Down We Go the Rocky Path

Compromising the quality of a geotechnical engineering study is 'stupid'

Nov. 8, 2008, 2:23 a.m.: Douglas A. "Doug" Downs, P.E., chief executive officer of Downs Weego Associates, arrives at the site of the new Anytown Water Treatment Plant, with 12 pieces of excavating equipment and 25 trucks filled with massive boulders and tons of peat.

Nov. 8, 2008, 3:41 a.m. : After excavating the entire 2.14-acre site to the 18-foot level, Downs directs the placement of peat and rock into those areas that are least likely to be explored during the geotechnical engineering study scheduled to start later in the day.

Nov. 8, 2008, 6:14 a.m. : In an amazing display of coordinated skill and will, workers complete restoration of the entire site to its prior condition, except for the now-hidden peat and rock. Downs takes the entire crew to Starbucks for lattes.

Nov. 8, 2008, 7:02 a.m. : Downs arrives on site along with a drilling rig and crew and proceeds to oversee implementation of the approved sampling program. Truth be told, the extent of the program is a significantly abbreviated version of what Downs had initially recommended. The geotechnical engineer was required to dilute quality because of the civil engineer’s desire to "keep the nut down."

"The geology here is probably not that much different from the geology in other parts of town," the civil engineer’s project manager said. "Just sink some borings here, here, and here," he directed, pointing to different points on a layout.

"But we might miss some stuff," Downs responded in meek protest. "And that can result in unanticipated conditions, delays, and cost overruns. The client will be ticked."

"Let me worry about that," the project manager said. "Just do it."

June 15, 2009, 11:56 a.m. : Excavation for the new Anytown Water Treatment Plant comes to a dead halt when the contractor encounters unanticipated subsurface conditions: huge boulders and, in some areas, massive amounts of peat. "We’re going to need different equipment," the contractor’s project manager proclaims.

"We’ll need to redesign the foundation," the civil engineer’s project manager says.

"This is going to cost us a $100,000 extra. Who’s going to pay for that?" asks the owner’s representative, grimacing in anguish as he visualizes what his boss is going to say.

"No problem," says the civil engineer’s project manager. "It’s the geotechnical engineer’s fault. He screwed up. He’ll have to pay."

And the civil engineer’s project manager – let’s call him Dick – is right: It is the geotechnical engineer’s fault, but only because Doug Downs, et al. secretly planted the rocks and peat on site during the wee morning hours. But suppose he hadn’t. Suppose it was Mother Nature who did the dirty deed. Would Doug still be the one to blame? Of course not! And if only the civil engineer had permitted Doug to conduct the type of study that was actually needed to begin with, chances are the peat and the rocks would have been discovered during predesign, and the budget and schedule would have been adjusted accordingly, before excavation began. However, because the civil engineer’s project manager took it upon himself to act as the (totally unqualified) supervising geotechnical engineer, the peat and the rocks were discovered later rather than sooner, requiring the budget and schedule to be adjusted later rather than sooner, thoroughly aggravating and annoying the owner’s representatives and causing them to believe the owner had been damaged.

But the owner wasn’t damaged. True, it might have cost far less than $100,000 to do the right thing to begin with, but Doug didn’t put the rocks and peat there. And if the owner believes otherwise and tries to collect from Downs Weego for the latter’s supposed negligence, then both Downs Weego and the owner (among other parties sure to be named) will waste thousands of dollars and months of time only to realize, as so many have before, that:

a) geotechnical engineering issues are the most common source of problems on public-works projects;

b) disappointment does not equal damage;

c) professional liability insurance companies do not roll over and play dead when their insureds have apparently done nothing wrong; and

d) there’s no such thing as free lunch.

Fact: Supposing our friend Dick had been around the block a few times and realized, as many good civil engineers do, that compromising the quality of a geotechnical engineering study is stupid, because a good study is vitally important to the success of just about any civil engineering project. And supposing, further, that Doug Downs had done exactly what he wanted to do: Would Doug’s borings have unfailingly encountered the rock and the peat? There can be no guarantee. Even under the best of circumstances, things may go undetected, if only because geotechnical engineers lack the power to turn a site upside down before specifying sampling methods and locations. Which is why Doug, as a professional geotechnical engineer, also recommended that his firm be retained to observe earthwork. In that way, via his field representatives, he would be in a position to evaluate actual conditions as they were revealed and to recommend alternative approaches immediately upon realizing any were needed.

Many perceptive (i.e., battle-scarred) contractors and engineers (including geotechnical engineers) know enough to document circumstances when a civil engineer, structural engineer, architect, owner, or some other client, client representative, or client proxy directs them to do less than what they prefer before and/or during construction, to save time, or money, or both. In that way, should a certain biohazard subsequently strike an impeller blade, they can point to their documentation and say, in far more diplomatic terms, of course, "I told you so."

What’s really amazing to me is this: I’ve been walking this beat for almost 40 years now, and nothing seems to change. Far too many owners and design professionals still seem to think that one geotechnical engineer is just as good as any other, and that those who recommend more rather than less are simply trying to gild the lily. As a consequence, civil engineering projects continue to be plagued by subsurface problems, many of which – and I bet most of which – could easily have been prevented by a more comprehensive scope of geotechnical engineering services, developed and implemented by a well-qualified professional.

Is there a solution to the problem? Yes and no. To the extent that we define the problem as inadequate subsurface exploration and geotechnical construction observation, yes: Just rely on well-qualified professionals and do it the way it’s supposed to be done. But to the extent that the problem is human nature – i.e., design professionals or owner’s or contractor’s representatives who believe they can routinely achieve high-quality results faster, cheaper, by relying on hacks, or by demanding that well-qualified firms skimp – I don’t know. Perhaps after enough of them get entangled in delays, extras, disputes, and claims, maybe.

Let’s face it: The party that has the most at stake is the owner. And if I were an owner’s representative, aware of the fact that the most common source of project problems is inadequate geotechnical engineering, I’d begin each project I was involved in by scheduling a private meeting with the geotechnical engineer, where I’d ask about scope. Is the geotechnical engineer happy with it? Does it entail a comprehensive subsurface exploration? Does it call for the kind of geotechnical construction observation needed to assess subsurface conditions and respond quickly and cost-effectively to anything unanticipated? And if the geotechnical engineer responded to those questions with a "Yes," I’d come back with a "Good." But I’m not an owner’s representative. You are. What would you say?

About the Author

John P. Bachner is executive vice president of ASFE/The Best People on Earth. He authors several columns for engineers and allied professionals and is a frequent seminar leader and instructor. ASFE is a not-for-profit trade association comprising geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms, design/build contractors, and educators.

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