Orange County Branch Newsletter

April 2013


A Geotechnical Engineer's Perspective: Help Us Help You

By: Victor R. Donald, P.E.

As a national director of geotechnical services for Terracon, I have the opportunity to work with geotechnical engineers from my company as well as many others throughout the United States.  We share a common dilemma: our services are being commoditized to the point that a serious threat to the well-being of the geotechnical profession exists.

The civil engineering community is well known as a strong advocate for the selection of our services based upon quality and understanding of the project and project area.  We can use the help of civil engineers to foster an environment where quality is a paramount consideration in the selection of geotechnical engineers. 

Geotechnical engineers need your continued help to demonstrate to the design profession that our services are professional, and that selection of a capable and knowledgeable geotechnical consultant early, as a part of the design team, is the best way to derive the full benefit of a geotechnical engineer.  Today’s world allows the geotechnical engineer to maintain a collaborative relationship throughout the design and construction processes.  So the geotechnical engineer should develop the site subsurface characterization program to allow innovation to assist.  Our profession has grown immensely in the development of technologically enhanced ways to conduct a site characterization program using geophysical and/or in-situ test methods, typically complementing the well-known soil boring as a means to understand the subsurface conditions.  We have developed GIS methods to make the vast subsurface database that is available an active part of the building information model.  Geotechnical engineers also develop, understand and promote innovations in ground improvement, intermediate foundations and advancements in deep foundations to save owners millions of dollars. 

All members of the design team and the owner deserve better than the lowest price geotechnical consultant to investigate a site, test and develop geotechnical design parameters and provide advice on appropriate site preparation, foundation options and designs for excavations, slopes, grade separation structures, and pavements.   The fees of the geotechnical consultant are usually a fraction of 1 percent of the construction costs, and their test results and opinions will impact a project budget by orders of magnitude in excess of the fees that they charge.

Active collaboration with the geotechnical engineer in the design team reduces the potential for miscommunication that often results from single point of delivery reports and from overly conservative designs.  There are two types of foundation failures.  The first is obvious.  Structures move, slopes fail, walls tumble, floors distort, walls crack, etc.  This failure type gets significant attention.  The second could be more prevalent, but it goes completely undetected.  It is the foundation that costs twice or perhaps up to 10 times more than necessary because overly conservative designs were adopted, all because the design team lacked the participation of an innovative and capable geotechnical engineer who is knowledgeable of innovative advancements in our profession. 

Imagine the scenario where, in all such projects, the geotechnical engineer is procured along with other members of the design team based solely upon their qualifications, past performance, experience and understanding of the needs of the particular project. Fees, while important, are secondary, and established by all using a well understood measure, perhaps connected to anticipated construction costs, rendering no two geotechnical engineering firms to be different from a fee perspective.  The presence of a geotechnical project design partner would be a valuable asset to the Structural Engineer who can now develop foundation designs with the benefit of collaboration with a well-qualified geotechnical engineer.  This scenario is what we desire, don’t you?

The Design-Build (D-B) environment is a good example of geotechnical engineers providing valuable participation on the design team.  D-B projects include the geotechnical engineer in the design process in order to render a proposal for the project that offers the best value.  In my experience, the D-B project allows for vigorous and highly collaborative interaction of all disciplines, with the winning proposal often resulting in an innovative solution.  If the need for active participation by the geotechnical engineer is that obvious in the D-B project where best overall value wins, why do geotechnical engineers struggle to participate as design professionals in the traditional, Design-Bid-Build environment?

So, you can “help us help you”.  By continuing to convey this message to your clientele, you can assist the geotechnical engineer to become more influential in the design process, eliminating the burden of insufficient geotechnical engineering that could result in costs that far exceed their fees.

Victor R. Donald, P.E. ([email protected]) is a senior principal, and National Director of Geotechnical Services for Terracon with offices throughout the United States.

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