Civil construction and infrastructure development inherently affect the neighboring environment. There is no building a bridge without impact. But the teams at Skanska USA are working to make sure these impacts from heavy construction are mostly positive, and that energy management reduces negative implications and even leaves sites in better condition than at a project’s inception.

The company has been a pioneer in green civil projects with endeavors like the Virginia’s Elizabeth River Tunnels (ERT) project. Now underway, the midtown tunnel, which pipes beneath the Elizabeth River Tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, has been built with every consideration to guarantee the surrounding area is left cleaner than before the project’s start and that the tunnel itself is built green. 

Carissa Agnese, regional environmental manager at Skanska, has spearheaded environmental considerations from the very beginning of the ERT project. The first step was to make sure the team was on board. “Working and building such a great sustainable project is really a group effort, it takes everybody,” says Agnese. While convincing everyone involved that civil construction projects can be environmentally-friendly was an initial challenge, there was eventually vested support from the team of day-to-day works up through management.

“Change is hard in the construction industry, and it was a hard obstacle to convince [the team] that change is good. We were able to do that with the level of support from management,” explains Agnese. One way to persuade the team to consistently redesign practices is by always having a backup.  “We didn’t try anything we didn’t have a plan A and plan B safety net [for]. It made people feel more comfortable about trying something new,” says Agnese. “Most of the people we work with enjoy the outdoors. Knowing what they are doing on the jobsite benefits their own personal lives means a lot to them.”

Prior to beginning construction, excavation required removal of wood piles from an old railroad. Agnese and her team used this as an opportunity to find a sustainable use for the waste, chipping it and handing much of it over to a nearby energy company to safely burn the chips for energy production while uncontaminated piles became landfill cover.

These self-contained
concrete chute wash-out systems that Skanska’s ERT team uses to recycle leftover concrete, filter, and reuse the water.
Gloede, Katherine These self-contained concrete chute wash-out systems that Skanska’s ERT team uses to recycle leftover concrete, filter, and reuse the water.

From there, the ERT team has taken sustainable practices to the next level. The project surpassed Skanska’s requirement for recycle and reuse of 96% of materials, hitting just above 99% at this point in the project. Additional tactics like soil remediation, concrete washing, and puncturing aerosol cans on site to improve recycling and reduce hazardous waste have saved more than $250,000 of the project budget. That number is expected to double by completion. Agnese identifies best practices for mitigating costs of procedures like waste removal by closely tracking every piece of the process and finding regional opportunities to reuse it. “For every truck and every dumpster that left that site, I have a record of it.”

Agnese and the ERT team have found ways to ensure that the surrounding marine ecosystem is improved without costing the company anything. By partnering with local non-profits like the Elizabeth River Project, around 500 blocks from concrete waste will be used to restore oyster habitats with placement of the blocks occurring throughout the summer. The effort is volunteer-based, involves the community in Skanska’s work, and all the company needs to provide is material and space. “I’m proud to say we’ve been able to form such a great partnership,” says Agnese, “there’s opportunity to partner with people you wouldn’t think you could partner with in construction.”

Skanska’s ERT team using waste concrete to make oyster boxes for the
Elizabeth River.
Skanska’s ERT team using waste concrete to make oyster boxes for the Elizabeth River.

An integral part of Agnese’s role is generating Environmental Excellence Reports that outline results for each project to serve as a model for other work at Skanska and beyond. “I am really excited about Skanska being a leader and being an example to heavy civil construction. We have such a great opportunity to be a mentor for everyone in the construction industry.”

The ERT project is a leading example of how Skanska is working to make civil construction a greener industry. “We are very much environmentally focused and we want to leave something good behind,” explains Wade Watson, ERT’s project director. “We are particularly focused on the environment because we can make a big difference.” Watson notes that with around 50 environmental managers, Skanska is working to ensure every heavy project is as green as possible, starting with a plan of action for every day. The ERT project is a prime example of going above and beyond, as the design-build job involved Skanska from the start, enabling them to devote a little more time and resources to environmental management.

Beyond the financial benefits of sustainable practices for Skanska, the company aims to be a model of what’s possible in civil construction. “Part of our mission is not only to publicize what we’re doing within our company, but to the entire industry,” says Watson. With ISO 14001 certification underlining overall commitment to sustainability efforts, Skanska’s Environmental Excellence Reports are ways to document progress and show how environmentally-beneficial action couples with major cost savings.

On the acknowledgment Skanska has received for sustainability efforts, such as a silver medal in the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards, Watson says it is not the motivator. “It is good to get awards because you see us getting recognized by the communities we work in, but it’s certainly not a driver. We are getting out to the industry and getting out to the public. That’s what we like. People see the things we’re doing, and if we can do it, others can do it, too.”