Why it is important to manage ground risks

Interview with CampbellReith’s Geotechnical Associate Adam Fisher


Adam is Chartered Engineering Geologist, a Fellow of the Geological Society of London. He has a PhD in Engineering Geology from University of Bristol. He is also a member of the International Association for Engineering Geology and the Environment.


Adam has over 20 years’ experience in geotechnical engineering. His recent roles include Lead Geotechnical Engineer with Calibre Global Pty Ltd in Perth, Western Australia, Board and Technical Director at Hydrock Group Ltd in Bristol and Senior Geo-Environmental Consultant at WSP Environmental in London.


Adam is passionate about Geotechnical engineering and its role in construction. He has publications on Geotechnical risks, ground movements and engineering geology.


Why is it important?


Ground Risk Management (GRM) is the beginning of any project and compromises every single stage that follows.” Before raising any construction or doing major changes to an existing one, we should be sure that the ground is going to respond positively to try to avoid future surprises.


Construction companies don’t take GRM as seriously as they should. “My job is to get construction companies to follow Ground Risk Management processes”.


Why don’t they pay sufficient attention? Is it lack of awareness or do they want to reduce the project costs?


It’s lack of understanding. Project managers do not take it seriously. You have to spend money on something that is not tangible – you don’t have anything to show for it.


All they get is a report after having someone drilling holes and taking samples but there’s nothing real to show. Everything that follows is visible – “they get concrete, lights, etc.…”, it adds a lot of value because it’s the perception, the work process can be seen stage by stage. This is a downside of geotechnical work.


Apart from it being “intangible”, it’s difficult to make geotechnical engineering look as “glamourous” as other disciplines.


On average, what percentage of project budgets are allocated to GRM  if there exists such a calculated rate/number?


If you do this badly, you’re going to lose money, but you do not see it immediately, that’s why it’s difficult to show its value – it’s not tangible.


I like discussing this issue with people – convincing them that this is what we need to do, that it is an important thing for them to prevent future problems.


It’s important to point out that the other disciplines have certainty / high degree of knowledge about how the materials are going to react/perform, since those have been built and tested in a controlled environment (steel, timber frames, etc). The material that geotechnical engineers are working with has been generated by the earth without human surveillance; it has been subjected to a wide range of natural impact during millions of years. Such a dynamic process so you cannot be 100% sure about how those materials are going to react. That’s why GRM is so important to make sure everything will be safe and will work as planned.


Can you call this a marketing challenge for geotechnical engineers?


Geotechnical engineers as a whole have a marketing task to sell their services: to convince both clients and other disciplines about the importance of their services, why they are essential to begin any construction project with. It’s not a matter of self-importance but a matter of safety and responsibility.


The problem lies also in the use of terminology. We often go into our own world, talking about the things that are exciting to us.  People do what I do because they have a genuine passion for geology, almost like children.  But we deal with clients in our terms: – we speak a ‘geotechnical language’, and by doing so we confuse them.


Is there a difference between sectors when it comes to taking GRM seriously?


People involved in big public projects are aware of the importance of GRM. An example is Crossrail, a high profile project, carried out in the centre of London, and quite challenging from geotechnical perspective.


In general, for government funded projects there’s a recognition that GRM has to be done.


In the private sector it depends on the experience of the project manager or the person making the decisions. If they had a bad experience because they didn’t understand the ground, they are going to be far more inclined to GRM because they had gone into trouble in the past.


I can give you the example of BHP Billiton (multinational mining, metals and petroleum company headquartered in Australia).  Everything had to be done as quickly as possible, and they had a problem with one of the railway lines. They had to close a line and lose a big amount of money. After the investigation they realised the ultimate problem had been that they hadn’t followed the procedure managing the ground risk. After that they turned to do it right because it costed too much money to get it wrong.


We should be constantly reminding people of how important it is. It’s not just a tick box exercise. It should be seen as integrated in the overall process.


Is there also a country/government factor: are there countries that take GRM more seriously than the others?


Depending on the area, the attention would be different. In earthquake prone zones, such as Hong Kong, the standards are much more strict. Geotechnical aspect of projects is of huge importance because they are terrified any major problem could happen again.


Are companies with operations mostly in large metropolitan areas more conscious than the ones building in the countryside?


In London the ground is relatively well known. It’s well understood, there’s a high degree of confidence.


Bath (South West) there’re lots of hazards, such as coal mines. Companies working in this area make sure these hazards don’t manifest as a big problem.


Can you give an example of a big construction failure (because of GRM)?


The leaning tower of Pisa is one of the biggest examples of construction affected by ground conditions. The tower’s tilt began during construction, caused by an inadequate foundation on ground too soft on one side to properly support the structure’s weight. The tilt increased in the decades before the structure was completed, and gradually increased until the structure was stabilized (and the tilt partially corrected) by efforts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


And what about the difference in approach between new build and refurbishment projects?


When buying a building, prior to refurbishment, a ground movement study may reassure you that the property you’re buying is going to stand.


It’s easier with the new build projects of course. It’s much more difficult when the building is already standing. Access is not that easy.


This one is not too relevant to the geotechnical side but… have you ever found artefacts in site investigations?


Yes. In Bath, mine workings. Yellowy stone called “Bath stone”, very common in the region.


The oldest of the mines in the area dates back to 1750s. One winter, a tree fell over in the wind and the roots came off and exposed a massive hole. There was steam coming out of it. Because of the cold weather it looked like fire smoke. Some people knew there was an old mine there. The Local Authority realised they couldn’t just leave the hole, they had to investigate the site.


They found clay pipes. There was a specific one in a pillar, very long so that the tobacco would cool down before smoking it. Somebody had left it there after work and it was found centuries later. The pipe is now in the museum.