July 25, 2002

A wholistic look at engineering

  • Relational approach is key to long-term economic and environmental sustainability
    2020 Engineering


    As the world’s population continues to grow, now at a rate of about 10,000 per hour, the earth’s finite resources are going to have to go farther and be treated wisely in order to meet the world’s basic needs.

    New solutions are needed that are both economical and environmentally friendly. This includes transportation systems, resource management (i.e., water, minerals, other natural resources), and sustainable building options.

    A wholistic engineering approach recognizes that the effectiveness of any plan is dependent on numerous unpredictable influences, and therefore, the whole situation relating to our resources must be taken into account.

    A wholistic engineering approach helps provide solutions for long-term economic and environmental sustainability of communities. The goal of wholistic engineering is to provide simple economic solutions to complex environmental issues ... to meet future needs.


    The state Legislature and local agencies must endorse a progressive policy that supports sustainable solutions through the active exploration and evaluation of alternative technologies and building practices.

    Wholistic engineering is all about relationships. There are many challenges facing communities that involve cross-relationships between many kinds of complex components such as: laws and regulations, social concerns, politics, special interests, economic and environmental issues, science & technology, and resources. The implementation of a plan developed with a wholistic engineering management approach gains strength by concurrently evaluating all potential costs and benefits that may relate, either directly or indirectly, to the planned action.

    Leadership and community planning

    The history of human progress has shown that changes are required to solve a problem, and to make changes without causing other problems is the exception.

    But, without changes the most critical problems that can lead to failure will continue to put the entire system at risk. Properly planned changes can be developed with a planned action already in-place to deal with unexpected problems as they occur. When prepared, these new problems can become beneficial, as they will usually lead to opportunities for new and better solutions.

    Effective planning reduces the financial burdens of operating in the crisis mode and provides for security of future conditions.

    What motivates actions? Action is usually motivated by money, crisis and/or concern for future security. Effective planning reduces the financial burdens of operating in the crisis mode and provides for security of future conditions. This type of planning begins with leadership.

    Sustainable transportation
    Image courtesy of CyberTran International
    Sustainable transportation: Cost-effective systems designed specifically to fit into existing communities and serve many locations.

    Many practical and simple strategies can be part of a cooperative “team” approach that encompasses different kinds of expertise within various public and private entities, along with the active participation of the general public. This requires tearing down the walls and building bridges between diverse interests.

    This type of internal and external collaboration for public projects can result in better decisions, savings in time and money during project development, as well as avoiding costly lawsuits and appeals that are ever present in today’s legal and political climate. Without this kind of leadership and integrated team approach, new plans will have limited use and will often only end up on the shelf.

    Laws and regulations

    Regulatory changes are needed to expedite the use of appropriate technologies and methods. As environmental problems continue to become more evident, the urgency to make prudent changes to archaic laws and regulations to provide for sustainable alternatives is increasing.

    Without timely action it will most likely be impossible to avoid the too familiar, and costly, type of legislation which is enacted under a crisis operating mode. This has been the case under which most of the current environmental laws in the U.S. were written.

    In order to help provide practical and economical ways to protect our environment, the state Legislature and local agencies must endorse a progressive policy that supports sustainable solutions through the active exploration and evaluation of alternative technologies and building practices. This would include changing some of the current state laws and regulations with more flexibility so that certain issues can be handled more efficiently by local communities based on the knowledge of their own unique circumstances.

    In many cases, the federal role in bringing about needed change is also extremely important, as the issue at hand is often not only a local or state challenge, but can be a national and international issue as well. Without the full participation from broader constituencies, state and local governments working individually on certain issues (i.e., water rights) can only achieve limited success.


    Wholistic engineering
    Definition. Wholistic engineering is a management approach that includes the comprehensive inclusion of all issues and possible conditions related to the primary task or mission. A wholistic view also recognizes that all initially reported facts and assumptions will continually change and therefore will require constant supervision of the planned action.
    The word wholistic is derived from the word whole. [whole; n. All of something, including all its component elements or parts, a complete thing.]

    Wholistic: Relating to a complete and total system or organization of parts fitting or working together as one. A system, which may also exist within a whole system, includes a group of units or method of procedure so combined as to form a functioning whole and operating in unison: an organized whole.

    Engineering: A science by which the resources and properties of matter and sources of energy are made useful to humankind in systems, structures, machines and products.

    The study and practice of engineering has evolved for more than 50 centuries to a profession capable of designing built environments by molding materials and forces of nature. As engineering knowledge and skills increase, which allows populations to grow and disperse, the handling of our precious resources has become extremely critical.

    As society and human needs change and technology rapidly advances, it is essential that cities and their surrounding regions respond to and accommodate the evolution. Steps to accomplish this might include:

    • View changes as opportunities, thereby making current problems beneficial, which leads to new and better solutions.

    • Keep plans free and flexible within a creative framework, in terms of land use, systems of movement and services.

    • Modify and improve plans when new technologies emerge or new opportunities present themselves.

    • Encourage freedom of choice and innovative design.

    • Prepare a staged program for implementation, including provisions for necessary administrative unit, team members and personnel, legislation and capital funding.

    • Launch an all-out drive to accomplish the first phase objectives.

    Today, public concern over environmental impacts reflects a recognition that past planning and engineering plans have not been adequate to consider desirable and compatible relationships. The management of resources and impacts due to engineered systems can no longer afford complacency with respect to environmental challenges and problems. All future planning efforts must increasingly develop new methods for providing plans based on ecologically sound policies for the built human environment.

    Sustainable solutions

    The complication of rigid regulations and codes, and their related potential legal liabilities (for not following “the letter of the law”), inhibit the introduction of many sustainable alternatives. This also results in most of the engineering profession resorting to “cookbook” design solutions. This problem continues the use of environmentally incompatible designs and inhibits the development of new technologies that could provide for better solutions — for example, using costly 20th century light-rail technology in 21st century communities.

    Design criteria must include the use of new and continually changing engineering systems and methods in order to provide sustainable solutions that are needed for the future. Due to the increasing awareness of environmental and economic problems, some engineers and public agencies are becoming more open to new ideas, and in some cases, going back to simple and “old” ways of doing things.

    Examples of sustainable building solutions
    Integrated building systems

    Energy efficient

    Natural daylighting

    Natural ventilation

    Non-toxic building materials

    Water conservation and reuses

    Rainwater harvesting

    Impervious surface reduction

    Porous pavements


    Raingardens (bioretention)

    Compost amended soils

    Eco-turfs and low maintenance landscapes

    In order to design and implement sustainable solutions, a “whole system” or “integrated design” approach is needed. This requires design professionals, many of which are used to working only on their own little piece of the picture, to become part of a team that requires the integration of many areas of expertise in order to achieve a sustainable design.

    A whole system design often requires many areas of expertise that are needed to complete the overall design. Individuals and firms that have been involved with sustainable designs are learning and developing systems that help to manage and effectively integrate the efforts of a diverse multi-disciplinary design team.


    There are many good engineering and management practices used today throughout the world that are simple and proven techniques. These methods are typically based on local knowledge of both past successes and failures and on an intuitive understanding of what should be done to provide for a healthy future.

    These types of economical and environmentally sound “common sense” approaches for solving problems, combined with today’s emerging technologies and computers, continue to gain importance as our need for sustainable solutions becomes more critical in order to meet our future needs.

    Mark Buehrer, P.E., is the founder and director of 2020 Engineering, an engineering consulting company in Bellingham.

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