Smart Move: Bechtel Leans into Push for Resilient Infrastructure

Smart Move: Bechtel Leans Into Push For Resilient Infrastructure

Dark night: Second costliest storm in U.S. history, 'Sandy' cut power to much of NYC in 2012. (Photo by Iwan Baan)

Dark night: Second costliest storm in U.S. history, 'Sandy' cut power to much of NYC in 2012. (Photo by Iwan Baan)

by JOHN GREGERSON | Dec 3, 2015

It should come as no surprise that the engineering and construction giant behind many of the world's largest infrastructure projects now has something even bigger in mind: "Resilience."

With countless 'smart' projects under its belt, San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. this fall has been spearheading broader efforts to integrate municipal systems -- energy, water, underground and "overground" transport, communications, and more -- all to create smarter, more resilient infrastructure across entire cities. Infinitely well-connected and always influential, the global AEC player has thrown its considerable weight into the urgent mission of preparing the world's cities for unprecedented growth.

For evidence of its commitment, at least to being a thought leader on the subject, look no further than Bechtel's helpful new report, How to Transform Your City With Smart, Resilient Infrastructure, its companion piece to consortium RE.invest's Roadmap for Resilience, a larger, 99-page document to which it contributed. Bechtel contends that the 'smart' process begins with a simple shift in thinking. Rather than consider infrastructure as “projects operating in silos,” stakeholders should regard it as “a system of integrated structures” that “work both independently and together as an integrated whole... Ensuring systems are not divided into small parts and built in silos is essential to create infrastructure where the whole creates more value than the sum of its parts.”

Smart: Denton-Brown

Smart: Denton-Brown

“That's the key takeaway,” says James Denton-Brown, a 30-year Bechtel veteran who leads the smart cities, industrial and transportation practice for Bechtel Infrastructure. Lack of integration can exert a domino effect among systems under adverse circumstances, he adds. For instance, the failure of a city's water management system will also trigger the failure of power delivery, as both 2005's Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and 2012's Superstorm Sandy in metro New York-New Jersey illustrated. To avert such systemic catastrophes, “a city ideally would establish an integrated power and water department,” Denton-Brown recommends.

To enlarge this infographic, click here.

To enlarge this infographic, click here.

As envisioned by Bechtel, water management, for example, would focus on reinforcing, preserving and bolstering flood defense while creating buffer zones and locating sea walls outside existing walls, to serve as barriers against storm surges. Energy-related services also would be hardened to withstand stress and shock and sited outside flood zones and areas of projected sea level rise. Further measures would decentralize power delivery and promote redundancy by incorporating combinations of solar, fuel cells, combined cycle gas turbines, and hydro.

The Bechtel guide goes on to lay out specific recommendations for buildings, transportation, and communications. While the logistics of coordinating it all are staggering, the anticipated outcomes include “more efficient and robust [systems] in the face of shocks and stress,” according to the guide. Added resiliency not only would allow cities to “provide a level of essential services during and in the aftermath of adverse events,” but promote quicker recovery, it states.


However, Denton-Brown emphasizes integrated infrastructure is a top-down proposition, particularly in the U.S., where city services operate more independently of one another. “It's got to start with the mayor, city council, and then down through and to various departments and department heads,” he says. “In other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, it's all top-down. We're building entire cities there, and the mandate is clear.”

Nevertheless, concerns about climate change have prompted many U.S. cities to "increasingly regard resilient, integrated infrastructure as a core responsibility,” Denton-Brown adds. “Ten years ago, the issue wasn't even on the agenda,” he adds. But recent climatic events have demonstrated that coastal cities are particularly vulnerable, all over the world.


The more voluminous Roadmap, the result of a two-year undertaking, acknowledges the elephant in the room: a potential lack of capital.

“Currently, political leaders have few incentives to take on projects whose benefits extend beyond their current political cycles,” the report reads. “Similarly, investors lack incentives to finance large-scale projects when political turnover is predictable and investment risks are unmanageable. Leaders from both the public and private sectors have called repeatedly for new public-private partnerships. Even with these seemingly aligned goals, large projects have been few and far between, and overall infrastructure investment is still lagging.”

Leaders from both the public and private sectors have called repeatedly for new public-private partnerships.
— RE.INVEST: A Roadmap for Resilience

Among other content, Roadmap outlines methods to promote private investment. The document chronicles cost-efficient initiatives undertaken by eight U.S. cities under the auspices of RE.invest, whose members, in addition to Bechtel, include a financial firm, a law practice, and an architect specializing in resilient solutions. “In many instances, we found that resilient infrastructure could partly pay for itself,” Denton-Brown says. For instance, by taking a regional approach to storm water planning in New Orleans, “we found the city could achieve savings in staffing and manpower,” he notes.

In El Paso TX, the issue was climate.

“To reach the goals laid out in its sustainability plan, the city worked through RE.invest to explore new options for increasing sustainable energy infrastructure, enhancing integrated recycled water and storm water infrastructure, and attracting large-scale private business investment in a way that promotes sustainability alongside local economic development,” according to the report.

Similarly, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the City of Hoboken NJ worked with RE.invest to integrate green infrastructure and open space with new solutions for sub-surface storm water. Other cities in the Re:invest program included Milwaukee, Miami Beach, Norfolk VA, Honolulu, and San Francisco.

They all have their work cut out for them, of course. The American Society of Civil Engineers projects U.S. cities will need to invest $3.6 trillion dollars in infrastructure by 2035.

And that's simply to maintain systems already in place.

To actually improve them, we'll have to get smart.

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