Full order books and the rise of partnering are causes for optimism in the geotechnical sector. But the skills shortage, salaries and the general state of the site investigation industry suggest there is no room for complacency. Paul Wheeler reports.
Talk to almost anybody in the geotechnical industry and they will say that last year, with the general anticipation of recession and the terrorist attacks 11 September, was a difficult one.
This year promises growth and more stability. While no one mentions the word 'boom', engineers will tell you they are 'reasonably or cautiously optimistic'.
Civils infrastructure remains a great hope, with roads and rail promising much under the government's £180bn 10-year transport development programme - although some practitioners are concerned at the slow rate at which this is coming on stream.
Housing is still strong despite the predicted downturn and, because not enough houses have been built to meet forecast demand, it seems likely this boom will continue for several years.
There is more PFI procured schools work too and, following the recent budget focus on health, a big investment in hospitals is expected.
One new area of work is implementing more security measures at airports, which has arisen directly from the 11 September attacks. At Heathrow, BAA is looking to put in new access routes to the departure gates to segregate arrivals and departures. In many instances, this will mean putting a new level of structures on top of existing buildings, where possible using existing foundations to take the load.
Buro Happold geotechnical group manager Peter Scott says reuse of foundations is one of the geotechnical industry's big areas of interest, particularly for urban projects. He adds that the issue of insurance cover has yet to be tackled. Clients on projects that reuse foundations are starting to ask for some kind of come-back.
'When contractors put in new foundations they take responsibility for the performance of the foundation, ' says Scott. But with reused foundations, the responsibilities are not so obvious.
'Clients are raising concerns that they could be buying into something that has a flaw.' Back on more familiar geotechnical territory, the piling sector is thriving. This is largely on the back of big projects such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and West Coast Main Line, according to Cementation Foundations Skanska chairman Mike Putnam.
Although projects such as these and Heathrow Terminal 5 can only be tackled by a few select companies, they put more workload into the industry and that helps across the board.
'Workload varies month by month, ' says Bachy Soletanche operations director David Corke.
'Compared with last year, there is probably a modest rate of increase.' But at the end of the first quarter, Bachy's order book for the year was 75% full, and that is unprecedented.
The foundation sector may be busy, but it remains very competitive. There is still over-capacity, particularly in large diameter rotary piling. Interestingly, Keller, which recently announced a 49% increase in pre-tax profits, said growth was likely to be in areas outside its traditional sector.
In the geosynthetics sector, Tensar special projects engineer John Dixon says: 'The increased acceptance of soil reinforcement techniques has helped and designers are now much more comfortable with the concepts.
'There has also been a big increase in demand for reinforced soil retaining walls and modular block walling systems in particular. The market is very buoyant, particularly for civils road and rail infrastructure projects.' Dixon believes the landfill and aggregate taxes will help to promote geosynthetics further.
'The landfill tax has increased awareness of sustainability and there is now a reluctance to cart material from site.' he says.
'This means people are trying harder to use on-site materials in their schemes and geogrids are key to many of the solutions.' The new aggregate tax means that road engineers increasingly will be looking to reduce the thickness of aggregate sub-base; again geosynthetic grids provide an obvious solution.
In another niche sector, CAN operations director Andy Wingfield says the firm's geotechnical division is busier than last year.
CAN mainly carries out slope stabilisation work using roped access. Wingfield says quarrying has become a strong market and railways remains buoyant.
One of the big changes in slope stabilisation is that soil nailing is now widespread. Five years ago it was rare. Wingfield says this is linked to acceptance of sacrificial corrosion by the Highways Agency and the rail sector.
This has helped the use of selfdrilling hollow nails, which win on cost compared with a double corrosion protection system previously demanded. Where the client is not prepared to accept sacrificial corrosion, double corrosion protection steel nails are increasingly losing out to carbon fibre and glass reinforced bolts.
Procurement and partnering
Partnering - 'real' partnering where all parties benefit - is becoming more common. True, it is more apparent on large contracts, but there is evidence that the concept is filtering down to smaller projects. This is possibly the most significant positive development for the geotechnical sector in decades.
'Price is always important, but it is becoming less so, ' says Bachy's David Corke. 'More important is the client's confidence in your ability to perform and deliver.' Corke believes this long-anticipated change in contract procurement is becoming a reality because clients are much more involved.
'Gradually, people are starting to understand the benefits of working together. It is a long haul, but it is definitely happening.' Cementation's Mike Putnam agrees there has been a shift in project procurement, particularly on complex and larger jobs. The key to success, he says, 'is to focus on clients and projects where we can bring in value engineering and good technical solutions'.
'We tend to get very focused on the work we are going for and steer away from projects that are going to be procured through a traditional approach, ' Putnam says.
He believes traditional contracting is a lottery. 'We prefer to concentrate on areas where we can determine a positive outcome.' It is not only the big firms working with high-profile clients that have picked up on the changes. Mid-size geotechnical contractor Ritchies is also doing far more design and construct.
'We're increasingly offering solutions rather than pricing up someone else's bills, ' says divisional director Ian Dalgleish. He estimates that only about 30-40% of Ritchies' contracts are priced on a standard bill of quantities, which is a big drop from previous years.
'It is quite rare that we receive an old-style tender, and this has coincided with a move to more friendly contracting and genuine partnering, ' Dalgleish says. 'It is now more common that both client and contractor are walking away from a project happy. That has to be good for the industry.' In reality though, many geotechnical firms have yet to experience real partnering across the broad spectrum of clients.
'There are still not enough enlightened clients, ' says Weeks consulting division technical director Phil West. 'We have heard a lot of the arguments before, but the fact remains that the principal driver in winning many contracts is cost.' John Dixon says Tensar is getting involved at an earlier stage and is winning design and supply contracts working with a contractor - undoubtedly helped by the fact that the firm offers a free design service. Indeed, Dixon says Tensar's design team is its fastest expanding section.
The flip side of the coin, says CAN's Andy Wingfield, is a marked increase in tenders where there is very little information:
'Clients are increasingly presenting problems and want you to come up with the solution - which would be fine if we had proper information to go on.
'We have been asked to tender slope stabilisation schemes on the strength of an emailed photograph, ' he says. 'Although we come up with cost-effective solutions, we do not want to be taking the risk in situations where the available pre-tender site information is so poor.'
Staff, salaries and training
There is still a perception that salaries are lower in geotechnics than in other branches of construction. In the case of site investigation contracting, this is generally true. Geotechnical engineers are also highly educated: by senior grade, most have at least a masters degree.
So it is little wonder that the geotechnical sector is suffering a massive skills shortage, perhaps more acutely than other areas of civil engineering.
John Perry, director at Mott MacDonald's geotechnical section, says the team has grown by 20% in the past year. 'But getting the right staff now requires more innovative approaches, ' he adds.
For a major ground engineering contractor like Bachy, projects such as the CTRL mean the total market demand goes up and getting the right quality people is an issue, says David Corke. As part of one of the world's biggest foundation groups, Bachy has access to a worldwide resource, but most other companies in this specialist sector are not so fortunate.
Increasingly, Bachy is looking for people who are bright and who can learn. 'Their approach is more important than what they learn at university, ' says Corke.
'We want people who have got potential and then develop it.' This means companies are having to provide more on-the-job training. The industry is going to have to adjust and technical managers will no doubt spend more time on internal training.
The situation is not helped by the increase in MEng courses, according to Peter Scott of Buro Happold. 'Unlike the established ground-related MSc courses, MEngs do not offer the specific skills needed for senior engineers working within a specialism such as geotechnics.' LBH Wembley managing director Steve Branch sees the skills shortage as an opportunity for the industry to make up lost ground. 'We have to pay engineers more and we have to charge clients more-unless we make up this ground we won't attract the next wave of graduates and the implications are serious.' 'It is an economic necessity that the shortage of staff and the pressure this is having on salaries will result in an increase in charges for geotechnical work, ' Branch says. 'This must encourage industry to be more confident ofbeing able to sell a high quality product to clients and we must take the opportunity to use our main resource - our engineers - in the most productive way.' While there are signs that graduate salaries are increasing, Scott says this has not been matched across the board. 'There is a compression of salary scales, which is not a good incentive for middle and senior engineers.'
Value engineering 'It is easier to sell the benefits of good quality advice to clients on the highest profile projects, or those that are perceived as being complex or risky in some way, ' says Steve Branch.
What is not understood is that this should apply to every project.
Unfortunately, the benefits that geotechnical engineers add to a project are often intangible - at least to the client.
If, for example, a ground investigation on a relatively small site carried out by one company costs £2,500 more than that by another, all the client sees is the extra cost.
'And let us not forget, ' says Branch, 'that by 'client' I mean the person commissioning the work on behalf of the funder or developer. This is very often a civil or structural engineer.
'If the client commissions a cheaper investigation and the results are passed on to three piling contractors who price on the basis of the report, the prices are likely to be similar. The client feels the ground investigation has provided what was required.' In doing so the client is failing to recognise that if the more expensive investigation had been done, the total bill could have been considerably smaller.
'With more careful sampling, transport, storage or testing the more expensive investigation may have obtained higher soil strength results, ' Branch points out. 'Or perhaps proper logging of the samples by an experienced geotechnical engineer would have allowed erroneous lower results to be discounted. On this basis, all of the piling tenders would have been cheaper as the piles could have been shorter.
'Unfortunately, the direct comparison is rarely made and the savings are invisible to the client.
In extreme cases of poor advice, a building may, for example, be piled when it need not be, a retaining wall may be much thicker and deeper, and uncontaminated soil may be unnecessarily removed from site.' In most cases, clients will follow the advice they are given and never know how much money they are wasting.
Once the need for a proper level of geotechnical advice is understood, the commissioning engineer needs to know where to find this advice and how to identify practitioners that provide it.
'I suspect most civil engineers who commission a soils investigation make fewer enquiries about the track record, qualifications and level of insurance of the firm carrying out the work than they would of a decorator painting their house.'
Site investigation is probably the sector that has benefited least from partnering and changes in procurement. Its practitioners are also least optimistic.
Perhaps this is because despite industry-led initiatives to improve standards - such as the AGS code of conduct for site investigation - the industry is still driven by price. Buro Happold's Peter Scott believes the standard of site investigation is getting poorer.
'It is not because the contractors do not have the ability to provide a quality service, but because this sector is so cost-driven, it forces contractors to focus on banging out the meterage.
'The problem is that it promotes the wrong kind of thinking so that when there is a need for a quality job, it is quite difficult to change the mindset of the contractor and get them to deliver.' Scott feels it is a very difficult cycle to break. 'Site investigation will probably always go that way unless the project is procured by a geotechnical specialist, ' he says.
At Buro Happold, the company's multi-disciplinary nature means the geotechnical division can at least brief and educate the structural engineers. The geotechnical team hold regular sessions in the hope of drumming home the message that the greatest risk is in the ground.
Scott is hopeful that the recent - and for some, commercially crippling - hikes in professional indemnity insurance will 'focus consultants' attention on where the risks actually lie'.
Some sectors of ground investigation are more upbeat. Steve Poulter, business development manager at geophysical investigator Zetica, reports 'a startling increase in interest in non-invasive methods of mapping potential hazards on brownfield sites.
'Lessons are being learnt the hard way, ' he says. 'Structural engineers are finding that they cannot assume that their designs can be implemented - it depends on what is found in the ground.'