Category Archives: Cool New Projects

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

A brief post this afternoon because it’s been a long day at Hilo Harbor. One of the most common questions people ask me about wharf construction is “how do you get the piles in the correct locations? It’s a good question, because you can’t really use a tape measure from shore, and the surveyor would have to wear water wings to mark the spot. The solution is a lot more work, but is the only way to accurately place the wharf piles in the correct spot: We build a falsework structure and place a template on it. And by measuring really carefully to be sure that the template is in place, we know that every pile that we drive through the template will be in the correct location too.

img_1187This photo has a pretty busy background, which is an unavoidable part of taking action shots of really big equipment in a crowded busy port, but if you look carefully you can see the 999 lowering a 40-ft long template that has positions for driving 20 wharf piles. The surveyor (in a red shirt under his PFD) is walking back to his equipment, which is set up over a very carefully marked spot on the template.  If that spot is in the correct location, then the template is correct. And if the template is correct, then we’re ready to drive piles with confidence. All of the rough-looking steel beans and pipe piles are temporary, and are only there to support the all-important template.

So, tomorrow, if all goes well, we start production piledriving that will continue for the next 6 months


Magnitude 5.8 Earthquake 3 September 2016A lot of you have heard me hold forth about how unpredictable events wield disproportionate influence over our lives, especially our careers. The circumstances that led to Atlas Geotechnical’s founding are a classic example of working really hard to be in the right place at the right time for an unpredictable opportunity.

We experienced another unlikely coincidence this past weekend with the occurrence of a M5.8 earthquake northeast of Oklahoma City.  This is another incident thought to be caused by injecting produced water into deep formations, changing the state of stress and causing the earth’s crust to make slight adjustments, shifts that we experience as earthquakes.

The coincidence is that for the past month Atlas has been working (through our good friends at PEMY Consulting) on installing an accelerograph at a petroleum facility 50 km south of the epicenter. The accelerograph was just ordered last week, so we didn’t get any data from the event, but even without measurements the earthquake assured our client that their monitoring and preparedness  efforts are valuable. It’s gratifying to be helping a client address a risk that actually occurs in the course of the project, especially when there’s no actual damage.

The project also includes developing a procedure for responding to earthquakes systemwide, including performing inspections to assure that (typically older) equipment was not displaced by the shaking.  The earthquake probably caused peak ground accelerations of 6% to 8% of gravity at our accelerograph site, not enough to cause any real risk of damage but certainly enough for the control room staff to feel the shaking and to understand the need for a prompt visual inspection.

It seems that earthquake risk management is becoming more important in areas that were not previously known for seismicity. And through a combination of good luck and engineering enthusiasm, Atlas is again ideally positioned to help our good customers address this new (to them) operational risk.

Goooaaal_906We’re celebrating an unexpectedly early strategic success here at Atlas World Headquarters, winning our first project from a client that we had targeted in our 2014 strategic plan.  It wasn’t much of a project, and by no means are we assured of continued success.  But one thing is clear from our track record: once somebody with interesting problems starts working with Atlas, that nascent relationship almost always grows stronger, more durable, and more valuable to both parties.

Unexpected success causes interesting problems to an organization like Atlas, so dedicated to methodical plan-and-execute efforts. Strategic goals need to be adaptable to developing conditions, especially changes required by success. In this case, we simply modified our plan from “Win our first project with…” to “Win three new projects with…”  We assigned more budget to this initiative as well, necessarily downrating other  parts of the plan, but parts that had not yet borne fruit.

Atlas has another strategic initiative from 2013, an opportunity that fell out of the sky in the second half of the year (through a longstanding, durable relationship, of course). Succeeding at that initiative could very likely require us to grow the company. And yes, our strategic plan includes a contingency plan for such rapid growth that we can implement on short notice, so that we maintain focus on the project and the client.

I hope that you all achieve some strategic milestone early in 2014. It’s a good feeling, knowing that your plan is effective enough to force modifications in the plan. And if you don’t already have an explicit strategic plan for your practice, I encourage you to set aside a half-day to begin one.  Make your first goal nothing more than to adopt a strategic plan in Q1 2014.  Drop me a note when you achieve it, and I’ll send you a congratulatory message. Go.  Start.  Have a great week, everyone.





It's a new yearFirst of all: Happy new year, everyone. I love that last Calvin & Hobbes strip and find some way to share it at this time each year.  The new year really does offer a fresh start in a magical world, and I hope that with the recovering economy we all have a chance to go exploring in 2014.

Secondly, here’s an exhortation about New Year’s Resolutions:  While the intention is good, the success rate on resolutions is only 8%. Reasonable people like engineers will use more effective change management methods.  Make plans, not resolutions, if you really  want to improve your practice.

Although most people call them “drawings” instead of “plans,” there’s a reason that costly infrastructure is built using a detailed set of plans that describes all of the pieces that need to be brought to a site and assembled in a particular order. Without detailed plans, no amount of wishing will create new infrastructure that meets some pressing need.

Treat your business the same way. Identify your requirements, assess your budget, specify the pieces that need to be assembled, and make a schedule with milestones for delivering the new program. Only with a detailed plan can you reliably effect change in your practice that achieves your goals.

Atlas Geotechnical, in addition to our ever-evolving 5-year strategic plan, will execute two focused strategic plans in 2014. One involves earning repeat business from a very large, well respected infrastructure design firm. Their projects have complex foundation problems at a rate and severity higher than other firms, which makes them an ideal match for Atlas’ approach to foundation engineering.

The other strategic plan is more speculative. We will attempt to build a 3-firm alliance to pursue means-and-methods engineering projects. The team members are all willing, but we’re not yet sure about the market size and the real potential for profitability.  The first step in that plan is to confirm that the plan really is a worthwhile use of scarce resources.

Be assured that by the middle of January both of these initiatives will have detailed plans that include resource requirements, milestones, and performance expectations.  Only with this level of planning can we reliably convert “I wish I had more cool projects” into “Wow, look at our marvelous backlog of cool projects.”  I hope that each of you, by the end of this new year, can say the same.



Success comes at surprising times.

Here at Atlas GT we’re huge advocates for strategic planning. Invest extra effort into pursuing clients who have interesting and important problems and your practice will grow in an interesting and important direction. It’s a habit that we learned at GeoEngineers back in the ’90’s  that has served us, and GeoEngineers, very well. Combining their commitment to strategic growth with ours has just yielded extraordinary success, which is the subject of this post.

So our old friend and collaborator Trevor Hoyles is the Pipeline Group Manager at GeoEngineers.  Recently, he and I both were pondering strategic approaches to a large gas transmission project here in the Bay Area.  Atlas was too small but temperamentally suited and proximal; GeoEngineers is arguably the leading HDD design firm in the US but lacks a Bay Area presence. We agreed to team up, present the GeoEngineers brand, and see if we could get some work. Boy did we ever.

So here’s the problem with Strategic Plans: The point of strategic investment is to disrupt the existing paradigm, make a dramatic change, grow rapidly.  You never can know with certainty that the plan will work, but you hope for success, you strive for it, you commit yourself to the plan and by extension to the people and companies also investing in the plan.  So when success does come, whether soon or late, you are absolutely committed to acting on it.

I think that Trevor and I were both thinking in terms of “if” we’re successful, when we should have been planning actively for “when” our plan bears fruit.  “If we win this big project I’ll start looking for collaborators.”  “If we win I’ll need to be careful not to take on any low-value projects that would crowd my availability.”   I don’t know what GeoEngineers was planning, but I do know that they just won the geohazards and crossings work on the Pacific Connector Gas Transmission project in southern Oregon. They’re busier than ever.

So when one of GeoEngineers’ longstanding collaborators brought them in on a fast-moving component of this big strategic project, of course they agreed and staffed it, and of course I cleared my calendar and got out to the site right away. That assignment went well, as you’d expect given the team involved, and the Customer wants more of the same.  Suddenly we’re successful to a degree that’s actually causing some discomfort. Of course we’re committed to success, but I’m learning that Atlas could have been better prepared for success.

That’s the lesson that I’d like to share with you all: expect to succeed. When we set our minds to something, and assemble a great team, more than likely we’ll succeed at it.  We need to be prepared to succeed, pro-active instead of re-active.  And that’s what I’ll be doing this weekend; making a better plan for handing the success that we had hoped for, but not necessarily planned for, when we established this part of our strategic plan.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and drop me a line if you’ve got solid pipeline expertise and like the thought of wintering in California.


image7921Atlas Geotechnical is actively seeking a finite element analysis collaborator for our rapidly expanding storage tank consultancy.  This work is plates and shells, not soils and foundations; SAP, not FLAC. The great majority of these assignments are short-duration, quick turnaround stress-and-deformation analyses of API 650 welded steel storage tanks that have foundation settlement problems.  If you’ve got chops or know someone who does, get in touch and let us know about your skills.

(And yes, I appropriated the GIF in this post from Adina, who make very cool software.)

2013-09-19 12.37.33
I had an excellent day yesterday with GeoEngineers, Brotherton Pipeline and Snelson in Ceres, CA. The assignment was field engineering the entry and exit points on an intricate series of horizontal directional drills under a busy arterial street.  An extra bonus was seeing the fantastical array of tools used on pipeline projects.

My personal favorite is this little track-mounted crane+carryall. It’s perfect for picking up heavy stuff and moving it to some other place. Those of  you who have seen the equipment storage  shed here at Atlas World Headquarters know exactly what I’m thinking: we need one of these for moving Pelican cases full of soil sampling tools out of the way so we can get back to the fussy electronic monitoring equipment on the shelves. And once we had it here, of course, we’d use it for all kinds of other stuff like taking out the trash.

Overall, GeoEngineers, Brotherton Pipeline, and Snelson are doing excellent work on a challenging assignment, are working safely, keeping ahead of schedule, and are handling unexpected challenges as fast as they come up. We all know it’s not the tools but the people that make projects successful, and it’s a pleasure being involved with their project.


Golden Gate Branch YMF and Atlas Geotechnical are co-sponsoring a young members technical writing contest this Fall.  You all are aware, some of you more than others, how much emphasis I put on communication skills.  So here’s us putting (prize) money where our mouth is.  It’s going to be a marvelous time.

Also, we’re looking for a third judge.  If none of you volunteer I plan to hit up Cliff Craft, though I worry that his editorial style would cause many entrants to wind up in tears. Drop me a note if you’re interested and can spare a few hours reading and critiquing 500-word entries.  Maybe we can work out a cost-sharing deal for the awards banquet.

The announcement and rules for entry are here:

2013 Technical Writing Contest

Those of you who want to test your skills should consider dropping in an entry too.  You can’t win the prize money, but you could win my enduring admiration. Show us what you got; scribble up 500 of your best words and let’s see how you seasoned professionals stack up against the students and entry-level engineers.