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Getting the message Paul Wheeler looks at how good geotechnics can bring value to the civil engineering industry.

The UK geotechnical community is on something of a roll. Post Latham and Egan, the construction industry is starting to think about doing the things the geotechnical sector has been talking about for over 20 years.

Looking for ways of increasing efficiency by reducing costs and adding value, construction is tuning in to the concepts of integrated teams and incorporating specialists at an early stage in the decision making process - ideas that have become almost a mantra within the geotechnical community.

There is a new positive mood among many geotechnical engineers, that things could be on the verge of changing for the benefit not only geotechnical specialists, but also the whole industry.

Recent geotechnically- demanding projects such the rescue work following the collapse of the central terminal area on Heathrow Express, and the Batheaston bypass near Bath have become the textbook examples of partnering, teamwork, the observational method and value engineering.

A surprising common factor to both projects is a crisis - the collapse at Heathrow and disruptions from road protesters at Batheaston - which helped forge incredibly strong teams, with a clearly identifiable goal. Add to this the enforced extra time early in the project cycle, and the result was more creative and ultimately better value solutions.

Since then the Amey/Gibb/ Highways Agency team from Batheaston has transferred the approach to the M74 project in Scotland, proving that the process can be applied from the conceptual stage - allowing even greater benefits to be achieved.

So why has it taken so long for such concepts to be put into practice?

Possibly the answer lies in that the geotechnical community has, until recently, nurtured a small village-like culture. Look back through the many sets of conference and seminar proceedings over the years and you will find plenty of the current good ideas. However the messages are usually hidden within technically heavy papers and the audience at such events has invariably been the geotechnically enlightened.

Certainly the culture of the construction industry is changing, but so too is the mood of the geotechnical community.

About a year ago the Association of Geotechnical & Geoenvironmental Specialists put forward the idea of a seminar aimed at clients, and won the support of the other main geo-technical trade bodies and its leaned societies.

The idea was to deliver key messages to clients in a simple and direct way and to publish proceedings that could be used as a benchmark for others to emulate.

Contrast this approach to that five years ago when ICE launched its excellent four volume Site investigation steering group report with the slogan 'you pay for a site investigation whether you have one or not'.

The slogan seemed appropriate at the time, but in retrospect was too negative, sounding a little like it was being delivered by the grim reaper. It was indicative of the inward looking mood of the site investigation industry at that time, which was frustrated by the slow rate of progress since the early 1970s, and the fact that drilling rates had halved in the previous few years.

Five years on, the community is more positive and outward looking. The focus is now very much on delivering what the client wants and that is bang in line with the Egan report.

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