The UK geotechnical industry is generally very good at identifying its problems, highlighting its shortcomings and suggesting better ways of working. Look back 30 years, however and the industry was grappling with many of the same issues that it is facing today. We have been spectacularly unsuccessful in achieving satisfactory solutions to our core problems.
The geotechnical community is highly educated, with typically half of practising geotechnical engineers over the age of 30 having postgraduate qualifications. It is also very close-knit. Possibly this is why our conferences and seminars tend to be highly technical and specialised - we are very good at preaching to the converted.
Increasingly, it is being recognised that the industry needs to tackle some more basic issues. High on the list is the general lack of geotechnical awareness in the construction industry. Too often a site investigation is done because the developer thinks it will satisfy the funders - particularly for smaller projects. However, neither developer nor funder has much real interest in whether the investigation is adequate, or in using geotechnical expertise to their advantage. They just want a site investigation and they don't want to pay much for it.
The challenge to the geotechnical community is to get the message across to these people, and others in the procurement chain, that good geotechnics can not only make considerable cost and time savings, but also reduces and helps to quantify risk.
There have been some notable initiatives from the geotechnical community attempting to raise geotechnical awareness among clients. Last year the AGS organised the Value of Geotechnics in Construction event, which was promoted with the slogan 'meeting clients' needs'. The key messages were that for clients to achieve value from geotechnics, they need to involve specialists at the early stages of the project and integrate the geotechnical specialists into multidisciplinary construction teams.
In the opening address Terry Rochester, chairman of the Construction Clients' Forum, commented: 'Taken as an industry, I feel you have the expertise and can offer a lot to the client, but I question whether you are contributing as much as you could be. While there is a responsibility on clients and their advisers to assemble the best team for the project, as far as geotechnics is concerned, there is a major awareness problem.'
As an industry we must do more to promote geotechnical awareness, in terms that are meaningful to non-geotechnical specialists. Efforts such as Value of Geotechnics have had partial success, but of the 20% client- base attracted to the event, nearly all were from geotechnically enlightened clients such as London Underground and Highways Agency who employ their own first-rate geotechnical engineers (again preaching to the converted). The real target audience of structural engineers, architects and local authority engineers were sadly conspicuous by their absence.
Ground Engineering, as the magazine of the British Geotechnical Society, and in a wider sense the magazine of the UK geotechnical community, has a role to play in helping the industry promote itself.
Over the coming months GE will be making efforts to extend the awareness of geotechnical issues beyond the immediate geotechnical community. One of the first initiatives will be to start sending sample copies of GE to geotechnical clients.
For this to be successful we need to identify individuals who procure geotechnical services, and I am hoping that readers will be able to help us collect a database of such people. We are not looking for geotechnical engineers within enlightened client bodies, but others with significant influence in the geotechnical procurement chain. These could be structural engineers, building control and planning officers, architects, developers and local authority engineers, or any individual whom you think would benefit from having GE drop across their desk for a time.
At worst, I hope that they will at least take the time to wonder why they are being sent a geotechnical magazine, but it may trigger an interest in broadening their awareness of the benefits that good geotechnics can bring to the construction industry. There is some evidence to support an optimistic outcome; 20% of ICE's 60, 000 members (who represent a fairly mixed bag) have expressed an interest in receiving more information on geotechnical projects.
Help us make this work by posting, faxing or e-mailing contact details - name, job function and work address - to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our postal address is on page 4.
Paul Wheeler is editor and associate publisher of Ground Engineering. Before moving to publishing he worked as a geotechnical consultant.