Sustainable design is just “good design”

By Esteban Biondi
When we look at sustainability principles and how they can be applied, we can show that they are all about “good design”. Good design enhances value, reduces risk, and reduces costs at multiple time and spatial scales.

A farmers’ market at Rodney Bay Marina in St Lucia is a popular and community-based event for locals and visitors.  Photo: Adam Foster

A farmers’ market at Rodney Bay Marina in St Lucia is a popular and community-based event for locals and visitors. Photo: Adam Foster

Sustainability is a broad concept, but it has been over used and may not be as strong a call to awareness and a driver of change as it should be. On one hand, we are now familiar with generic statements, buzz words and fashionable declarations that only sugarcoat “business as usual”. On the other hand, regulations are evolving rapidly to impose additional requirements. But when we step back, there is significant value in applying a thorough design approach to achieve sustainability.
Modern sustainable marina design is not about introducing external or foreign issues, but about rethinking design and operation more thoroughly. What used to be considered acceptable, even if not ideal, was often justified in terms of some sort of cost reduction. Now we know that we can do better. We seek more value in different dimensions, lower indirect and societal costs, and make deliberate efforts for risk reduction. These considerations now have more relevance in design.
Some environmentalists rage against marinas, saying that they all cause negative environmental impacts. We must recognise that there are too many examples of marinas in pristine environments that have caused excessive and unjustified damage, which leads to this assessment. But it is also true that some locations in degraded environments will benefit from the proper development of recreation navigation infrastructure. There is arguably more total value in sustainable marinas that expand local economic activity, revitalise cultural traditions and provide ecological functions than some pure ecological restoration projects.
Sustainable marina design guidelines, such as the PIANC Working Group 148 report published in 2023, now explicitly state that we should seek proactive inclusion of ecological features and identify opportunities for guest experience that provide direct benefits to the local community.
[p2]Higher expectations result in some details becoming more relevant and unavoidable. Analysis is more complex and nuanced, but the result is better. Net positive environmental impacts, meaningful stakeholder engagement, resource conservation, resilience to extreme events and climate change, and reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are now part of modern marina design.
While Working with Nature emphasises following a design process, it highlights specific environmental and social issues applicable to marinas; and it also discusses climate mitigation and adaptation issues.
Climate change mitigation
Climate change mitigation refers to the reduction of GHG emissions, which are classified depending on the control that a company has over those emissions. Scope 1 emissions are due to the activities that the company controls, scope 2 emissions are generated by the energy the company consumes, and Scope 3 are emissions by customers and suppliers. The design, development and operation of marinas all play a part in reducing emissions to mitigate climate change.
Marinas in certain jurisdictions that already have regulations promoting climate mitigation measures are now introducing procedures specifically designed to document, quantify and reduce Scope 1 emissions, including emissions by marina owned vehicles, generators and equipment.
Scope 2 emissions are GHG emissions by power generators. Marinas do not control them directly, but energy conservation reduces them. Many marinas began some time ago to evaluate their consumption of resources (water, energy, materials etc.) and to implement conservation measures. Consumption reduction results in economic and environmental sustainability benefits, but energy conservation measures also reduce Scope 2 emissions. Reduction can also be achieved by self-generation of power within the property, such as installation of solar panels.
The next type of climate change mitigation actions that marinas should begin to consider are related to Scope 3 emissions. These are GHG emissions by customers and suppliers. Most marinas sell fuel for recreational vessel propulsion, so this type of Scope 3 emission is large and relatively easy to track.
[p3]The marina industry already has companies dedicated to power charging stations and hydrogen supply for new propulsion systems. Some developers in the Middle East have established the goal that no fossil fuels will be used for mobility systems, including recreational navigation. Marinas that are considering improvements to their electrical supply systems to charge batteries of electric boats and provide fuel for new recreational vessel propulsion systems are not only responding to the market demand but setting themselves up to document impactful climate mitigation measures.
Marina assets also include embodied carbon due to the emissions required for construction and maintenance. But we are much less advanced than some property sectors in accounting for those when designing new developments and expansions. Additionally, the positive contribution due to carbon capture by increasing vegetation cover is not yet accounted.
Resilient design
Planning, design and operation of coastal development is under scrutiny due to increasing risks that are being fuelled by climate change and poor development. Institutional property investors, the reinsurance industry and regulators are further evaluating the extra costs of storm damage. Sea level rise and changes in frequency and intensity of extreme events will only increase those risks.
[p4]This appears as a challenge, since some of the basic assumptions of marine design throughout the history of engineering, such as the elevation of a mean sea level and the statistical analysis of extreme events, are not true for future conditions. But engineers only need to apply the same engineering principles to these new conditions, including the uncertainties that still exist.
Structural resilience is a principle that underlies all engineering design standards; you don’t want catastrophic failure when design conditions are exceeded. But the project response to extreme events now needs to be evaluated more thoroughly. We can now apply resilience principles knowing that low probability actions due to maritime hydrodynamics will get worse over time. With the current understanding we have of the effects of climate change, we know that wave protection and marina edge structures will have to adapt to maintain a certain level of service. We also know that planning for adaptation must consider uncertainties but can be based on the information we do have.
For example, we know that due to future sea level rise, the elevation of marina edge structures will need to be higher to avoid flooding. But it may not be reasonable to build the edge structure now at the elevation needed in one hundred years, because functionality in the short term will be compromised. So now the standard practice is that all coastal works should include a climate change adaptation strategy and plan. With the proper approach, it is not critical to know exactly when adaptation will be needed, but we can build knowing how we can adapt, while having some flexibility in the time scale.
[p5]Unlike other change processes in recent engineering history, infrastructure that does not adapt will have little opportunity to be reused in the future. Many urban and recreational waterfronts in developed countries have resulted from the reconversion of aging or obsolete port areas because part of their infrastructure was reusable. But structures that cannot adapt to climate change will be more difficult to reuse.
Beware of top-down frameworks
In addition to the way in which climate change may transform marina design, the economic and financial effects will have a fundamental impact on waterfront property development and infrastructure for recreation and tourism navigation. Broad sustainability and climate frameworks are now being developed based on very general concepts but will drive further regulations and incentives to achieve sustainability social goals. Companies that are already evaluating their sustainability and climate risk profiles and implementing the resultant adaptation strategy may benefit from these changes. But our industry should ensure that the implementation details are appropriate.
Esteban Biondi is a principal at Applied Technology & Management and is chair of the PIANC Recreational Commission.


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