Category Archives: Crew Updates

This is the right way to dig a hole

The best children’s story is Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. About this there can be no debate. It was my favorite story growing up, and it remains pertinent to my work today. You dads and moms can get a copy here: Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne

You’re welcome.

This is Mary Anne’s grandchild

It’s about a hardworking owner-operator named Mike, his stalwart coal-fired excavator Mary Anne, and how together they navigate the difficult transition from steam to hydraulic power in the North American construction industry. There’s a heartwarming ending. I won’t spoil it for you.

Pertinent today is the way that Mike and Mary Anne dig a hole: neat and square. At each stage the hole is manifestly neat and square. When they finish, you guessed it, the hole is neat and square. The book doesn’t emphasize excavation techniques; it’s not a trenching manual. Neat and square is just how Mike, an operator so skilled they wrote a book about him, digs a hole. If you’re not digging like Mike and Mary Anne, you’re probably digging wrong. Read by my parents with great enthusiasm, this story taught 4-year old me the two most important characteristics of an excavation:

  1. Neat
  2. Square.

I have time to write these thoughts on a Friday afternoon as the crew works diligently to wrap up a shoring submittal for a hole that is not square. Not by a long shot. It’s not pear-shaped or anything; but it zig-zags all over Honolulu through some comically soft ground. There are odd-angled corners. Several of them.

The reason that we’re struggling to wrap up the design is because I failed to insist that we dig like Mike. The Contractor, a highly experienced excavator, prefers long stretches of braced sheetpiles with open corners that allow in-trench pipe fusing. The the shoring has angles that are measured in 32nds of a circle. It is not at all square, and our bracing design are far from neat. The level of effort has more than doubled.

To avoid suffering similar difficulties, I encourage you all to stay true to the example of Mike and Mary Anne, a lesson so important that every right-thinking parent reads it over and over again to their budding young engineer-children. Dig your excavations neat and square. Your shoring designs will go smoothly, and your Friday afternoons will be greatly improved.

One benefit of working with friends is the non-work time we spend together, like sharing meals.  Longtime collaborator and good friend Steve Dickenson joined us in San Francisco for a project meeting last week.  While the meeting achieved the intended outcome, the real highlight of the day was the excellent bahn mi sandwich shop that we found on Eddy Street.  L&G Vietnamese Sandwich is a no-nonsense, locally owned, quick service shop. Lunch for the three of us cost less than $20, which surprised me considering we were in the middle of San Francisco.

The bread had the exact right texture, the jalapeno slice on top added the right amount of bite, and the rest of the ingredients were super fresh. There’s no seating in the shop, but there’s plenty of great public space in the neighborhood.  Here’s their website in case any of you guys need to pre-order before your next meeting in the Civic Center neighborhood:

The Atlas Geotechnical blog doesn’t really focus on restaurant reviews, but the unique experiences we collect in the course of our work-related travel are a thoroughly satisfying part of our careers. From Seattle seafood to a great hole-in-the-wall yakitori place on Oahu, from proper Kansas City bar-b-que to amazing camp meals in Athabasca, we share a lot of great meals with good friends as a direct result of our unique engineering practice.  Sharing great bahn mi with a good friend in San Francisco is another great memory from a 30-year engineering practice that just keeps getting more and more interesting.

Seattle imposes a local requirement for verification testing of shoring tiebacks in addition to proof and performance testing. Because the required test load is 2.0 times the design load, and our design safety factor is 1.5, the test is almost certain to fail the anchor on the soil/grout interface.  At least, if our design achieves the target conservatism, the verification test ought to fail the soil/bond interface; otherwise our strength estimate is low and our design is pointlessly conservative.

One charming aspect of such high test loads is that verification anchors need additional strands in order to safely transfer the test load down to the bond zone. (We prefer to test a typical bond length with extra strands rather than use a typical strand count and shorten the bond length.) that means that the test anchors look really robust. The anchor below is only a 180-kip anchor, but it has 9 strands because it’s going to be tested to 360 kips.

Another fun aspect of testing sacrificial anchors is that they need to be installed in between soldier piles so they don’t take up the pocket for a production anchor. That means that we get to use a cool reaction frame for the test. Setting the frame is an extra step, but I think it makes the test setup look super old-school.

Really, though, the point of this post is just to share the photo that Wes sent down from the jobsite. The test results, to be honest, were disappointing.  The setup is really clean and efficient, though. We’ve already installed a similar anchor and then post-grouted it looking for higher capacity. I expect that later today we’ll have a similar photo of a great looking verification test and also proof of the high strength we used in our design.

The crew at the Gilboa Dam Valve Chamber have been installing caissons (compression rock sockets) for the past few weeks and are ready to return to tiedown tensioning.  Sarah Kalman, Atlas’ field engineer running the QC program, shared these two shots from earlier today.  This photo shows the test arrangement including a work platform needed for measuring tendon elongation.

The draping tendons are waiting for tensioning. The proof test force stretches the high-strength cables more than 4 inches.

Commensurate Safety Professional Will Yarborough has been an integral part of this project.  This activity requires high pressures, huge forces, cold temperatures, long hours, and working at height. We appreciate Will’s extra effort keeping us all working safely.

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 )

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.


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.


One of the Atlas Crew  shared with us this fantastic bit of Corporate correspondence from the past.  I attach just the first (of two) pages below.  Let’s pause a moment for you to scroll down and bask in its magnificence.

As background, in 1922 F.P. Summers was Purchasing Agent for Standard Oil Company, with offices at 260 Bush Street in San Francisco. There are just so many interesting aspects to this, it’s hard to know where to start.  In no particular order:

  1. Yes, Purchasing always has, and always will, forever and ever, send department managers notes about profligate expenditures.  If they didn’t there would be no need for Purchasing. Save those notes, carve out a special place in your Corporate folder, and 91 years from now some hardworking engineer will unearth it and marvel at the smallness of corporate priorities.
  2. The exorbitant $32.85 in pencils that the Bakersfield refinery ran through in 1922 is now worth a cool $455.51 according to the CPI calculator.  Paltry compared with an Autocad upgrade, but honestly, that seems a little steep for a medium-sized refinery.  One wonders where all the pencils went?
  3. On the one hand, it is good to know that the Bakersfield refinery pencil expenditures didn’t bankrupt the company before the Great Depression, so that it could grow to global prominence, change its name to Chevron, and report 2013 earnings of $21.4 billion.  They can afford all the pencils they want now.
  4. On the other hand, maybe it is only because of F.P’s parsimonious management that the CEO now enjoys a seemingly permanent invitation to the World Economic Forum at Davos.  If so, we must examine our minor line items if our strategic plans intend global domination.
  5. Office Boy!?  Seriously, Office Boy?  Wow.   And I love how F.P. refers to that person as just “the boy.” What would a modern HR department make of that job title?   The memos would just be flying back and forth. All potential efficiencies that Purchasing expects from “the boy” and his mobile pencil sharpening service would be consumed by lawsuits.
  6. Any savings not litigated into extinction would be necessary to replace the lost pencil sharpener because it’s nailed to a board and not bolted to the wall.
  7. Can you imagine interviewing for that job?  “…And this is your pencil sharpening board…”  I like to imagine “the boy” as an office-bound Gunga Din, but with a pencil sharpener instead of a water skin, bravely sharpening while the Engineers wear down their points in glorious battle.

I didn’t share with you  Page 2, wherein F.P. offers pencil sharpening advice, task-based criteria for selection of proper hardness, praise for pencil holders, and a rather long discourse on “delivery wagon” drivers’ preference for the short stubs that, apparently, the wastrels in the Bakersfield refinery have been throwing away.

All in all, a delightful diversion for a cool and rainy afternoon.  I hope that you all enjoyed this little bit of classic pettifoggery. Drop me a note in the Comments if you’re interested in having a copy of the whole document.

Pencil Consumption 1922-23

Cal State Northridge Parking Structure

Cal State Northridge Parking Structure

This past week marked the 20th anniversary of the M6.7 Northridge earthquake.  In addition to 57 fatalities, over 40,000 buildings sustained damage amounting to an estimated $25 billion in losses, making it the most costly earthquake in the United States.

Good friend and extraordinary structural engineer Gene Trahern shared with us an update on changes in earthquake engineering during the intervening years. Although I had not yet met Gene in 1994, I worked in a support role on the Northridge response effort, a big project for Gene and a pivotal time in my career. Since then Gene has further developed his expertise in evaluating seismic vulnerability of existing structures and founded Cascade Crest Consulting Engineers.  More information about Gene’s practice is here:

IBC replaces UBC, BOCA, and SBC

Three semi-regional codes were combined into one uniform document, the International Building Code, causing engineers nationwide finally to use the same design procedures. As part of that change, design ground motions changed from the 475-yr earthquake to two-thirds of the 2500-yr earthquake.  The change elevated design forces in areas with large but infrequent earthquakes like some parts of the Midwest, Salt Lake City, and the Carolinas.  Design forces increased in Seattle and slightly decreased in  Sacramento and Portland.

ASTM Seismic Loss Estimation Standards

Two new standards,  E2026 and E2557, now define a uniform method for assessing potential earthquake damage to existing buildings.  The standards define several terms that used to have various meanings, eliminating conflicts in insurance and valuation procedures. They also establish four discrete levels of analysis, improving quality and reliability of seismic loss estimation studies.

Improved Seismic Evaluation and Upgrade Methods

At the time of the Northridge Earthquake, seismic evaluations of existing buildings used basic ground motions similar to the outdated UBC seismic zone system.  ASCE-31 (2003) improved evaluation methods by changing to the current USGS seismic hazard maps.  ASCE-41 followed 3 years later and carried the evaluation method improvements forward into seismic upgrade of existing buildings. 

Gene Trahern can be reached at (541) 549-1331 and






Awards Banquet Snapshot

We feasted like champions at the 2013 Technical Writing Contest Awards Banquet

Last night’s awards dinner was a truly excellent event. The food was delicious, the atmosphere convivial, the guests each a delight to know. Conversation was lively, varied, and thoughtful. YMF President and USACE Engineer Rachel Coyner shared insight on the need for evolution in Civil Engineering’s participation in government, at least to the extent that the electorate relies on large infrastructure projects for their health, safety, and livelihoods. My only regret is that my seat at one end of the table prevented me from fully enjoying the conversation down at the other end.

I was particularly impressed with the varied backgrounds of our eight contestants. Men and women were almost equally represented, at least as equally as one could expect at an Engineering event (we had excellent conversation about that, too). So were east and west coasts, young professionals and students, PE’s and EIT’s, government and consultant employment. The one area where we truly lacked diversity was public transportation use: at evening’s close more than half the party walked down to BART together, and I may have been the only person leaving the dinner by personal car.

The contest succeeded by all measures, largely due to Shawna Gates’ persistence keeping me on task and Ally Disch’s extraordinary skills organizing the details. Special thanks go out to San Francisco Section Younger Member’s Forum for sponsoring the event with Atlas, for lending their organizational support as well as doubling the prize money purse. There are minor aspects that we’ll change for next year, of course, but I would be very pleased if future events carried on just like this for many years to come.