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Geotechnical engineering professionals bring tremendous value to construction projects, but choosing the right team can be complex

Seeking stable ground – what to look for when hiring a geotechnical engineer – By Philippe Vincent

It could be said that New Zealand’s construction industry is at a major crossroads of change. While population growth in Auckland and reconstruction efforts in Canterbury continue to drive jobs and demand, soaring costs, labour shortages, and the collapse of big-name construction firms are dogging the industry – a collection of challenges that have seen infrastructure minister Shane Jones calling for urgent attention and a ‘reset’ of this key industry sector.

The challenges faced in New Zealand aren’t unique; unforeseen conditions, delays, excessive foundation settlement, and cost overruns are all too common across the industry. However, with an innovative and sustainable approach to construction design engineering, beginning with ground improvement works, there is huge opportunity to stop the industry ‘bricks’ from tumbling further.

Ground treatment and preparation work by Menard Oceania on the site of the Barangaroo station for the Sydney Metro City & Southwest rapid transit project

Starting from the ground up

While there are a number of risks associated with project performance, poor soils or ground conditions are one of the most common sources of project delays and cost burdens. Issues often start with the geotechnical assessment associated with the project specifications, and later the implementation of the foundation works, due to natural variability, man-made contamination, and obstructions in the ground.

Detailed assessments of ground conditions before any construction or reconstruction takes place are crucial for future-proofing structures. This is especially important in places like post-earthquake Christchurch and Wellington where repairs and improvements to infrastructure continue. It goes without saying that these types of projects require teams with expert knowledge of the unique ground conditions and the type of construction involved.

The highly specialised roles and responsibilities of the geotechnical engineer and teams are most critical in ensuring the long-term stability and acceptable settlement control of any construction project. Whether it is assessing surface soil or groundwater properties or identifying potential landslide hazards, engaging early with a blue-chip geotechnical team can make all the difference in minimising risk of project failure.

Choosing the right team

While geotechnical engineering professionals bring tremendous value to construction projects, making smart decisions in choosing the right ground improvement team can be complex when time, labour and financial costs are at stake. Hiring an integrated firm with both design and build capabilities will address some of these issues and reduce commercial risk for the asset owner.

I’d like to call out five key factors for consideration in selecting a geotechnical team that’s right for your project.

1. Invest time to find the best team

As a starting point, understand the capabilities of the teams you are considering. Can one company provide all the services required – design, assessment, and construction – or will some of these need to be outsourced?

Base your selection on the technical, professional, and business merit of the members who will work on your project – take the time to get to know them and their services to make sure you are hiring the right specialists.

2. Understand the project risks

Once you’ve been through the selection criteria, make sure to develop a scope with your geotechnical engineer and specialty geotechnical contractor that is in line with the known risks of the project.

By providing as much information as possible, the geotechnical teams can optimise proposed solutions and help mitigate risks early on in the project (for example, by helping prevent claims for unforeseen soil conditions).

3. Establish clear communication and collaboration

Highly engaged teams who communicate and collaborate frequently are key to success and innovation in the workplace.

Encourage your geotechnical teams to be actively involved in discussions and be in close contact with other project members to understand needs, provide recommendations, and troubleshoot as necessary.

4. Be flexible and responsive to changes

When construction commences, it is fairly common for geotechnical investigation borings to differ from actual site conditions. This of course means that recommendations provided in the geotechnical report prior to commencement are provisional, as they are often based on a limited number of samples.

Geotechnical teams and project teams therefore need to have capacity to react quickly to differing conditions to reduce the impact on the overall budget, which is why my previous point on frequent communication is absolutely vital.

5. Apply consistency in approach

Aim to engage a geotechnical engineer from the same firm you’ve worked with since project inception, for continuity and consistency in onsite inspection and peer reviews during the process. If you select different vendors for your inspection and material testing, the likelihood of missed communications and lack of proper knowledge transfer increases. Avoid cluttering lines of responsibility by having one engineering firm provide the full scope of services on a project.

Menard and sister company March Construction are currently undertaking ground improvement work for Christchurch’s Metro Sports Facility

Fundamental change necessary

Geotechnical engineering is a high-risk environment and only true experts in their field should be consulted and hired. With New Zealand’s construction industry being an important contributor to the country’s economy, the long-term viability and security of projects has to be assured in light of ongoing challenges.

There needs to be fundamental change in how projects are designed and assessed from conception stage right through to completion, and ground improvement techniques are the starting blocks in reducing risks and safeguarding long-term success.

After all, it only makes sense that the very ground you build upon is professionally assessed to be suitable and stable enough to carry the weight of construction through.

Philippe Vincent is the managing director of Menard Oceania; Menard and sister company March Construction are currently preparing groundworks for commercial projects in Christchurch and large road infrastructure around Auckland

 


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