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What characterises good geotechnical engineering?

WSP’s Clive Powell asks what characterises good geotechnical engineering, and reflects on how the industry will need to move on in the future.

What characterises good geotechnical engineering in the context of an infrastructure project is a question I’m often asked.  After many years working across the industry I always try and use my experience to answer it and I think I’ve finally narrowed it down to three things.

Firstly, knowledgeable clients who value the importance of understanding ground risk in so far as it can impact the commercial model for their project. They will understand that transferring the risk to an experienced designer and/or contractor must include fair rewards if they want to be sure that common law standards of reasonable skill and care are upheld. Trying to get “more for less” has squeezed this commercial reality too far at times.  

Secondly, complementary or lead disciplines on the project who engage with experienced geotechnical engineers early in the life cycle of the project, and who allow the geotechnical engineer face time with the client.

And finally, geotechnical engineers who are prepared to listen to new ideas and embrace risk as something to be managed and turned into opportunity rather than sitting on the fence. 

What has not helped achieve a productive balance of the above in the last few years has been the the continuing replacement of engineering clients by procurement teams; the rise in the perceived value of “operations” over real engineering; and the loss of the meaning of geotechnics, whereby it has been partly claimed by those involved in legislation driven investigation and reporting. This has more to do with chemistry and comparative spread sheets than it does engineering.

In the last 20 to 25 years there has been a blurring of what is meant by geotechnical engineering.  The current increase in demand for those with the engineering judgement, training and experience that good geotechnical design requires is a clear reflection of this.

How the profession chooses to react to the lack of experienced staff in the market place and uses this as an opportunity to enhance the discipline remains to be seen. 

Clive Powell is geotechnical service director at consultant WSP

Readers' comments (1)

  • Could hardly agree more. I get to see many site investigation reports that are less than 10% geotechnics - and many of those are greenfield sites!

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