Initial Publication Date: February 25, 2013

The Built Environment: A Common Ground for Geoscience and Engineering

John Duggan, Wentworth Institute of Technology

Most of us don't put a lot of thought into the origin of the materials in a paved road, a concrete sidewalk or a brick wall, but we should. We take for granted that the structure is there and serves some necessary purpose. In the context of geoscience and engineering, the composition of a man-made structure, how it was designed, and how it was built are central to evaluating its sustainability. By taking a closer look, the landscape of the built environment can be viewed as a work in progress, a dynamic system at the intersection of engineering, geoscience and sustainability.

Our built environment, that includes our living and working spaces and the networks that link them, is constructed with raw materials extracted from the earth. Design is based on, amongst other things, an understanding of the physical and chemical properties of these raw materials. Efficient design, use and maintenance of these spaces are the essence of sustainability. Teaching and learning opportunities focused on our built environment include field and laboratory research, historical and contemporary case-studies and the study of regulatory and economic factors that drive decision making. In all cases, the concepts of sustainability, such as life-cycle assessment, carbon footprint, protection of natural resources and environmental justice, should be taught with the integrated use of geoscience and engineering principles.

Practicing professionals, whether scientist, engineer, planner or policy maker, have an ethical obligation to consider the effects of their actions on the environment, public health and safety. Teaching that exposes students to the life cycle of natural resources, such as stone, sand, limestone and clay, in the production of building materials (asphalt, brick and concrete, etc.) will prepare them to consider and address the availability of these resources both in their lifetimes and for future generations. Sustainability issues facing the built environment require solutions to challenges of finite natural resources, preservation of open space, energy conservation, etc. These solutions require an interdisciplinary approach by engineers and geoscientists (and others).

This workshop provides an opportunity to identify and develop teaching modules to address sustainability issues with the built environment that bridge the gap between geoscience and engineering. Modules would include: alternative building materials; alternative design and increasing design life; improved recycling and reuse of building materials; and the assessment of technological and regulatory impediments to more sustainable design. Such modules can be developed to enhance an existing course within a discipline or stand alone as a separate hybrid course. Through collaboration at this workshop, there is the opportunity to develop interdisciplinary modules, both relevant to the times and effective in educating and inspiring students.

Downloadable version of this essay

The Built Environment: A Common Ground for Geoscience and Engineering (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Feb25 13)