What Does it Cost?

 In Mark's Message

What Does it Cost?

As a developer or a prime consultant, when your geotechnical consultant presents you with a proposal to do some geotechnical investigation on a site, you will inevitably ask, “What does it cost?”

We all know that all the good sites are gone. In urban areas, whatever land was easy to develop good, hard glacial till, clean soils, with no groundwater or floodplain issues—that land is gone. Intensification (building in and building up) has prompted us to look again at the goopy leftovers: contaminated sites, low-lying sites, high-groundwater sites, urban fill or “dump” sites. What do you do with those?

Now imagine a utopian world where a geotechnical investigation cost nothing. Would you get one more often for your development projects? Would you get deeper and more frequent boreholes, add a few test pits, a triaxial test or two, and some advanced in-situ testing methods to the mix? Sure! Bells and whistles, please! Why? Because it’s valuable to have good coverage and information when you are dealing with the underground. It’s the highest risk and least concrete item in your development pro forma, and everything else sits on it – the soil that you own on that site.

A large percentage of folks developing land probably have a horror story or three about an “unexpected” soil condition. You probably don’t want to think about them because they were painful and expensive. Is your soil condition really unexpected?

Geology and the depositional history of soil suggests that a certain soil deposit has telltale behaviours and characteristics that should result in somewhat predictable (although typically non-linear) responses to external stimuli, like building loads on foundations. So what is an “unexpected” soil condition?

In urban areas, natural soils are no longer the biggest issue. Chemically modified soils (impacts), fill soils, organics, water, erosion, weathering and urban effects, and a high degree of spatial variability all add a level of complication to understanding the soil aspect of your projects. These situations can produce soil conditions that behave in more unexpected ways.

So you have a site to develop and think you may have some of these soils – enter the Geo-professional. Given the amount of development and construction happening in Ontario, the Geo-professional should be thriving, or at least doing quite well. After all, said Geo-professional is essentially taking on the risk of the entire development, given that everything rests on the soil. In spite of these facts, time and again I am shocked by the low stock placed by the industry in the service provided by the Geo-professional.

Think again a moment on those really difficult horror-story projects where the soils just didn’t behave the way that they were supposed to. It may have been because you asked “What does it cost” too often at the beginning of the project and got a low bid with fewer or no “bells and whistles.” (extra testing, advanced testing, more frequent sampling, better drill methods, etc.).   It could be that those bells and whistles you skipped by going low cost/ low bid would have warned you of the problem soil you faced.

When you encountered the difficultly on that horror-story site, do you remember who the geotechnical engineer was who helped you with the settlement or bearing capacity issue with an innovative and cost-saving solution? When you discovered contamination on your site, did a geo-environmental engineer bail you out by having the right knowledge and testing to get you through? Did you call on a specific trusted Geo-professional to help you through? Do you remember if they were active in helping you through that difficultly?

There definitely are some geotechnical engineering consultants out there who don’t offer good value. When you plan your next job, please remember those folks who were there providing real solutions when the chips were down. Those are the geotechnical engineers you should value. Ask them less about “what does it cost,” because when it comes to your riskiest item—the soil—these geotechnical professionals are going to pay back huge dividends.


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