Observations of a Recent Entrant to the Geotechnical Field

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Working in a multitude of roles at my firm over the last few years has had its challenges, to say the least., However, I am always thankful for all that I have learned and been exposed to thus far, especially in the geotechnical arena. That said, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the geotechnical industry as a newcomer. And as a newcomer, I thought it would be refreshing to share some of my personal observations and some items that I would see for future improvement within the geotechnical field.

Ending the Monogamous Relationship with SPT

As of late, I find myself spending quite a bit of my time reading geotechnical reports from other specialists and old reports prepared by my colleagues at the firm, as it is very likely that, especially in the GTHA that a site or a nearby site has had some sort of prior subsurface investigative work carried out. More often than not, the only in-situ geotechnical testing carried out was SPT (standard penetration testing). While SPT is undoubtedly an excellent test method and still definitely one of the best ways to generally begin to characterize the subsurface conditions, there have been many strides made in other advanced techniques better to understand the subsurface conditions within a geotechnical context. They are still very seldom used, and one must ask, “why is that”?

In GeoSolv’s past newsletters, there have been many articles mentioning the benefits of test methods other than SPT, such as CPT, DMT, PMT. While many of these methods are not new to the industry, they are still relatively rare to come across in actual practice. It may seem like I’m beating a dead horse here. Still, it’s one of the most frustrating things to encounter when reviewing reports that provided definitive recommendations for a site without any recommendations for additional testing or the explanation to the client that additional investigation (and in turn more money spent upfront in the investigation phase), will reap substantial rewards in the final costs of the project.

Some of this lack of advancement in geotechnical investigations, in general, can be attributed to the fact that the value of geotechnical engineering has been diminished in recent years, with many clients not clearly understanding from the onset the purpose of the investigations and how ultimately our recommendations can significantly impact a development. There should still be an obligation for us to recommend and push for these additional test methods to be done. If nothing more, then at least for the potential cost savings this additional testing could have on a project.

Getting Back On-Site

Something I see more and more often is for many of the projects for which we have completed geotechnical investigations is we are not retained for or asked to “competitively bid” on inspections and testing. How can we begin to solve “our problem” if we don’t have the opportunity to go to the site and verify our recommendations? This has become very commonplace in discussions with industry colleagues and is not a new occurrence. It has become the norm for the inspections and testing to go to the absolute lowest bidder automatically, and at times, even to firms with very little knowledge of the local subsurface conditions or an explanation as to why the projects geotechnical engineer made the recommendations, they did in the first place. It is even more troubling to know that we are expected to take on the liability of a foundation’s performance and soil-structure interaction even when we were never even on-site during construction.

We recently had a project for which we were not retained for the field inspections for a high-rise development for which we were involved all throughout the design phase. Unfortunately, the inspection consultant who was hired was not comfortable signing off on our bearing capacity recommendations, and their recommendation to the client was to contact the project geotechnical engineer for review. Through numerous back-and-forth correspondence and site visits, we were eventually retained to take over all the remaining field inspections to ensure no extra costs were incurred to the development, as the issue was ultimately stemming from a misinterpretation of the subsurface conditions and our design recommendations for the site by the inspection consultant.

Conversely, another project we worked on recently had a significant amount of engineered fill to be placed across the site after remediation was to take place. We were contacted after the entire site program was completed with concerns by the structural engineer during their design of the structure that many of the recommendations in our report were not adhered to during placement of the fill and associated monitoring by the inspection’s consultant. Through an intensive and very costly investigation of the newly placed engineered fill, it was determined that much of the fill had to be completely removed and recompacted, and if not, the building would need to be placed on much deeper foundations.

Market Crash

There seems to have been in the last few years an inverse correlation between the welcome growth of the geotechnical engineering profession and the professional fees we are receiving for our work. More and more regulatory bodies and experienced developers/constructors are discovering the value of geotechnical engineering and are continuously pushing for more detailed investigative work to be done on project sites. At the same time, the abundance of new entrants to the construction market and competing geotechnical practitioners are undercutting and undervaluing their work and creating a race for the bottom with regard to professional fees.

Although the PEO mandates charging a fair compensation for engineering work, something that doesn’t seem to happen in the industry, the only way to solve this problem is through education. Over the last few years, I have spent much of my time focusing on better-educating clients, of both big and small firms, on exactly why our scope involves a certain number and depth of test holes, as well as why we are conducting different kinds of in-situ and laboratory tests, and precisely what those results mean to them. For example, when ground improvement does seem to be the most economical option during design, the first thing I’ll do is get GeoSolv involved from the get-go and have an in-depth joint conversation with them, as well as the client, to ensure that we are all on the same page and to also ensure that they understand the true benefits of our recommendations and why it would be the most beneficial solution for the site.

By virtue of the client understanding what we are doing, why we are doing it, and the technical logic behind it, we can become as much of a trusted partner as their architect is and can provide a practical proposal for our services with a detailed and well-planned scope, without fear that the job will be given to someone down the street for fifty cents on the dollar, conducting a quarter of the work and putting the project in jeopardy. Low bid sometimes works, but when it often doesn’t, it’s very costly and time-consuming for the owner to remedy the situation.

A Bright Future

There’s been a great reception, at least among my team members and industry friends at other firms, to the use and implementation of emerging test methods, software, and review of innovative case studies that provide solid empirical evidence. There are still many field and desktop methods that need to become more widely accepted, even at our firm, and I’ve been working with our team to implement some of these, such as better processes to automate our workflow and introduce new modelling methods to better understand our subsurface and provide better data to our clients, such as the simple use of 3D modelling to better visualize the subsurface on large sites with variable soil conditions, and more detailed modelling using continuum analysis and FEM, and comparing these to traditionally accepted methods.

Lastly, because how can I end without touching on the pandemic, a silver lining of the past year has been the transition to a larger use of the virtual space (though I am not discounting the effects of zoom fatigue). We’re present in more meetings, involved more throughout the design process, and can collaborate much more effectively and frequently with other consultants on the team. As well, continuing education, conferences, and seminars have become much more accessible from both a physical and financial standpoint. It’s definitely something that I hope that sticks once we are safe and vaccinated, as this was often a limiting factor for many to attend these events, especially worthwhile ones offered out of province or internationally.

Shan Goel is a Project Manager in the Geotechnical Engineering Department at Toronto Inspection Ltd., conducting and managing geotechnical investigations with a team of engineers for high-rise condominiums and subdivisions and various other special projects across Ontario. If you have any questions for Shan, he can be reached by email at shan@torontoinspection.com

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