Case study: Sustainable, innovative infrastructure

Case study: Sustainable, innovative infrastructure
Sinclair Knight Merz is making a point of prioritising sustainability and innovation in everything it does.

Sinclair Knight Merz is making a point of prioritising sustainability and innovation in everything it does.

Sustainability and innovation work well together, but people don’t always think of them as guiding principles of planning and designing infrastructure. Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM)—an engineering and science consultancy—has a different view that has shaped the culture of the organisation and affected the way it does business.

SKM is a global business working in water and wastewater, power and energy, transportation, buildings and infrastructure and, in some areas, mining. It designs a lot of the ‘invisible’ infrastructure behind, for example, geothermal power plants and water treatment works, that people only think about if it doesn’t work properly. SKM understands that the projects it designs will have an enduring impact, and will be expected to perform for up to 100 years. This makes sustainability a key focus and has led SKM to ask challenging questions about the assumptions it makes on projects, including those about what its clients want.

At the same time, SKM’s clients are asking for help with specific innovation or sustainability issues. The former North Shore City Council (Water Services) asked SKM to work with Louise Webster Innovation Consultant at Ideas Accelerator Ltd to to develop tools for project managers to embed innovation into the project design process. The system that was developed was highly successful, resulting in tools for bringing different thinking into design and for problem-solving on site, which generated significant cost savings during the testing phase. During testing, a new concept for a wastewater sewer scheme was developed that would potentially shave $1 million off the council’s $11 million capital cost and reduce long-term maintenance costs and energy use.

Long-term costs were also a driver for the Wellington City Council, which asked SKM, with Tennent and Brown as architects, to develop a sustainable sports centre that would minimise resource use. The team designed a roof system that will need no maintenance over its 70-year lifespan in a salt-spray environment, and energy-efficiency systems that will save over $150,000 annually when compared with similar facilities. The resulting building will look good, work well for the community and save the client an estimated $33 million over its lifespan.

Resource availability was the concern of the Thames Coromandel District Council when it commissioned SKM to look at the summer demand on water supplies in Tairua and Pauanui on the Coromandel Coast. The innovative solution delivered combined existing supply sources and was staged so that not all investment was required in the first year. It was commended by council for its sustainable approach, and SKM also recommended a number of water demand reduction measures for the council to implement.

SKM also looked at its own business. In 2008 CEO Paul Dougas announced that sustainability would be one of the four core business strategies for the firm. A culture change programme was developed for staff to gain an understanding of what sustainability means and how it can be embedded in the work they do. A set of project principles were developed that enshrined innovative thinking, empowering staff to look outside the problem area for a solution. Innovation tools were developed to define project context, improve early identification of risks and opportunities, and change the way successful projects were thought about.

SKM thought about the way it operated as a business and its own impact on the environment. Dougas set a carbon reduction target of 30 percent in three years—a move aimed at walking the talk and increasing internal energy and waste management and auditing skills. Necessity drove innovation in this instance—SKM established its own building energy efficiency programme, moved offices to green rated buildings and cut down on travel through investing in videoconference and data-sharing technologies. SKM was so successful in its initiatives it won the regional Sustainable Business Network award for large and corporate multinational businesses in 2010.

SKM won another award last year for its innovative design in the Kawerau geothermal steam field steam-separation system. The project team considered factors such as sustainable design and custodianship of the natural environment in designing a system that allowed the residual geothermal water to be injected back into the resource, ensuring its sustainability and improving environmental outcomes. The end result was an ACENZ award-winning design for a renewable energy project that improves the whole-life economics of the power station, delivers more power than the alternatives, and reduces carbon emissions (over electricity production from thermal generators).

SKM started to use its innovation tools in planning service offerings to clients. Now it routinely identifies potential concerns for its key clients, both within and beyond projects, and offers innovative ideas to address them. This approach also helps SKM to identify partners it can work with, who share the same enthusiasm for sustainable outcomes and innovation.

The strong nexus between sustainability and innovation in what SKM is doing, and in what its clients are asking for, led SKM to rebrand its strategy as sustainability and innovation. This reflects the need to develop holistic solutions to meet clients’ business needs while delivering sustainable outcomes.

Changes in the way large projects are being procured means that many are now won by alliances with contractors and other consultants. Here the sustainable, big-picture thinking tools, followed up with more detailed innovation and value tools, are invaluable in helping teams generate a winning edge in proposals where they are competing with other alliances on good ideas, price to build, and sometimes price to operate and maintain an asset over its life.

After the first Christchurch earthquake, SKM, working in a design ‘pod’ with other designers and contractors, held a sustainable outcomes workshop to help identify ways to minimise disruption to the already stressed community. The workshop led to ideas for reducing construction waste and managing supplies of available resources. SKM believes the way infrastructure providers interact with communities will change, and this will drive social innovation into projects. Community engagement is a major part of making sure clients’ projects are socially sustainable, as well as economically and environmentally sustainable.

At present, SKM’s social innovation is mainly channeled through its corporate social responsibility programme. This programme has led to a number of staff initiatives gaining financial support. A major recipient of funds over the past two years has been the development of a guide for primary schools to incorporate sustainability across the curriculum. This guide was developed by SKM in conjunction with education specialists Hooked-on-Thinking and Epsom Normal Primary School (ENPS), and was trialled in ENPS for a year with significant results. A link to a free download of the guide can be found at the SKM website.

In the future, SKM believes that social innovation, together with an alliance approach to projects, will lead to true sustainable innovation in infrastructure.

The numbers

Sinclair Knight Merz

Up to 100 years - the length of time SKM expects its projects to perform

2008 - SKM CEO Paul Dougas announced that sustainability would be one of the key business strategies for the firm

30 percent - the three-year carbon reduction target set by SKM

Two - the awards won by SKM in 2010 for its projects and initiatives that have both innovation and sustainability at their core

Community engagement - an important way SKM ensures its projects are socially sustainable, as well as economically and environmentally sustainable.

Sarah Sinclair
Sustainability Practitioner
09 928 5896
021 347687

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