Practitioners from RSK Environment describe how constraints mapping and design workshops can improve the identification of impact interactions and the overall effectiveness of environmental impact assessment (EIA)
Project team members on large multidisciplinary projects often rely on the EIA coordinator to feed project information to them, which can potentially lead to bottlenecks in information flow and communication errors.
The EIA process and the quality of environmental statements can be vastly improved by holding project design workshops, or “charettes”, involving the EIA team, the design team, and the client (see diagram 1). Such an approach can help to overcome silo-thinking and encourage participants to see the bigger picture.
Constraints mapping has been used effectively by RSK from the earliest stage of projects to assemble baseline information and kick-start the design workshop. The constraints map is often used to identify and appreciate potential conflicts between the design concept/proposals and the environment.
This is not only a useful step to inform a client of the realistic outcomes of their project but, when used in the early stages of project planning, it can help guide the project towards impact avoidance (satisfying a key EIA objective) and increase the potential for incorporating built-in, rather than “bolt-on”, design measures. Collectively, such steps usually pay dividends to the client in terms of cost savings.
Constraint mapping should be regularly refreshed when new information emerges and revisited throughout the design development and EIA processes. Constraint mapping can also:
- inform the client of potential risks to the project;
- describe how to anticipate and develop a strategy to deal with potential objections;
- provide useful information to inform early stakeholder discussions; and
- aid in defining the scope of the EIA.
An ongoing tool
Constraint mapping is often the first point at which multidisciplinary information is combined and used to inform the design, but its use shouldn’t stop there. This information provides critical feedback to the design process and is best used as a starting point for design workshops to allow consideration of constraints throughout the design development process.
Design workshops actively encourage a useful dialogue between different specialists and clients, allowing objective-driven identification and evaluation of potential impacts, impact interactions and possible mitigation solutions.
Although a trained facilitator can sometimes usefully moderate such events, any experienced EIA project manager should be able to guide an effective workshop, allowing all participants to share their ideas and opinions openly and without fear of reprisal.
Workshops also encourage the client to provide input into and drive the design by facilitating a better understanding of environmental constraints and possible solutions.
A workshop provides an opportunity for EIA specialists and project designers to fully understand the nature of the impacts involved, and also ensures the project is more likely to be achievable in a technical/engineering sense, as well as economic, social and environmental terms.
All parties come away from the workshop process appreciating the, often unstated, conflicts between the various aspects of the project, and how different aspects may affect project deliverability and sustainability.
Advantages of the design workshop approach include:
- avoiding wasted time and effort on dead-end designs;
- aligning expectations of the client and the project team;
- enhancing cross-discipline awareness of issues and dialogue;
- early identification and better management of project risks;
- timely focus on least-risk, cost-effective strategies and designs;
- facilitating more feasible, robust and defensible project outcomes; and
- enabling better project communication and stakeholder dialogue
RSK uses design workshops on a regular basis and has demonstrated how time and cost effective they can be.
One example is a recent onshore wind farm application where, during a design team meeting, the client highlighted the requirement for borrow pits on site.
The geo-environmental engineers were able to confirm the suitability of the site, while the acousticians advised on noise levels likely to be experienced by local residents.
The ecologists advised on risks to protected species, and the landscape architects commented on the likely cost, timescale, and effectiveness of restoration.
Finally, the transport consultants commented on the benefits of reduced traffic on the road network.
The output from the discussion was used to inform the siting of the pits; identify potential impacts and impact interactions; and set out the potential benefits.
By integrating the design workshop into the EIA process, the client and project team were fully informed of, and clearly understood, the potential impacts and mitigation requirements.
The design workshop discussions were also used to document the review of options and alternatives, for subsequent reporting in the environmental statement.
All projects can use design workshops as a tool to refine the design of a project, in terms of size, location and technologies considered.
Dialogue between the client, the EIA team and the project design team can help to create a shared vision, common understanding, sharing of risk and joint ownership of project outcomes.
The dialogue created among the EIA team results in a more integrated, cohesive environmental statement rather than production of chapters in isolation, which can lead to inconsistent and disjointed reporting.
This joined up approach in an EIA team can achieve a more cost effective, environmentally acceptable and technically robust project.
Diagram 1: an overview of the design workshop approach
A: Scope of project design workshop
B: Scope of inclusive design workshop or charette (for example, the “Enquiry by design” approach championed by The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community)
This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.
Victoria Postle and Tim Cramp are principal environmental consultants at RSK Environment