing land uses influence the street’s function, and land use and transportation decisions should be made together. While we focused on design solutions, zoning changes emerged as part of the solutions.
  • The potential for low-impact stormwater improvements could bring beauty to the street while serving a valuable infiltration function and improving the health of the nearby wetland.

The process was structured in a way that got people to think about problems and opportunities in more depth.  We were asked to look beyond the commonly-defined issues and typical responses.  The consultant team structured the process to build on the expertise in the room while promoting creative new ways of thinking about solutions. After nearly two days of work, participants were energized and inspired by the process.

The resulting ideas are being synthesized by the consultant team into proposals for improving the corridor.  Once complete, this value planning exercise will set the stage for more detailed transportation analysis and design of improvements. This was a great opportunity to learn about this planning tool and we hope to apply it to other areas of City work.



BIG Solutions for Small Cities

May 5th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water


By Shalini Vajjhala — Founder & CEO of re:focus partners

With Earth Day just behind us and Infrastructure Week fast approaching, it seems especially timely and important to celebrate local leadership and innovation in sustainable infrastructure.

Our most recent initiative—Build it Green (BIG)—was created with the aim of helping small and medium sized cities tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges with legacy infrastructure systems, like combined sewer systems. Over the past year, re:focus partners in collaboration with New Jersey Future and SCAPE—with generous support of The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Jersey Health Initiatives—worked with three cities in New Jersey to design, finance, and implement integrated stormwater infrastructure solutions. The innovations in each city and lessons for other smaller cities across the US and around the world are captured in the materials and resources below:

There are very real barriers that exist for all cities looking to upgrade major infrastructure, including the gap in predevelopment capacity and resources, challenges in public procurement, and of course, lack of construction funding. However, smaller cities have an added barrier to this already onerous list: simply because of their size, these cities are often stuck with ill-fitting legacy infrastructure from an industrial past that is poorly suited to their current needs. After decades of incremental fixes and ad hoc investments in aging and failing systems, the integrated approach demonstrated through Build It Green offers a new pathway for cities of all sizes to tackle high-priority projects while simultaneously leveraging funds for city-wide improvements.

In their own ways, both Earth Day and Infrastructure Week each offer opportunities to connect big picture reflections with on-the-ground action. This year, we find ourselves taking heart in the words of Margaret Mead: “’Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

For more on our work visit and get in touch on Twitter @refocuspartners to join our network of thoughtful citizens committed to building more resilient communities around the world.




Upcoming Event: WA Clean Energy and Construction Centers of Excellence Best Practices Summit

May 4th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy

On behalf of the Washington Clean Energy and Construction Centers of Excellence, we are pleased to share the full agenda for the 12th Annual Best Practices Summit on June 1 and 2 in the new Centralia College TransAlta Commons building. We have an exciting venue lined up ranging from Mark Taylor an expert on Multi-Generations in the workforce and classroom to best practice apprenticeship models in energy, construction, manufacturing and cybersecurity. New this year is an evening Northwest salmon and steak dinner with keynote on June 1 – Chris Reykdal, WA Office of Public Instruction will be talking about bridging K-12 and CTC workforce education. In addition, Governor Inslee will be joining us for the social hour.We hope that you are able to join us!! Please register at the link below.

For more information or to register go to:

We hope to see you there!
Barbara and Shana

Click to read full program document


Sustainable Energy Utilities and ESCO Financing Can Save Money and Reduce Carbon Footprints

May 3rd, 2017 · No Comments · Energy

saulk_0By Kathleen Saul Master of Environmental Studies Faculty at The Evergreen State College

“The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.”   —Will Rogers

William Penn Adair, aka Will Rogers, lived at a time before the spread of electric lights, before highways criss-crossed this nation, and when only 76.2 million people lived in the 45 states of the United States (1900 data).  His words ring true today as they did back then.  Today, over 308 million people reside in the 50 states and draw upon its natural resources to power cars and buses, computers, lights, heating and cooling systems, industrial equipment and cellular phones, hair dryers and electric toothbrushes, toll booths on highways and checkout stands in grocery stores.  Energy–sourced from coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and other sources—keeps the country buzzing.

As expected, using energy is not free.  We pay for electricity in dollars per kWh, for natural gas in dollars per mmBTU, and gasoline or diesel for a car, bus or minivan in dollars per gallon.  Those prices fluctuate depending on national policies, subsidies accorded providers, global affairs (such as wars in the Middle East), demand, and local taxes (such as carbon taxes or taxes to pay for road repairs).

In recent years concern over global climate change and the impact of energy use on climate has forced many people to take a harder look at their energy consumption patterns.  Appliance manufacturers have introduced more efficient versions of popular brands.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy worked to develop labels to make it easier for consumers to choose more energy efficient options.  Automobile manufacturers have increased the miles per gallon achieved by many small cars.  As a result, the energy consumed by each American has gone down over time.


Figure 1: U.S. Energy Use Per Capita (Based on data from the World Bank, World Development Indicators)

But there is more to be done.  We have to turn our attention to the structures housing the computers and refrigerators, HVAC systems and televisions.  We need to look at personal residences and businesses.  This work starts with an energy audit.  After examining the structure and its energy profile, an energy service company (ESCO) provides a list of different options for making the home or business more energy efficient, how much each option will cost, and the amount of energy each will save.  The business owner or resident can determine how much invest.  They may decide just to replace light bulbs or may choose to invest in a new heating and cooling (HVAC) system, to replace leaky windows, and to add insulation to the attic and basement.  They will contract with the ESCO to do the work and to pay that ESCO based on how much money they save on their energy bills, from the start of the project until the total cost of the work has been repaid.  Figure 2 below illustrates a simple example:


Figure 2: A Simplified View of a New Way to Finance

If previous energy bills totaled $100 and new bills total $75 dollars per month, $25 per month (the hatched portion of the graph) will be paid towards the cost of the heating and cooling system, windows, and insulation.  There is no large up-front investment to worry about.  The bills are no higher than before the work was completed and, in the end, the building will be more energy efficient.  After the work has been paid off, bills will be reduced to $75 per month.

This same type of financing arrangement can also be applied toward renewable energy projects.  Rather than having to buy solar panels on credit, interested parties can work with a solar company which will install the panels and take the money that would have been paid to an electric company as the installment payment for the panels.  After a period of time, the interested parties become the owner of the panels and the electric bill drops to zero (theoretically).

The Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) has built on this model to help increase the energy and water use efficiency of prisons and schools in Delaware, invest in renewable energy systems, and reduce the energy use of households.  The SEU, a tax-exempt entity, tapped the private bond market to raise $72.5 million with which to implement large scale, long-term sustainable energy measures.  These projects involve four interrelated contracts: a) A program agreement; b) A guaranteed savings agreement; c) An installment payment agreement; and d) An indenture (Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU): The Business Model of the SEU,  The program agreement describes the contracted relationship between the SEU, the ESCO(s), and other participants in the program.  It provides details about reporting requirements and monitoring programs, as well as specific targets for the programs.  The guaranteed savings agreement follows an audit by an ESCO and outlines the appropriate energy, water and other conservation measures, or renewable energy or distributed energy system installations that will be undertaken to reduce consumption.  The installment payment agreement details the plans for payments from the participant to the trustee.  The trustee works on behalf of the bondholders.  In the case of the Delaware SEU, the SEU is the trustee.  The relationship between the bondholders and the trustee is outline in the indenture.  Because the model relies on contractual agreements, the risk to any one party has been reduced.  Setting targets at the outset and providing monitoring throughout the life of the project both help ensure success of the energy efficiency and conservation projects.  Any deviations from the energy efficiency and conservation plans can be identified early and can be corrected.

In the case of the SEU, the figure looks slightly different than Figure 2 above.  Figure 3 shows that the Aggregate Guaranteed Savings over the life of the project will far exceed the Aggregate Payments made toward the project.  Thus, the concept is the same.  Regardless of the source of the funds, there is no large up-front payment and the contractually guaranteed savings will exceed the payments made.


Figure 3: Large Scale, Long Term Deep Retrofits (Source: Sustainable Energy Utility, SEU – The Business Model of the SEU)

Projects using this type of financing approach also have been implemented in Thane, India as part of the Campaign for Renewable Energy under Dr. Sanjay Mangala Gopal ; in Sonoma County, California and in Pennsylvania (See  Small scale, short-term projects can benefit from this approach, as can large-scale, long-term ones.   We can then put the money back into our pockets as Will Rogers bade us to do many, many years ago.



Transforming Our Vulnerable Water Infrastructure

April 19th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water

rhysBy Rhys Roth, Director, Center for Sustainable Infrastructure

Face it: Most of us take water infrastructure for granted.

When we shower, flush, turn on the tap, or dodge the rain, we rarely give a second thought to the vast network of pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities that lie behind the water tap, the toilet, and the drains in our home and on the street.

But clean water is essential to every person’s life – to drink, bathe, cook, and clean. It’s also vital for every community to thrive. Water infrastructure not only supplies clean, on-demand water, it also protects us against infectious disease, toxic exposure, and destruction of home, business, and property from flood or fire.

In America as a whole, and where I live in the Pacific Northwest, much of our water supply, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure is old, at risk for breakdowns, and vulnerable to threats including earthquakes and climate extremes.

It’s time to pay attention and get to work.

Fortunately, a history-making revolution in the water sector is brewing. And I believe the Pacific Northwest can lead the way in developing cost-effective, integrated systems to supply, purify, and manage water that are among the most sustainable and resilient in the world.

A new report, A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure: Innovative Pathways, Smarter Spending, Better Outcomes, shows how.

This new report, released this month, by The Evergreen State College’s Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, which I wrote in collaboration with 50 industry experts spanning water supply, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, is the first attempt to construct a regional shared vision for the future of water infrastructure in the Northwest.

It starts with region’s water utilities adopting new investment practices, guided by long-range vision and strategy. Northwest utilities spend several billion dollars each year to maintain, operate and modernize water infrastructure. The multi-billion dollar question: How do we generate the most long-term community value from these investments? 

A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure comprehensively overviews the wide-ranging and unprecedented challenges facing the region’s water utilities, and highlights innovative solutions being pioneered by both big and small communities on the West Coast.

The report also paints a picture of how the region can develop cost-effective, integrated, sustainable, and resilient water systems. To achieve that goal, investment strategies will be required that break down silos within the water sector and build new partnerships beyond it.

Current water infrastructure spending totals well north of $3 billion a year in Washington and Oregon, but existing funds are unlikely to be enough to replace the vast network of aged pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities originally installed 40 years and more ago. Many assets are nearing or beyond their expected lifespan, leading to roughly 240,000 water main breaks and between 23,000 and 75,000 sanitary sewage overflows per year in the United States,” the National Infrastructure Advisory Council says. NIAC puts the investment gap at $400 billion to $1 trillion nationwide.

Meanwhile, climate disruption is changing rainfall and water supply assumptions on which long-term investment decisions are made. Northwest utilities face the rather frightening added challenge of earthquakes that could cut off vital water services for weeks.

On the other hand, a new portfolio of water infrastructure solutions is opening exciting new opportunities for innovation. Many of these new approaches can save money for the local utility, and also offer multiple benefits for resilience, health, environment, prosperity, and community. Among changes the report overviews are:

  • “Net water positive” buildings that capture, treat and recycle water on site
  • Green infrastructure investments, from rain gardens, street bioswales, and engineered wetlands, to broader watershed restoration measures
  • Smart devices diffused throughout systems that provide managers with new tools to control flows and gain efficiencies.

A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure highlights a wide range of leadership examples, such as Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, which saved $63 million on a sewer overhaul project with green infrastructure, much of it on customer properties. The small rural community of Orting, Washington – facing an urgent need to replace aging dikes and levees – developed a cost-effective strategy to restore natural river flow and wetlands, resulting in not only improved flood protection, but better habitat for salmon, and new green space and recreational trails for the community.

The report also recommends cost-sharing agreements that leverage multiple interests in green infrastructure, from water to recreation, wildlife and health. The report points to a leading example, Clean Water Services (CWS) of Hillsboro, Oregon. CWS averted a $60-$150 million treatment plant investment, plus $6 million in annual operating costs, with a streamside restoration investment, which cost only $4.3 million by 2007, while drawing millions more from state and federal partners with water and wildlife interests.

The time is now for a profound rethink of our water-related infrastructure investments. Look for 2-3 more posts from me on transforming water infrastructure investment over the next few weeks, highlighting key findings from our new report!


LOTT Clean Water Alliance’s Deschutes Valley Park and Reclaimed Water Tank Project

The Evergreen State College has created the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) to champion a new infrastructure investment paradigm by centering on long-range strategic foresight, new decision tools, and integration across systems for broadly-shared, long-term community value. This is the third in a series of six reports CSI is producing to comprehensively detail an overall 25-year vision and pathway for Northwest infrastructure investment.

To learn more, visit, follow CSI’s blog, sign up for CSI’s email newsletter, and attend one of the following upcoming events.



UW’s Sustainability Studios Course Offers Model for Innovative Experiential Learning

April 13th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--


By Sara Brostrom – University of Washington Program on the Environment

I got the chance to teach my dream course this winter!

ENVIR 480: Sustainability Studios is an experiential learning course offered every quarter at the University of Washington. The theme changes each quarter in response to student interest and partnerships on the University of Washington campus. This winter the topic was sustainable infrastructure.

The main educational goals for this quarter were for students to experience, reflect and apply their learning to different examples of sustainable infrastructure aimed at managing water, transportation, energy, and land primarily in the Puget Sound region. These educational goals were met through a mix of classroom activities, fieldtrips, guest speakers, and perhaps most impactful, a quarter long project with a local organization.

For the projects, the class was divided into six groups. The projects included a comparative assessment of the green building standards of five different college campuses to the UW campus, a report on issues facing the UW Mercer Court Farm, a development plan for two land plots along the Duwamish, an assessment of the maintenance costs associated with low impact development facilities in the Puget Sound region, and a partnership with a UW start-up on implementing biogas as a service in developing countries. Each project tested students and provided them with an opportunity to learn in an authentic setting.

As an instructor, I learn something new every time I teach a class. This winter I took four valuable lessons to heart that I humbly offer to future instructors of an experiential learning course on sustainable infrastructure.

  1. Define your terms. There is no established definition for sustainable infrastructure. However, my students found the definition developed by Rhys Roth, the director of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Evergreen State College, the most approachable and applicable to nearly every example of sustainable infrastructure we discussed. Briefly, his definition clarifies that sustainable infrastructure is environmentally sound, resilient, integrated, affordable, rich in co-benefits, and beneficial to the community.

Plants used for the wastewater treatment at the Bullitt Center in Seattle.

  1. Get out of the classroom! Case studies describing successful and unsuccessful implementations of sustainable infrastructure created robust classroom discussions. However, I feel students had the greatest opportunity to apply their learning and take educational risks outside of the classroom with their project groups.

ENVIR 480 students viewing the composting toilets and learning about Loop Biosolids at the Bullitt Center.

  1. Avoid stifling creativity. I kept the fixed requirements for clients and students to a minimum. This approach does create a somewhat riskier learning environment. However, too many guidelines would have limited their autonomy and stifled their creativity.

Students in ENVIR 480 visiting an office space in the Bullitt Center.

  1. Require periodic peer and self-evaluations. This empowers the students to learn from each other through constructive feedback while promoting accountability.

I will take these lessons with me as I embark on Spring quarter with the knowledge that there are more lessons to be learned and many reasons to expand the reach of educational experiences focused on sustainable infrastructure to more students.

Sara Brostrom is an instructor in the University of Washington (UW) Program on the Environment and she is a graduate student in the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.