The Geotechnical Definition of Insanity

Merriam-Webster has several definitions of “insanity”. The final section of Webster’s definition has two parts that read as follows:

a : Extreme folly or Unreasonableness

b : Something utterly foolish or unreasonable

Someone wise once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

The current challenges to the geotechnical industry are similarly attributable to the industry repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Geotechnical reports often prove to be the least popular, most criticized and least understood documents on any construction project.  They are reports on sometimes unpopular findings, not design documents.  Owners want their consultants to design—that is what they pay for.

This can be articulated through considering a few different disciplines of engineering.

  • Civil Engineering: Although a site servicing plan can be completed in twenty or more different ways, the civil consultant puts out a site servicing plan that outlines the best way to drain the site.
  • Structural Engineering: There are a dozen different ways to design a structure, and the structural engineering consultant provides plans and specs that outline exactly how to build the structure to suit how the architect wants the building to look and function. The structural engineer also needs to find the best way to put loads down on the soils for that site.
  • Geotechnical Engineering: After conducting an investigation, geotechnical engineers provide information on the soils and then make recommendations that allow the client to choose what route to take to properly found their structure on the site…as they have always done.  Geotechnical engineers cannot design the soil or modify the soil, after all.

As a Geotechnical Contractor, we only get to look at the sites that have problems.  As such, our viewpoint is possibly skewed somewhat.  On all of the projects we review, we look to our colleagues—the geotechnical engineers—for geotechnical information so we can help them provide their clients with value.  All too often we find ourselves wanting more—more depth, more resolution, more boreholes and more detail.  If we question this phenomenon we find some typical answers:

“Low bid Geotech is the reason”

“We are our worst enemy and we undercut each other, so the quality suffers”

“New Geotech firms start up every day…”

“We don’t want to lose the job so we have to bid what’s there”

“Owners don’t want to pay us fairly for our work”

“Geotech is more art than science – it’s difficult to scope to create a level playing field”

“Hey, it’s an SPT N value every 5 feet for 6m – what do you want for the price?”

“We are the dirt guys, and we get beat up by the prime consultants”

Among other reasons…

Like many specializations, engineering is self-regulated.  How has that been going?

The Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), our regulatory body, charges each engineer to “Uphold the principle of adequate compensation for engineering work” (Professional Engineers Ontario Code of Ethics, Section 77 of the O. Reg. 941, item 7 (v.).  This is notably in the same section that goes into considerable detail describing how practitioners should treat each other.   Does this mean that competing bitterly for engineering work should be governed under the code of ethics?  Does the PEO check to see if we charge an adequate fee for our work?  Do you ever see anyone written up in the blue pages because they did not follow item 7 (v) of the code of ethics?

The Code of Ethics makes it clear that practitioners must act with Fairness, Fidelity to Public, Devotion to Integrity, Knowledge Improvement, and Competence, with the duty to public welfare as being paramount.  The typically lower quality that often accompanies the lowest possible price may not directly endanger the public on its own.  Still, if something does occur that results in negative complications, the geotechnical engineer can always hide behind the “unknown” and also the variable nature of soil.  The statement of limitations can help alleviate legal issues related to the general lack of information and non-committal recommendations found in many geotechnical reports: “This report can be used as a guideline only – readers should make their own interpretations about how the subsurface conditions may affect the project”.

What about the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers? (OSPE). They are our advocacy arm, after all. Are they advocating for the geotechnical engineer?  It seems that perhaps the general public does not know much about the humble geotechnical engineer, what the geotechnical engineer does for the general public, and why their services are so very valuable to them.  Owners and prime consultants alike often have trouble recognizing what a valuable service that geotechnical consulting can offer.

There are likely several factors that go towards explaining why such a high-risk industry has such relatively low rewards.  What is clear is that if each of us keep our heads down and continue doing the same thing over and over again without peeking over the busywork to take stock of what is happening, the same result will continue to occur – a sort of geotechnical insanity paradox.

If we want our industry to be vibrant and healthy we should look at the third definition of insanity noted above, so as to avoid being driven to insanity ourselves:  It would be extreme folly to ignore the signs that the geotechnical consulting practice is in trouble, and it is unreasonable to assume things will change unless we work as a group of practicing professionals to help effect such change together.

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