For civil engineers looking to specialize in a rapidly-growing discipline with excellent long-term prospects, geotechnical engineering presents an attractive option. Developments in the field have been marked by key insights into the properties of soil and rock—specifically, their ability to support foundations for buildings, bridges, and other crucial structures. Geotechnical engineers utilize a range of technological innovations to perform detailed analysis on rock and soil, allowing them to determine sites suitable for building structural foundations upon, as well as improve upon designs that compensate for geographical complications (such as slopes). The advancement of these ideas and their applications can be credited to several important figures from the 20th Century who developed a pivotal body of research as well as innovative practices. Earning a degree in geotechnical engineering can help individuals address infrastructural challenges and create sustainable, effective structures.
Background and Educational Requirements
Geotechnical engineering requires strong analytical skills and the ability to collaborate with civil and structural engineers on site analyses and project designs. While many engineering disciplines require, at a minimum, a master’s degree, the dire shortage of geotechnical engineers has prompted employers to consider candidates with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and in some cases, a four-year degree in a related discipline. Geotechnical engineers must also be skilled at conducting research, collecting samples of water, soil, and rocks at various sites, and working outdoors in potentially extreme environmental conditions. Individuals with prior work experience in civil engineering are especially strong candidates for careers in geotechnical engineering.
Salary and Benefits
In 2016, the median income for civil engineers was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be $83,540 annually; as for geotechnical engineers in particular, a July 2017 report listed the national average annual salary at $68,291. Salaries tend to vary widely based on location, as well as an individual’s company of employment and level of experience. Professionals entering this field typically have opportunities to earn bonuses and advance to higher-paid positions, and most engineering firms offer handsome benefits packages and profit-sharing opportunities as well.
Skills, Duties, and Responsibilities
Geotechnical engineers perform detailed analyses of proposed building sites to determine whether conditions are suitable for construction. They also monitor changes in soil and rock properties in existing structural foundations; potential changes that may occur include the effects of weathering and soil erosion, and surface and subsurface ground movement. Geotechnical engineers are responsible for helping architects, city planners and fellow engineers build and maintain foundationally stable structures. Geotechnical engineers also play a central role in the construction of tunnels, dams, dikes and coastal structures, all of which require in-depth analysis of soil mechanics and other geological features to determine suitability for site excavation and construction.
Before, during, and after completion of a new structure, geotechnical engineers must account for features of the terrain, such as slope; the strength and composition of surface and subsurface material; groundwater and nearby water bodies; and environmental hazards such as earthquakes and landslides. In addition to performing on-site analyses, these professionals spend much of their time in office settings, using technology to conduct research and perform digital tests.
Significant Figures in Geotechnical Engineering
Advances in the study and practice of geotechnical engineering can be attributed to a number of individuals and their innovations in the field. The four individuals listed below are just some of the many 20th Century geotechnical engineers who have helped to shape the course of the profession.
Karl von Terzaghi
Since antiquity, geotechnical engineering has helped improve civilization, as seen in historical irrigation processes, flood control, and construction techniques, but it was Prague-born Karl von Terzaghi (known as “the father of soil mechanics”) who began making significant advancements in geotechnical engineering and research. Throughout his career, Terzaghi’s work proved revolutionary, combining aspects of geology and civil engineering. He published hundreds of papers on the relevance and importance of soil mechanics to the construction process, but his 1925 publication, Erdbaumechanik (Soil Mechanics), is said to have marked the inception of the geotechnical engineering field as it is recognized today. Terzaghi’s accomplishments as a pioneer in geotechnical engineering include formulating ways to classify soil and rock based on composition, and developing methods for compacting and improving soil for building foundations. Terzaghi’s extensive research and work in the field made him a four-time winner of the Norman Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers and earned him a number of other accolades.
Ralph Brazelton Peck
Originally from Canada, Ralph B. Peck moved to the United States at a young age, later attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to receive a doctoral degree in civil engineering with a focus on structures. Heavily influenced by Karl Terzaghi, Peck was credited with developing the basis for subsurface engineering (a branch of engineering that relates to drilling and building gas or petroleum networks) through his knowledge of soil mechanics. His work would solidify the practice of penetration testing and other methods for evaluating subsurface conditions at proposed and existing building sites, allowing engineers to build safer sturdier structural foundations. Peck’s contributions to the field of geotechnical engineering span the globe and include the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline system and the Dead Sea dikes project; in 1975, Peck was presented with the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford. In addition to these accomplishments, Peck was an instructor at the University of Illinois. Through his focus on geotechnical engineering, Peck became one of the early pioneers of earth pressure measurements, excavation methods for tunnels and subway systems, and a number of other subsurface engineering practices that are still used in the field today.
Harry Bolton Seed
Harry Bolton Seed studied soil mechanics at Harvard University and later became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. As a geotechnical engineering researcher and consultant, Seed contributed to a number of projects across the globe, including the Oroville Dam in California as well as projects in Pakistan and Egypt. Most notably, Seed established the discipline of geotechnical earthquake engineering and conducted numerous advanced studies therein. He also authored the ground-breaking 1982 book, Ground Motion and Soil Liquefaction During Earthquakes; the text helped improve construction methods for dams, highways and other structures. During his tenure at UC Berkeley, Seed established the school’s geotechnical engineering program. His extensive research, site analysis, and participation in various geotechnical engineering projects were instrumental in setting standards for evaluating seismic activity, implementing methods for analyzing potential liquefaction in the event of an earthquake, and other developments in geotechnical earthquake engineering.
Leonardo Zeevaert Wiechers
Leonardo Zeevaert Wiechers is widely respected for his research and improvements in geotechnical engineering analysis of soil subsidence behaviors, as well as for developing new building concepts for difficult soil conditions. He is also known for his significant innovations in deep excavation methods and improvements in earthquake engineering. His work on the foundational designs for the construction of the Torre
Latinoamericana (Latin-American Tower) in Mexico City earned him an award from the American Institute for Steel Construction in 1967, following a powerful earthquake which the skyscraper withstood. Wiechers also received the Allied Professions Medal from the American Institute of Architects as well as a number of other honors and awards in the United States and Mexico. Amongst his hundreds of publications, Wiechers’ book, Foundation Engineering for Difficult Subsoil Conditions, is considered one of the most influential in geotechnical engineering.
The contributions made by the individuals listed above have allowed modern-day engineers to improve the quality of their designs, the safety offered by structures, and the level of efficiency that can be achieved when producing them. For instance, by combining thin, overburdened soils with hard bedrock, modern geotechnical engineers design cost-effective bridge foundations that can efficiently manage critical loads and adverse stress conditions. In below ground engineering, advanced computing equipment allows geotechnical engineers to create accurate physical profiles of underground sites, allowing them to incorporate the exact geologic setting, rock and soil properties, as well as any pre-existing underground infrastructure in their design models. As new innovations arise in advanced computing and monitoring technologies, geotechnical engineers can enhance the evaluation process for soil conditions and improve their ability to manage construction assets practically and safely.
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Geotechnical Engineer Salaries, Glassdoor
Karl Terzaghi's Legacy in Geotechnical Engineering, Geo Engineer
Dr. Leonardo Zeevaert Wiechers — Curriculum Vitae, World Wide Web of Geotechnical Engineers
Harry Bolton Seed, American Society of Civil Engineers
Harry Bolton Seed, The National Academic Press
Civil Engineers, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Geotechnical Engineering: The In-Demand, High-Pay, Easy-Entry Job You've Likely Never Heard Of, Forbes