The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and various similar state-level laws require an agency to anticipate and evaluate the environmental impacts of a project and alternatives to the project. To the extent possible, impacts should be avoided or mitigated. Significant time and money is spent doing this analysis before reaching a decision on a preferred option. Typically, the agency then hires a design team to prepare the plans and specifications for the preferred option. The handoff from environmental review to design is not always smooth, and required mitigations can be missed during the design and construction process, resulting in avoidable project delays and cost overruns.
1. Rethinking the project sequence
Scout encourages clients to engage the design team (at a minimum the architect and civil engineer) as soon as a preferred option begins to emerge during the environmental review and well before the NEPA documents are published as a Record of Decision (or equivalent). For most federal agencies, this requires early engagement with the contracting officials to move up their design timeline, so it can often be challenging to redefine this process.
2. Significant project advantages
Engaging the project design team has very significant advantages for any project on a “green” site where habitat questions are a significant environmental concern. It can also be advantageous on a brownfield site, though not to the same degree. For example, environmental study areas are often drawn based on an assumed site footprint. Preliminary engineering by the design team would provide a more realistic study area, which also considers construction access and viability. This is especially true for sites that will require significant grading and might also require retaining walls or large setbacks to maintain slope stability.
Because the overall footprint might change, storm water and grading impacts can be more appropriately evaluated. Mitigations considered by the environmental team, either active or passive (avoidance) mitigations, would be vetted for feasibility and cost practicability.
Construction windows for wildlife nesting seasons can be considered and factored into the design effort and timelines, so cost estimates reflect these site constraints and delays.
If the project area is a subset of a larger development area, then the design engineers can engage with the master site designers to coordinate the edge conditions that will exist at the time of construction.
Overall delays to the project can be reduced. It is not uncommon for a project to require a “supplemental” NEPA document after design is underway. This often results when the actual design stretches beyond pre-approved site limits. If the out-of-limits excursion impacts wildlife nesting habitat or seasonal vegetation, an entire year can be lost waiting for the updated environmental clearance as the expanded area is studied. Engaging the design team early in the process can avoid the need for supplemental documents.
3. Accountability for the project
One challenge for projects is to ensure that mitigations spelled out in the approved NEPA (environmental) documents are properly implemented during design and construction. This has often been left to chance. If a conflict between design and the approved NEPA documents is noticed, delays result while redesign takes place. In a worst-case scenario, the conflict may be noticed by an outside stakeholder before the project team can take action, and a legal shutdown may result.
The owner’s project manager or environmental representative may be able to review and verify compliance. Engaging the design team early on makes the design team aware not just of the limits but of the rationale behind the limits. Understanding the environmental constraints integrates those constraints into the design instead of making them check box add-ons at the end of design. It allows the environmental team to understand the design challenges and use their expertise to help mitigate potential adverse environmental issues. In short, it allows for a truly sustainable design.
Most significantly, it gives both the designers and the environmental team “buy-in” for the project and accountability for the successful outcome.
3. How Scout Environmental helps
Scout prepares NEPA and other environmental documents for project approvals and welcomes the engagement of the design team at the earliest possible stage. Scout also provides a continuation of service during design and construction to verify environmental mitigations remain satisfied as a project moves forward. Contact us today to help your projects avoid NEPA conflicts during design and construction: firstname.lastname@example.org.