Geomechanical Musings

This morning I learned something very interesting about the NCEES Council Record program. Many of you carry a Council Record for rapidly securing a PE registration when your practice takes you to a new state. A few of you, I’m sure, have had the unpleasant surprise of learning that NCEES invalidated our 20+ year old records lat year when they upgraded to a new digital system (which is a delight to use, by the way).

This morning, as I worked my way through the process of refreshing my Texas PE, I saw that my work experience was incomplete after October 2016, which was coincidentally (?) the time that I finally finished restoring my record into the new system. Neither my employment nor the nature of my practice have changed in the past 10 months, so it was another unpleasant surprise that my record could not be transmitted to Texas.

I learned from the very responsive staff at NCEES that the new system requires work experience updates every 6 months. So after I described all the interesting stuff we did in the past 11 months, I set a reminder to re-submit in February and August every year for the remainder for my career. And now that you guys know too, I suggest you do so as well.

I’m a huge proponent of the NCEES program, and want very much to take full advantage of the service they provide. It occurs to me, though, that I will now be hitting you all up for experience confirmations twice as often, which gives us all a chance to keep in touch. I’m hopeful that the review process can be completed quickly and I can get my Texas PE reinstated before the floodwaters start to recede and it’s time to go to work repairing the damage.

This morning the Corps of Engineer’s was finally overwhelmed and lost control of the flow rates out of Addicks and Barker Dams, losing the last controls over theBuffalo Bayou water level as it flows through the middle of downtown Houston. Dams are the most useful and also the most dangerous infrastructure in any community, and losing control of the outflow rate represents a significant escalation in the flood severity. Flood level management is an intricate dance of competing compromises, where retaining water behind the dam makes flooding worse upstream and releasing water makes things more severe downstream. The US Army Corps of Engineers does an excellent job navigating these difficult choices, and the disaster is always worse when the Corps loses their ability to influence the drainage patterns. Hopefully the impacted areas downstream have already been evacuated, and the rising waters spread slowly enough that first responders can help people out of harms way.

The focus of the regional emergency response system is, quite correctly, on assuring people’s safety and well being. Our work at Atlas includes participating in emergency planning efforts and also incident recovery efforts, but the actual emergency management is not part of our core expertise. For now we watch and wait, and hope that the available resources and management are enough to protect the people who are in harms way.

There’s a possibility that engineers at Atlas may assist with damage assessment and field-engineered repairs at flooded petroleum facilities along the Gulf coast. Until the flooding abates, though, there’s little that we can do besides monitor the situation and make plans for a rapid and efficient deployment. When the rain stops and the waters recede, that’s when it’ll be time for the engineers to go to work restoring safe conditions at dams, highways and bridges, industrial facilities, and other essential elements that make Houston a thriving metropolis.

The past 6 months at Atlas Geotechnical brought huge changes, both internal and external, to our practice.  Not on purpose, we seem to have executed our “rapid growth” strategy like a classic Vaudeville quick-change act, ducking behind a curtain briefly and popping back out looking very different.  (And yes, I used an America’s Got Talent gif instead of a sepia-toned, jumpy Vaudeville clip, but you get the idea )

America'S Got Talent GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are 10 of us now, up from 3 about a year ago. We took photos for the Crew page this past week, which we will post up shortly. All of our financial services providers, particularly Terra Insurance and Santa Cruz County Bank, have been very supportive in covering a tripling of our business volume. It is literally impossible to overstate the importance of personal relationships with your collaborators.

Our client base is larger but essentially unchanged in its balanced composition: Heavy infrastructure contractors, specialty foundation and ground improvement contractors, petroleum operators, and the occasional architect or civil engineering firm who are tackling a particularly unusual problem. Our quality control expertise has grown over the past few months, a companion service to the field engineering that has always been our hallmark at Atlas Geotechnical.

Geographically, on the last weekend of May 2017, we have staff on projects in Pearl Harbor and Hilo Harbor, around the Bay Area, up through Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver BC, and out to upstate New York. Projects in the upper Midwest and Alberta are winding down, but there seems to be future opportunities there as well. There’s also talk of projects in San Diego and Santa Barbara, which would require us to continue our run of rapid growth.

Big projects that we expect to start this summer include liquefaction mitigation design for a near-record length pipeline crossing, designing safe access for landslide repair crews in coastal California, and a seemingly endless stream of shoring designs in Seattle and Portland. We had an opportunity to support Caltrans at the Mud Creek slide on the Monterey Coast but were called off because the landslide accelerated (during dry weather, go figure) and there was really no possibility of restoring access until it reverts to a quasi-stable state. We are hopeful that this opportunity will come our way again later this summer.

Not every step in the rapid growth has been smooth and well considered. The crew has stepped up their efforts where necessary, and our clients have worked with us to sort out schedule adjustments where we found ourselves overcommitted. We expect to clear our office-work backlog by the end of June and be ready to kick off at least one of those larger new projects by mid-July.

It’s been an exciting time here at Atlas Geotechnical, and we’re very optimistic about the next months and years. Our particular brand of practical, muddy boots engineering is resonating with clients who tackle and overcome very difficult infrastructure challenges. The next few months, hopefully, will be a bit calmer, but by, no means will it be uninteresting.

Wes and I are in upstate New York kicking off foundation drilling for the new valve chamber at Gilboa Dam.  The temperature was 14 F and falling when we walked out of the terminal at Albany International, and the light snow that we drove through is apparently just the prelude to a  10″ snowfall forecast for this Tuesday. We were hoping to move the big drill rig down the steep access ramp to the chamber floor on Tuesday, so we spent some time this afternoon making a different plan.

I learn new things every time I travel, and this trip is filled with opportunities to expand my view of the world. For instance, I learned that engineers who mainly work in the tropics can bring all of their warmest clothes and still be woefully unprepared for foundation construction in really cold weather.  I also learned that there’s a Walmart just about everywhere, and they have the stuff you need so that you can show up ready-to-work on Monday morning. I also learned how terrible is the iPhone camera at photographing the moon. The photo above is a poor representation of the gorgeous full moon reflecting off of the snowy field behind our house. It’s really quite stunning, and also small crystals of snow are falling frozen from a clear sky when you gaze up at the moon. The rural part of upstate New York is quite beautiful, and is populated with friendly and engaging people.

Speaking of friendly and engaging people, the best lesson of the day was how to thaw a frozen water pump in record cold temperatures. At right is a photo of Jimmy and his helper (or possibly Jimmy was the helper, it wasn’t at all clear) running a 50,000 BTU salamander heater into the CMU pump vault outside our kitchen.  They assembled a short section of 8″ chimney flue pipe on each end of a 90 degree elbow to direct the blast of hot air downward into the vault.  It took more than an hour to drive up to Cobleskill and back for the ducting, but then only about 10 minutes to melt the ice that was blocking the supply pipe. It was like a beach bonfire standing there. The minor inconvenience of losing plumbing for a half-day was negligible compared to the delight of chatting with Jimmy about the odd cold-weather problems that he had already repaired that day.

Tomorrow we meet with Southland/Renta, the general contractor, and the Owner’s team of engineers and inspectors.  We hope to be installing our test caisson on Thursday morning, even allowing for a little snow delay, and will go into production work soon after.

 

Sunset over Majuro lagoon

I’ve had a very productive week here on Majuro, the principal island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Our longtime collaborator Lyon Associates invited us to join their team for a Sea Grant project focused on developing a suite of  best practices for shoreline protection around the Marshalls, where land uses range from dense urban in downtown Uliga to rural in Laura, at the other end of the long island.

Really, this is a capacity building exercise focused on increasing efficiency and reliability of small-scale projects implemented by homeowners, who are getting specialty advice from contractors and regulators about appropriate and affordable shoreline protection.  There are a lot of stakeholders with different interests and a huge range of site and wave loading conditions, the perfect conditions for high-quality consulting. It’s gratifying to be working on such an important project.

I’ve been struck by how much of urban Majuro is already protected by well-built shoreline protection. Keeping tide and waves out of dwellings and off of city streets is plainly an important priority that lays claim to a significant fraction of limited local resources.  And while many lots have stabilized shoreline, some have not yet been addressed.  From infill seawalls (below) to increased setbacks and soft beach-sand berms, we’re hopeful that we can develop a useful set of best practices that facilitate safe and comfortable life on this low-lying atoll.

Urban shoreline retreat