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Geotech Talk: Catherine Ellis on design and engineering challenges in California

With challenges including regulatory changes, new technologies, and extreme weather, today’s geotechnical engineering world requires a lot of knowledge and experience. That’s why we’re talking to our geotech experts about reaching success in this demanding industry. Our first Geotech Talk was with Mark Balfe, Real Estate Developers Market Segment Leader in our Boston office.

For this Geotech Talk, we have Senior Associate and Geotechnical Engineer Catherine Ellis, P.E., G.E. from our San Francisco Bay Area offices. She chats about geotechnical engineering challenges specific to California and a unique sustainability project that’s very close to her heart.

How do geotech challenges differ geographically? What is unique about geotech challenges in California?

Catherine Ellis: Earthquakes! The West Coast’s presence in the “Ring of Fire” is one of the most seismically active areas in the world. There’s potential for such massive destruction. The earthquakes in July 2019 in Southern California, fortunately, didn’t cause significant, widespread damage because they happened in remote areas. When one of those earthquakes hits a city, it’s a disaster. Resiliency is a must, not a luxury, which adds complexity to geotechnical engineering along with an increased need for active collaboration with a project’s structural engineers.

No matter where you are in the U.S., there are risks, whether it’s an earthquake, a hurricane, flooding, or a tornado. The occurrence of those hazards has been increasing. Because of that, real estate development companies are considering how extreme weather and rising sea levels could impact their corporate portfolios, and develop plans for when an extreme event occurs.

Designers are also dealing with the many changes coming in the 2018 International Building Code (IBC). Here in California, we anticipate that the new codes will take effect in 2020 and will impact design criteria with more attention to design loads and the impacts of earthquakes than in the past. That means the structural engineer will assume a much higher risk. Collaborating early with a geotechnical engineer is crucial and will help you reduce your risk.

How do geotech practices support sustainability and resilience?

CE: We are really excited about a new project in California – the wetland restoration of the Bel Marin Keys. This project incorporates some of our traditional services, including geotechnical construction monitoring and sediment management, to help improve habitat sustainability and increase rising sea level resiliency.

We’re helping the California State Coastal Conservatory (SCC) restore a farm on reclaimed land to an active wetland habitat, while also providing flood protection and a public space that people can enjoy. The SCC pools multiple funding sources for underperforming areas that have been designated as wetlands.

It’s also a challenging project from a geotech perspective. Anytime you build near the water, you have wet soil- essentially soft, sensitive mud – which is hard to control, particularly when building a levee. If the levee is not well engineered and built well, it’ll be a weak link in the design of the whole habitat.

It’ll be really exciting to go to that open space with my family once it is done and say, “Hey, I am part of this. We made a positive impact because of this project, and our community is better for it.”

What approaches have you taken on a geotech project that saved your client time and sped up the review process?

CE: We develop collaborative relationships with design teams, particularly with structural engineers, before we even get to work. A considerable advantage for our clients is that we have strong relationships with structural engineers in the area. We’ll often work with them to determine two to three possible solutions, then incorporate the contractor to identify construction risks, cost, and schedule impacts. Because of our deep roots addressing geotechnical and environmental challenges, we’re able to take a holistic view of a project, involving all necessary team address both environmental and geotechnical challenges. This helps us anticipate issues and make proactive plans, saving churn time, and keeping projects running smoothly.

Restorative projects like the one Catherine described are increasingly becoming a priority for developers as sustainability becomes more of a priority. Feel free to email her about her experience or anything else she mentioned in her Geotech Talk.

Published: 1/14/2020


Catherine Ellis

Senior Technical Expert, Geotechnical Engineering