Geomechanical Musings

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.

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.

The Porter Hotel, Portland, OregonIt’s an exciting time here at Atlas Geotechnical world headquarters. Our decade-long commitment to extraordinary customer service earned us a number of new assignments , seemingly all-of-a-sudden.  We’re leveraging these projects into very rapid growth that requires fundamental changes to our operating systems.  The obvious signs of change: new equipment, robust collaboration technologies, geographic expansion, are all being undertaken in support of preserving, even improving, our earned reputation for responsiveness, innovation, and technical excellence.

You’ll notice over on the Crew page that we have two new Team Atlas members:

  • Jonathan Nasr is completing his Master’s degree in geotechnical engineering at Portland State while working days on geotechnical design and construction monitoring assignments. His initial assignments mainly consisted of developing site characterization models and designing shoring. Presently he’s testing tiebacks at The Porter Hotel project in downtown Portland. While we’re very glad that he’s having the experience of digging a big hole in the middle of the city, we’re sorely missing his office contribution.
  • Wes Miller will join us in mid-March after relocating from the Bay Area to Bend.  Wes has a background in water resources and municipal infrastructure, adding much-needed diversity to our longstanding crew of gearhead geotechs.  Wes is an avid outdoorsman and adventurer, and you can expect to see him on some of the remote projects that are stacking up in our backlog.

There are other changes to the Atlas website, including a number of project descriptions that are long overdue for publication.  The next batch of projects, the ones that we are working on right now, will be even more interesting.

As I write this we have active projects in Guam, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Vancouver BC, northern Alberta, and Michigan. We are solving really challenging problems in nearshore marine construction, ground improvement, storage tanks, impact barriers, and deep excavations. The projects are varied and interesting, our clients are always a delight, and our expanded team is already working seamlessly. In the 12-year history of the company we’ve never had so much new and interesting work. This upcoming 12 months is going to be very exciting indeed.