Geomechanical Musings

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

 

You never know what’s about to happen when you answer a call from one of your best clients at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. Some consultants (some of you who read these musings) avoid those calls on the statistically valid basis that nothing good will come of it, and whatever it is should be pushed off until Monday. Here at Atlas, though, we have a very different perspective. Our clients are capable, thoughtful, effective engineers and contractors. If one of them is calling on a Friday afternoon, they’re bound to have a pretty interesting problem. I answer those calls because I can’t stand the suspense of not knowing about interesting problems that need to be solved quickly.

Working through an 8-day shoring design in downtown Seattle reminded me how rapidly Atlas has grown because we embrace unexpected opportunities. We’re a strategic firm, but we use unconventional strategies that differentiate our practice from mainstream consultancies. Preparing to respond quickly to unexpected assignments is a strategic activity that facilitates opportunism, which we’ve shorthanded to Strategic Opportunism. The basic idea is that Atlas is always prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that our good clients bring.  We always say yes, and we can always make good on these commitments. A great deal of planning and preparation goes into making us so capable on short notice.

The Boy Scouts are another organization that values preparedness as a component of having great adventures. The quote below, from the founder of Scouting, applies equally to all aspects of everyone’s lives, not just High Sierra backpacking trips. If you want to succeed under unique circumstances, you need to go into those adventures prepared.

Be Prepared

  • Taking a cue from the “10 essentials” that the Scouts use as their totem for preparedness, it seems that there might be a list of attributes or resources that indicate preparedness for engineering adventures.  Here is my list of 5 essential things to cultivate or acquire in moments of calm so that you have the wherewithal to seize strategic opportunities when they arise.Financial Resources: It takes money to mobilize staff, acquire equipment, carry payroll costs, and generally produce solutions. Even our best clients take 15 days to pay our bills, and for some projects we can be $30,000 into a project in those first 2 weeks. Cash in the bank, headspace on the line of credit, and a personal relationship with a (local) banker make it possible for Atlas to start huge efforts right away.
  • Open-ended Contracts: Contract negotiation distracts from working the project. We establish fair terms and conditions during calm periods so that we aren’t distracted by administrative functions when more interesting project work demands our attention.
  • Collaborators Network: Most interesting assignments are multidisciplinary, and forming teams takes time. More importantly, established and durable relationships facilitate better designs and a tighter delivery schedule.  Atlas has on-call contracts with an extensive network of collaborators having all manner of expertise.  From map-makers to structural engineers, hardhat divers to corrosion specialists, We can form a team in an afternoon and all be at work the next morning.
  • The Right Tools:  Software is cheap these days compared to the cost of delay. So is sampling equipment. Invest in the tools that you need before you need them, and invest in training staff so they have the skill to execute their work when they’re most needed.
  • Broad Industry Knowledge: This one is the most difficult. You need to understand your client’s priorities and concerns so that you can develop and implement their best solution in one go-round. Strategic opportunities are always unique; if they were mundane they wouldn’t be strategic, and some big A/E would be slowly grinding out whatever conventional design was required. Consistent interest in your clients businesses, collecting the knowledge that you need and becoming a valued team member, is time consuming and also the most valuable of these 5 essentials.

 

The Scout’s 10 essentials can be purchased in an afternoon, faster if there’s a Long’s Drugs next door to your nearest REI. And once they’re in your backpack you have them forever. The 5 essentials to being prepared for interesting engineering projects are not as simple, unfortunately, and require consistent investment. Making that investment has proven very valuable to Atlas, and I encourage everyone to adopt whatever aspects of this might best benefit your individual practices.

 

Dinkey Creek BridgeIt’s not often that anyone sees the best geotechnical designs.  Dams, maybe, but even with those the classics are all concrete arches. I guess none of us here at Atlas, or any or our geotechnical brethren, chose this career path for the glory.  Those people were all drawn to architecture. Except for a select few who found bridge engineering. That’s one engineering discipline where function and aesthetics blend seamlessly, and where an excellent design is obvious to all onlookers and not just the engineers among us.

And while Portland has recently finished a marvelous cable-stayed crossing of the Willamette (http://trimet.org/tilikum/), I reserve my greatest appreciation for projects that were built without access to the unlimited might of modern construction equipment. A timber bridge built by sincere but untrained CCC crews is somehow in a different category for me, and generates a special kind of appreciation.

Doug Export - 20We came across this classic beauty several years ago while bouldering as a family through Dinkey Creek.  The simplicity of the design was striking, and we paused for an impromptu discussion of load paths, Newton’s second law about actions and reactions, and how to use the method of sections for analyzing trusses.

The budding young scientist in orange standing beside me (and asking insightful questions) started college this past week.  His intrinsic appreciation of beauty in the functional world draws him to studying physics, a significant step up from his dad’s mundane plodding in the mud.  He has a burning interest in answering the most fundamental questions, not simple ones like “how can we cross this creek using hand tools and the forest around us.” I hope that he, and all of us, can find elegant, enduring solutions to the important questions that we consider.