Geotechnical engineering - how sustainable and resilient is it?

Geotechnical engineers need to focus more on the sustainability and resilience of their solutions. Jeffrey Keaton, editor of an ICE journal on the topic, says simply providing good engineering is no longer enough.

Geotechnical engineering solutions: about environment, economy and equity
Geotechnical engineering solutions: about environment, economy and equity
Given the opportunity for casual discussion among geotechnical practitioners and academics, perhaps at a monthly professional society meeting, I would find an opportunity to ask, "Can you tell me something about the sustainability aspects of your part of the geotechnical design project?"

A common response would be, "Hmmm…", while the head is in a slow, side-to-side negative shaking motion., "nothing on my project has anything to do with sustainability."

My reply might be, "Really? Are you able to balance cut and fill volumes for your road alignment?"

Typical response: "Of course cut and fill volumes are balanced. That’s just good engineering."

The reality is that opportunities for engineering sustainability are everywhere in geotechnical engineering and make themselves available every day. Improved awareness among geotechnical engineers of touch points in the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and equitable sustainability in simple, low-budget projects – without the fanfare of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility or a formal environmental process – will do a lot for advancing engineering sustainability.

Defining sustainability and resilience

Sustainable options can be mundane as well as magnificent. Sustainable solutions that were dismissed as nothing but 'good engineering' slowed down the progression of some geotechnical engineers into a modern era of ‘better engineering’.

What we call ‘sustainable engineering’ today is more than just good engineering but it is less than what good engineering will become in future decades.

Sustainability is recognised as a balanced approach which maintains harmony among the three Es – environment, economy and equity – so that the quality of life of current and future generations is not compromised.

Resilience, on the other hand, is the ability to withstand and recover from disruptions, particularly sudden shocks.

Sustainability can be implemented effectively at the component, building and community levels. Resilience, however, needs to be implemented at the community level. After all, a high-rise building that survives a major earthquake and remains functionally operational would have to be vacated if the toilets cannot be used because the sewer system is inoperable.

Helping to understand the concepts

The two concepts are related because resilient systems support sustainable communities by remaining functional or having redundancy. This is particularly important for geotechnical engineering because facilities and geo-structures like tunnels, dams and retaining structures that may not be able to return to functionality after disruptions, such as earthquakes or bomb blasts, would not support sustainable communities even if they were constructed with a balance among the three Es.

To help geotechnical engineers understand the concepts ICE has commissioned two themed issues of its Engineering Sustainability journal on the topic of sustainability and resilience in geotechnical engineering.

The first issue (171 ES1) addresses resilience and sustainability in the management of landslides (Flentje and Chowdhury, 2018), slope stabilisation (Das et al., 2018), stability analyses for slope design (Shepheard et al., 2018) and stabilising coastal slopes (Mickovski and Thomson, 2018).

The papers all describe ‘good engineering’, while demonstrating that geotechnical engineers contribute to sustainability and community resilience.