Category Archives: Collaborations

Any method that we deploy to solve engineering problems is an engineering tool. This is a note about the importance of trust while solving difficult design and construction challenges.

I’ve always aspired to the role of “Trusted Advisor.” The less-bragadocious “Chief Engineer” was a bar I could clear more consistently, so I put that on my business card.  But with our best clients, the contractors who rely on us year after year to keep their excavations safe and their cranes stable, there’s no doubt that Atlas Geotechnical is their trusted advisor.

Trust is the mutual acknowledgement of a shared commitment to project success. Even when we deliver bad news, our clients trust that we have their best interests at heart, and we are engaged in an ongoing collaboration about ways to move the project forward. The types of problems that we solve at Atlas could not be solved without trust: clients know that we’re designing the very best solution, and we know that they will make every weld, perform every required test , and keep us informed about the design’s performance at important milestones. There’s no room in our practice for excessive conservatism, and we won’t do a second job with contractors who cut corners on safety-critical activities.

We’ve had such success engendering trust that apparently I started taking it for granted. That came to an abrupt end last week while sorting out a fill compaction issue beneath a building pad at Camp Blaz, the new Marine Corps base near the northern end of Guam.

The technical solution is not difficult: just build a load path from the foundation bearing grade down to limestone bedrock 6 to 25 feet below. We considered a range of options, analyzed the cost and schedule impacts of each, and selected aggregate piers as the least disruptive. I was proud of the technical solution that we had delivered on short notice. I was particularly proud that our Design-Build team had gelled so easily and had benefited from great mutual trust. And we all know that pride goeth before a fall.

It turns out that the Owner’s engineers didn’t trust us. They don’t know us, they didn’t hire us, and the local contract managers, despite our requests, left them off of the Stakeholders list. They had no opportunity to participate in the problem definition and conceptual design processes, their ideas and opinions were not heard. Once they joined the project with all important decisions made, they immediately departed from Contract procedures with a barrage of informal review comments that focussed on second-guessing design decisions made months before their involvement. It was distracting. My week would have been better if I had done a better job, in September, insisting that their managers get them onto the Stakeholders list. Not because we needed their input. We needed their trust, and letting people know that their contribution is important is one way to engender trust.

This problem is still developing; we’ll know the outcome in June. But I’ll share my technique for getting the team back on track:  Compassion.  I’m doing everything that I can to let these engineers know that I don’t hold the local manager’s mistake against them. Their concerns are valid, even the ones that lack technical merit. I spent time yesterday talking about expansive soils, making sure that they felt heard, before explaining why shrink-swell behavior isn’t pertinent to our fill settlement problem. Compassion, real genuine interest in their inner state and sympathy for why they felt left out, is the most reliable path back to trust.

Even among teams that have disparate goals, trust is crucial to effective problem solving. I’m hopeful that I can reduce my future workload by investing in trust-building behavior to get my Camp Blaz team focused on our shared commitment to project success. I hope that some of you cna have better project outcomes if you can fell compassion for team members that have not yet developed trust.

It’s really not important what this is or what it does. The point is that every step of planning, design, and implementation happened in the correct order.

One of our projects achieved a significant milestone on Friday, exactly according to plan. Like most of our projects, it’s interesting construction at a unique site, and there’s no similar recent project to guide design and construction.

We learned recently that the shoring design failed to address a subtle but important detail. Once it was identified, though, it didn’t take long for the team to embrace the need for a rapidly field-engineered solution. Thankfully, strong relationships allowed us to add a ringer of a Structural Engineer to round out our already very strong team. They responded to our design requirements with an absolutely gorgeous 2-sheet drawing package in less than 3 days. We could not have met our deadline without their contribution.

Just because the work was installed before the deadline doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly. Atlas still have equipment stuck in Customs Purgatory at the Canadian border. I dearly hope to receive my 25 ton hydraulic ram back. Collaboration within the team, though, went flawlessly. The crew were able to source replacement equipment and keep us on schedule.

The point of this post is not that we made a pair of little gizmos and installed them in the nick of time, or that our clever little solution avoided a 6-month project delay. The takeaway from this project is that we achieved success using the exact same process that we use to succeed on huge projects. This one was just distilled down to a very compressed timeframe and had no schedule allowance for mis-steps. Every element of a big complicated design was executed on this small complicated one, just really fast and with intense coordination.

  • The project manager established clear lines of responsibility.
  • We wrote up a basis of design and stuck to it.
  • We established concise performance expectations.
  • We sourced locally available materials.
  • We identified a need for and hired specialty expertise.
  • The structural engineer adapted the design on the fly, and
  • The team assured quality.

The design and execution procedure was exactly identical to one used on a much larger project; we just moved through it in 5 days instead of five months or five years.

I feel grateful to be working with such a competent and diverse team on this large, visible, terrifically interesting project. Our project manager gave us about a week to recover, perform maintenance, etc, and then we tackle the next of the three remaining big problems. With the team we’ve assembled I have no doubt we’ll resolve them all with style and grace.

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.


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.)

TK 130 FR Rev 1My good friend Phil called this week looking for geotechnical engineering support on another one of his interesting tank projects.  Phil is an international expert in tank design, maintenance, and operation, and the projects that we’ve worked together have all been career highlights for me.

Storage tanks have the most interesting foundation issues of all structures. On the one hand, a structure completely full of liquid is orders of magnitude heavier than a structure full of air and people and office furniture.  Only steel mills have higher loadings.  On the other hand, though, the structures are extraordinarily flexible, at least in many ways, and can often accommodate settlements that the heavy loads induce.  So deflection management, rather than avoidance, is the design goal. I’ve been inside tanks in Mississippi that look like skateparks on the inside, and where the interior support columns have threaded rods sticking through the roof so the columns can be lengthened with a torque wrench while the bottom plate and foundations settle.

These particular tanks, the ones that Phil called about, are being retrofitted to allow higher interior pressure.  Even a couple of lb/in2 inside a tank 200 feet in diameter creates a huge force.  The bottom plate is flexible, which is a good thing, but in these tanks the shells and annular rings are not anchored to the ringwall foundations. So adding pressure to the tanks will inflate them like a very stiff, very expensive balloon and lift the shell off the foundation.  The engineering task is to design reliable, economical anchorage to resist uplift forces around the tank shell caused by increasing the tanks interior operating pressure. It’s not a large project, but the people that I get to work with and the practical solutions that I get to develop make these small projects some of the most rewarding.


Excellent load test data never occurs by accident

I had the great pleasure to spend the first part of the week working with Bruce Lane of Precision Measurements, pushing really hard on the ground and measuring really carefully. I was in Portland, Oregon validating a simple but innovative ground improvement design before greenlighting production installation.

The project is a classic Pearl District apartment building, 5 stories of wood-framed residential over 1.5 levels of concrete basement. Soils at the site are pretty soft, but good dense gravel is available shallow enough that driving piles seemed excessive.  Working with DeWitt Construction, Atlas Geotechnical designed a system of low-strength concrete shafts that improved the bearing capacity enough to support the building on footings instead of costly piles.

Engineering, especially innovative engineering, is all about getting the details right.  All of the details, not just to obvious or convenient ones.  Bruce is an indispensable part of confirming that the concrete shafts behave the way that we predicted in the design.

100-ton cylinder and 8 dial gauges

Bruce is one of those rare individuals capable of performing very sensitive work very accurately away from a controlled laboratory setting. This set of skills is slightly more common where we practice, in the heavy infrastructure industry, but is by no means common. You know you are working with professionals committed to quality when they tell you about how they stripped and waxed their hydraulic cylinders because the paint was always chipped and looked shabby in the report photographs.  Of course the data needed to be complete and correct, and standard procedures rigorously followed, but taking the time to polish the equipment for photos indicates a commitment to excellence that seemed very familiar to us here at Atlas.

Bruce has the skill, experience, equipment, and patience to get the kind of high-quality data that instills confidence in a design, allowing safety factors to stay in the acceptable range and construction to proceed apace. And if you ever do have an unexpected result, Bruce can identify the cause while it’s developing, often modifying the test procedure to collect insightful measurements, so you know where to focus your attention when revising the design. This is a crucial aspect of the “Observational Method” that forms the backbone of Atlas Geotechnical’s expertise, and in fact is one of the most difficult to obtain.

We had great success with the validation program, demonstrating the necessary strength and stiffness while also seeing real failures that demonstrate we didn’t have excessive conservatism in our design. We even had a failure, but of a reaction element and not the test element itself, that Bruce caught before the reaction frame became unstable and dangerous.  Working with Bruce, the DeWitt Crew, and really everyone on The Parker project made for two excellent days of work, and having bright sunshine in February, good friends extending hospitality, and really excellent beer after work made the trip an overall brilliant experience.

Reputations accumulate through consistent excellence in each interaction, each conversation, each deliverable. The Atlas GT holiday card design makes an excellent example. Cosmic Design ( accepted the small, marginally interesting assignment even though their plate was full and Thanksgiving weekend was imminent.

Along with an artwork proof, which I expected, Eric included this carefully composed photo of the mockup.  Take a minute to look that the photo:  it’s well composed, has interesting focal depth, and the color has been modified to accentuate the theme . Work went into this photo, care and attention to detail not normally warranted by an interim proof. And yet it gives the impression of effortless cool. Cosmic, again, exceeded my expectations, increased my enthusiasm for the project, and cemented another building block onto their already significant reputation.

It’s hard to focus on fine details when we’re pressed for time. Yet the value of such attention to detail is much higher than the few minutes saved by cutting corners.  I’m hopeful that we can learn from Cosmic’s example that reputations for excellence are built in small, incremental, but ultimately very valuable steps.

Preface:  This is a long post.  And it lacks pretty pictures of tropical construction sites.  Writing thoughts out long-form helps me examine and refine, which is one of our core values and a pillar of our success so far.  I would be very interested in your comments.

The Law of Large Numbers has been the water cooler topic here at Atlas World Headquarters for the past couple of weeks, motivated by a couple of events:

  1. NASA designed, built, launched, and landed the unmanned rover Curiosity on Mars, and
  2. Chicago Bridge & Iron bought Shaw, and 27,000 engineering company employees got a new logo on their business cards.

The Law of Large Numbers (LLN) states that the probability of success in a series of Bernoulli trials will almost surely converge to the expected value. Any process that requires a large number of events is subject to the LLN and attendant probabilistic effects. Tossing a fair coin is the classic Bernoulli trial, a random event thats yields equal numbers of heads and tails when performed a large number of times. Turning left or right on a random walk is similar, and also a great way to get lost. Large numbers of engineering decisions are exposed to the LLN despite efforts to avoid making important decisions with a coin toss, and large groups of engineers are going to have, on average, just as many underperformers as there are stars.

Whether it’s a spacecraft, dam, refinery, or interstate highway system, the only way to avoid the averaging effect of the LLN is to make each design decision unlike a coin toss. Engineering success is earned by trained individuals striving to understand and control the design outcome.  Each engineer’s skill, and his or her diligence in implementing effective quality control, affects the chance of failure. Large project teams are made up of  numerous individual engineers whose competence, on average, converges on “average”. The problem in complex projects is the dependencies between design decisions and the disproportionate failure risk introduced by even a single below-average decision. Consider how few bad decisions or incompetent engineers were necessary to create circumstances that led to these failures:

  1. Lockheed Martin’s decision to compute booster thrust in customary rather than standard units ruined NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.  The program cost $125 million, consumed thousands of engineering hours, and required innumerable individual decisions.  It all went irredeemably bad because one of those decisions was regrettably poor.
  2. The 1905 attempt to divert most of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley in was abysmally ill-conceived, almost ruined a large part of southern California, re-filled the Salton Sea, and was finally remediated by building the Hoover Dam.
  3. The management decision to allow local control over New Orleans levees led to a piecemeal flood protection system whose weak links failed when exposed to a significant, but not unexpected, Hurricane Katrina and rendered the entire system unserviceable.

Think of a failure or near-miss in your engineering career, and think of the bad decision, technical or managerial, that allowed random variables like weather such influence over how your finished design performed. Then think about how that decision could have been made differently if you, at the time, had more experience, more knowledge, or more direct control over the project. The Law of Large Numbers describes how these types of influence are harder to exert when projects are larger, more complex, and designed by a larger group.

Exceptional engineers identify and exterminate design and construction risks, sometimes overriding project schedules and seemingly insurmountable business constraints to avoid identified risks. Given a large enough group of engineers, though, the LLN states that the group’s competence converges on “average” despite diligent efforts from the competent engineers. The 27,000 Shaw employees now working on large energy projects for CB&I have, among their numbers, at least a few individuals whose engineering decisions behave more like Bernoulli trials than calculated intents. It is impossible that in such a large and diverse group each specialty would be of world-class ability. All else being equal, using the employee group that your board of directors just bought instead of collaborating with the best independent specialist engineers that you know of  leaves your project exposed to increased risk of a bad decision. As NASA just demonstrated, it’s possible for a very large team to succeed at a very complex design, but the question remains: how many times in a row can they enjoy that outcome? And are there better organizational structures that would improve reliability and efficiency?

The point of all this, then: Does the Atlas business model, with its emphasis on flexible teams of highly qualified specialists, protect our designs from the unforgiving Law of Large Numbers? Or do we expose ourselves to organizational and communication risk when we assemble a specialty team for a challenging project in a remote location?

Atlas’ in-house staff is small enough to be a known, non-random, factor. We’ve got strengths and weaknesses, like all engineers, but it’s been awhile since we were surprised by an unexpected weakness. Our in-house engineering process is as unlike a Bernoulli trial as it’s possible to be.  For larger projects that exceed our in-house capacity, Atlas teams with specialist groups who share a similar commitment to eradicating chance from design. For each project we build a reliable organization block by block and then implement the systems and controls that we all agree are necessary for good engineering. Sometimes a provisional team members turns out to be of average or lesser competence. Those parts of the organization are easy to spot, because interactions with them are so different, and easy to correct because of our inherently independent nature. We take immediate action to replace the weak link and restore our immunity to the averaging effect of the Law of Large Numbers.

I believe that the “collaborating specialists” business model is the future of infrastructure engineering. Exceptional engineers will move up and on to our team, leaving behind the engineers unable or uninterested in working at the highest level or rigor, and further reducing the average competence of large semi-anonymous groups who, alarmingly, are increasingly responsible for safety and reliability of critical infrastructure. I’m very interested to see how this trend develops over the next decade or so, and am looking forward to further expanding Atlas as more and more exceptional engineers recognize the advantages of collaborative teams.