Staying True to Your Roots

 In Mark's Message

It’s Spring, and we’re all finally heading into a very well-deserved summer! There’s an undeniable sense of hope in the air and all around us, and it seems that this year, in particular, that the trees have bloomed and have burst amazingly quickly into full greenery almost overnight! Finally, people are out of their homes and are enjoying some fresh air and proper sunshine! The farmers have also been out there tilling and planting, getting ready for another growing season.

I have farming in my blood, and from way back in my family – 300+ years of my ancestors were farmers, mainly in the Netherlands and then in Canada since the 1920s. Farmers are growers – in the truest sense of the word – they grow the food the world needs. It’s a profession that is hugely important, typically underappreciated and often struggling in one way or another. This topic is probably the subject of many other articles and a much-needed debate… but not by me – I’m the first one in a long line of farmers in my family that didn’t end up “buying the farm” and made the conscious decision to not be a farmer. I guess I never got bit by the “farming bug’, after having watched my father struggle each year to make ends meet in farming. He incidentally cured himself of the farming bug by becoming a residential contractor, where I got to work as a teenager for a summer job! That cured me of the farming bug and got me into construction.

Even though I never felt the calling of my ancestors, I’m still a grower at heart – you can’t ever fully take the grower out of the farmer. This is how I look at the business and the relationships I’ve worked so hard to cultivate over the years. It may be another industry from farming entirely, but the principles are the same. Work hard, maintain integrity, and produce a quality product.

I’m always astounded by the growers within this industry. Developers continuously build new structures to better serve society by providing housing, industrial buildings, and commercial centres for us to live in, work in, and manufacture the critical things that we all need and use every day. Let’s not also forget the owners, who have the foresight to fund great infrastructure projects, providing much-needed improvements to allow all of us to more easily move, live and thrive in our cities and towns. These projects also help to seed the construction industry in times of economic slowdown. These developers and owners could not do it without the consultants who put all of the engineering pieces together and just make them work. We must also recognize that it’s the contractors that help to pull it all together, all the while taking risks on many levels, building the project with the help of all their subs providing innovative approaches and systems to allow the entire project to function beautifully.

Over the last 15 years in Ontario, GeoSolv (and I as an individual) have had the privilege of working with all types of amazing growers within the construction industry and at all levels, building unbelievable structures and infrastructure alike. It all starts with the foundation – the roots if you will. Do farmers pay much attention to the roots of their plants? The blueprint of nature takes care of that. But what most farmers are obsessed with is the soil, feeling, tilling, and plowing it to keep the nutrients refreshed and in play, ensuring that erosion is controlled and that the soil is watered and fertilized at the right times to optimize root function to allow the plants to thrive and have a positive yield. Farmers are quite literally stewards of the land, and if the land is taken care of, the land returns yield. I like to think developers and design-build contractors look at their projects as growing them from a field of dirt to a beautiful field full of useful structures. Along with their consultants and construction team, they grow their projects, working hard to get through regulatory hurdles, and designing for any challenges, and then getting it built!

The subsoil of a structure is often where there is the most risk for poor “yield” for the final structure. Foundations are quite possibly the least glamorous part of the structure –unseen and often underappreciated. Even less appreciated and even more unseen are the subsoils below the foundations. 30+ years ago in Ontario, the general assumption was that the soils could be counted on to hold you up – that foundations placed efficiently down on the ground gets the job done. But, as time went on, owners and developers found themselves driving deep foundations and digging out fill and replacing it with engineered fill. Progressively the good sites, buildable with simple foundations, got used up, and then there were leftovers to develop. The great Nat Fox, the inventor of Geopier, famously stated that owners, developers, and engineers, when faced with what to put their foundation on, only had two choices “Is it an inch, or is it a mile?” In other words, can you go with shallow foundations without pulling all the soil out for an inch of settlement, or must you go a mile to something hard underground in order to find appropriate performance for your foundations and for your building?”

Fifteen years ago, Ontario developers and owners were stuck with basically two options to grow their development for sites with structurally poor soils where spread footings with 1 inch of settlement would not work – they could either dig it out and replace it, or they could drive deep foundations through it…That was it. There’s now a legitimate third alternative for developers in Ontario – an “intermediate” foundation – ground improvement. It has already been well proven for many hundreds of local Ontario projects, and more and more are getting built every day. The other day, I roughly calculated that, by mid this year, nearly 150km of ground improvement elements will be installed in the Toronto Port Lands alone! If that’s not validation on the effectiveness and efficiency of ground improvement, I’m honestly not sure what is.

Over the last 15 years, a lot has happened in the field of ground improvement in the local market, namely wider acceptance and the onboarding of many new technologies. Much of the geotechnical and structural consulting world has embraced ground improvement as a viable third alternative to dig-replace and deep foundations. We have had the distinct pleasure of working with many innovative consultants over our 15 years in business in Ontario, as well as all the other important players cultivating the Ontario market for the benefits of ground improvement for their clients.

What’s good news today, as compared to 15 years ago when we were just getting started, is that developers and design-build contractors, working with their consulting teams to either spec-out or design-build their jobs, have more choices. And more choice is good. Interestingly enough, when I’ve introduced developer clients to ground improvement, they often get excited about it and, and they go back to the consulting team, only to face resistance…Yes, to this day, it still happens on occasion! At times, the challenge to consider ground improvement is thrown down in front of the consultant, who has priced the consulting scope they have been asked to price, and some simply want to give some standard recommendations – what’s considered tried and true and often at a much higher cost than alternatives.

For the consultants out there that still haven’t recommended or tried ground improvement, your developer or design/build or CM client will definitely end up asking you soon. Why? Because they are all facing increasingly poor sites that are leftover for development. This presents a great opportunity for you as a consultant to rise to the challenge and provide the value that your clients are seeking. You can be the guide to help the client to decide on the right avenue for their project. Now that the industry of ground improvement is much more “ready for harvest” across Ontario, it’s important for owners, developers, and contractors to be informed and make wise decisions. It’s more important than ever before to compare the “inch or mile… or intermediate” approaches and decide which one makes the most sense.

With a more developed market comes more competition, with the good and the bad. Competition yields better pricing, true innovation, and improvement, so that’s good. The bad, well, a lower price is easy to get – but it may not be what you get in the end, particularly when it comes to foundations and subsoil. Choosing those with a solid track record in the local market will help you to avoid pitfalls.

Finally, true to my farmer roots, and even though I may not have the green thumb, I feel called to good stewardship of the land, like the intrepid farmer. The correct balance between unbridled industry and conservation/preservation has never been more important, and the time is long past due to move the needle in a big way towards a more sustainable future, not just doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Experts say that finding gratitude in your life provides for greater happiness and fulfillment. I’m grateful (and happy) to have been able to be a part of GeoSolv Design/Build for the past 15 years. I’m grateful for the great folks that I get to work with every day at GeoSolv – the people that make GeoSolv work. I’m wonderfully supported by my family who supports me in my work, and fulfilled by the friends I have in the industry and the great and professional folks that have become friends along the way – good people (with some bad soils!) that GeoSolv has been able to help. Our roots are in Ontario, and we commit to continuing to provide solid foundations for your projects. I humbly thank you for your friendship and trust and also for making the 15 years in the Ontario market happen. I’m excited to see what’s coming in the next 15!

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