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Managing geotechnical risk: Risky business

Geotechnical risk needs to be integrated with overall project risk to be better managed, according to Paul Maliphant, who is the UK author of a new international report on the subject.

Paul Maliphant

Paul Maliphant

The impact of geotechnical risk is well understood by most ground engineering practitioners but the problem and methods for mitigation are frequently misjudged or undervalued by other construction professionals.

Without a full appreciation of the risk, problems that could be averted are often repeated on project after project, but a new report published late last year hopes to change perceptions.

The International State of the Art Report on Integration of Geotechnical Risk Management and Project Risk Management was published at the International Symposium of Geotechnical Safety and Risk in Hong Kong in early December. The main finding of the report is that lack of data on the return on investment to mitigate geotechnical risk is restricting the integration of geotechnical risk management within overall project risk management and the construction industry is missing out on opportunities to minimise ground related failures.

Global perspective

The report was developed from 10 country reports commissioned by the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Ground Engineering’s (ISSMGE) TC304 task force 3 technical committee. Reporters from Austria, China, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK all reported on how geotechnical risk is managed and the impacts this has in each construction market.

The findings of the 10 reports were drawn together into the document presented in Hong Kong by Netherlands-based VSRM risk consultant Martin van Staveren.

Author of the UK contribution to the report was Mott MacDonald development director Paul Maliphant. He is a firm believer that risk can be better managed through greater understanding of the issues at a particular site and trying to prevent it becoming an engineering problem in the first place.

Maliphant started out as a geologist and has developed his engineering knowledge through his career, which has spanned the National Coal Board, local authorities and consultancy. During his time in the coal sector he recognised the need to widen his knowledge and career prospects, and he completed an MSc in engineering and environmental geology at Cardiff University while still working.

I realised that we are still in a position where geotechnical risk management is not valued

Soon after leaving the coal industry and joining Mid Glamorgan County Council Maliphant had his first introduction to balancing cost and risk, but was able to leverage his mining knowledge.

“One of the first schemes I was asked to look at was a school that was built on an old mining adit,” he explains.

“A previous report had called for the area to be stripped and the adit filled in but through checking records we established that the adit was the main drain for the hillside so blocking it would have created more of a problem.”

Malpihant’s solution was to cap the adit and saved the council several million pounds.

Maliphant’s move into consultancy started in 1997 when he joined Halcrow and his move to Mott MacDonald was completed last year. Although he initially started off at Halcrow working on geotechnical challenges, he gradually became more involved in management issues, but with his move to Mott MacDonald he has been determined to retain his involvement in the ground engineering market.

Outside of working hours Maliphant has been a keen promoter of continuing professional development and was a founder member of the South Wales regional group of the Geological Society. It was through this work that Maliphant led plans to run a seminar in 2011 to mark the 10-year anniversary of publication of Chris Clayton’s widely acclaimed book Managing Geotechnical Risk.

A key phrase that is often quoted from Clayton’s publication is: “Building and construction case records show that ground conditions are often the cause of very large cost and time overruns. Geotechnical risk can affect all those involved in construction, including the client, the designer and the constructors.”

Nonetheless, Maliphant found that although a decade had past, this message was still not being accepted and the wisdom applied on site.

“From the responses of delegates at the conference I realised that we are still in a position where geotechnical risk management is not valued,” he says. “It is not a case that we don’t have the technology, more that it is just not being used.”

Avoiding the problem

Maliphant polled delegates as to whether they thought a ground engineering problem required a ground engineering solution. “78% said yes,” he says. “But surely the best risk management is to avoid the problem, and that doesn’t call for a ground engineering solution.”

According to Maliphant, the return on investment of increasing the amount spent on ground investigation against the cost of construction and escalation of these costs when unforeseen geotechnical problems arise is still not accepted.

The conference led to Maliphant’s involvement in writing the UK section of the ISSMGE report that was published in December.

Publication of the report is just the start and the UK industry needs to look at the findings and work to communicate the issues

“Comparing and contrasting the UK with how other countries apply geotechnical risk management has given some interesting results,” says Maliphant. “The report analyses where the industry can add value, as well as the hurdles it faces and some potential solutions.”

Maliphant believes that the development of the report has created good opportunities for sharing best practice. “The Netherlands has an initiative called Geo Impuls that aims to cut geotechnical related construction failures by half by 2015 and has a reporting system to try to ensure that all issues are assessed properly,” he says.

While this project demonstrates the possibility of a systematic approach to the problem, discussions also showed that there are misconceptions about capabilities to apply geotechnical risk management.

“Paul Cools, who is leading the Geo Impuls project, said that looking at the UK market he believed we are well ahead of the Netherlands in terms of managing geotechnical risk but I believe that while geotechnical engineers understand the issue, the knowledge is not being applied,” adds Maliphant.

“Publication of the report is just the start and the UK industry needs to look at the findings and work to communicate the issues both within the geotechnical sector and to other professions working in the construction market.

“The top three findings of the report were the need to prove the return on investment from geotechnical risk management, improve communication with other construction professionals and work to manage the existing risk averse culture that places too much focus on certainty and safety.

“We are now reviewing what the next step needs to be for the UK following publication of the report. Geotechnical risk management clearly needs a fresh approach.”

UK action plan

The International State of the Art Report on Integration of Geotechnical Risk Management and Project Risk Management publication identifies a number of common problems in geotechnical risk management and offers some general recommendations. However, from comparing the UK report with the other nine participating nations, there are some specific recommendations made for the UK market.

One of the key areas where the UK is singled out in needing improvement is in terms of ensuring the competence of staff applying geotechnical risk management.

The recommendations for the UK are:

  • Provide education and training on geotechnical risk management and project risk management and make it part of the curricula.
  • Identify and communicate success stories of integrating geotechnical risk management and project risk management for achieving project objectives within time and budget.
  • Provide standards for risk management processes in public investment projects that would be broadly accepted by the community. The standards should become living documents, in close communication with different parties (public clients, consulting companies, construction companies). Only in this way they can be accepted as a helpful tool, not as a formality.
  • Development of robust ground models and the associated management of identified ground hazards and geotechnical risks is crucial to effective delivery of construction and civil engineering projects.
  • Ground engineering standards should be innovated to add value but innovation must be managed by suitable competent ground engineers.
  • Provide expertise and competence in teamwork, which is recognised by the insurance industry as a factor that can mitigate risks of failure and insurance claims.

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