What does a geotechnical engineer do? Simply put, they provide the expertise that makes possible the very foundations of modern existence.
Geotechnical engineers possess a deep understanding of soil, water, rock, and civic development. As a branch of civil engineering, they apply this knowledge in a variety of contexts, from major projects like tunnels, bridges, and high-rise buildings to simpler projects like retaining walls and earthen dams.
Geotechnical engineers work primarily with soils and rock at the interface of natural systems and human development. The mechanics and behavior of both natural and constructed materials are complex, and understanding the dynamics of each is critical to a sustainable and successful project.
Revealed: What does a geotechnical engineer do?
If you have ever marveled at some of humanity’s major achievements, from the Channel Tunnel connecting the UK with mainland Europe, to the Hoover Dam, you have some implicit understanding of the possibilities of geotechnical engineering. If you have ever witnessed the power of an earthquake, landslide, or flood you understand the importance of proper geotechnical engineering to the protection of human life and property. But you still may not be able to answer the original question – what does a geotechnical engineer do? And more specifically, how do they do it?
Geotechnical engineers begin their work with a consideration of the requirements for a given project – i.e. what properties does the foundation needs to exhibit to provide for safe, sustainable, and effective construction. Next comes a site investigation. Site investigations determine the properties of the material underlying the project. Armed with that understanding, geotechnical engineers then help determine the materials and design of the constructed foundations.
Geotechnical engineers may collect and analyze samples to define variables like the angle of repose, shear strength, rate of settlement, and plasticity. These variables help to determine the behavior and vulnerabilities of the subsurface materials, which in turn helps to define the engineering requirements of the constructed features which will rest upon them.
Fields of work
Broadly speaking, we may answer the question “what does a geotechnical engineer do” by examining some of the domains in which they work. Geotechnical engineers do the math, physics, geology, hydrology, and more. Their work requires extensive technical knowledge and training. Most geotechnical engineers have at least a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and many have a master’s. As you may imagine, the job requires exceptional attention to detail – minor miscalculations in this field can have catastrophic consequences. If you have ever seen a retaining wall failure wipe out a major highway, or witnessed a flood break through an earthen levee, you have seen the disruption caused by a misapprehension of material properties.
Those failures – usually few and far between – speak to the unheralded work of geotechnical engineers. We travel across bridges and through tunnels, watch as rising floodwaters lap at the edges of protected main streets, or gaze across a cityscape from atop of a high-rise building built in earthquake territory, and take it for granted. What does a geotechnical engineer do? When they do it right, you won’t be sure they’ve done anything at all.