The 2016 Geotechnical and Structural Engineering Congress: A Unique Look at Collaboration of Civil Engineers

21 Apr 2016 11:30 AM | ASCE Blog Editor (Administrator)

By Greg Holbrook & Linda Kaplan, P.E.

In February 2016, several Pittsburgh ASCE Section members attended the first ever Geotechnical and Structural Engineering Congress, held in Phoenix, AZ.  This conference was unique in that it was a joint conference between ASCE’s Structural Engineering Institute and Geotechnical Institutes, marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of each.  This combination provided the opportunity for topics and discussions on how the two civil engineering disciplines interact and what can be done professionally to increase collaboration between the fields.

The conference opened with a lively panel discussion about the interaction between the two disciplines, titled: “Soil is Not a Spring, Buildings are Not a Load.”  Three representatives from each Institute discussed issues with collaboration in design.  Discussions included degrees of uncertainty in geotechnical capacities vs. structural loads and how to ensure we’re not unknowingly over-designing, and questions of responsibility for the final product including a debate about whose professional seal should stamp foundation drawings or that they should be jointly sealed.  The differences in work flow between private (primarily buildings) projects where the structural and geotechnical engineer are often hired separately by the client, and public (primarily transportation) projects where the geotechnical and structural engineer are likely to be working for the same firm, or one as a sub of the other, was also a major point of discussion.

The conference included 15 technical tracks with presentations on a variety of technical and professional issues in the structural and geotechnical fields.  One discussion stood out, related to professional licensure and the attempt by some states to remove the requirement for Professional Engineering licensure for structural design. This debate lead to comments as to how the profession could protect itself from lawsuits due to incompetent individuals designing projects, and the public image of losing the expectation of structures to not fail.  Additionally, another discussion spurred from the occurrence in some states that require an S.E. license for certain structures and how that doesn’t allow a geotechnical engineer with a P.E. to design foundations and retaining wall systems in that state, yet they have the ability to design those same structures in other states.

Nine members of the Pittsburgh Section attended.  Two members, Greg Holbrook, P.E. of CDM Smith, and Don Cunningham, P.E., of HDR, were able to attend the conference courtesy of SEI Young Professionals Scholarships.  This competitive scholarship program is offered annually by the SEI Young Professionals Committee to allow 10 younger members who would otherwise not have the opportunity, to attend.  Additionally, Don Splitstone, P.E. and Bruce Roth, P.E., both of GAI, attended to present their paper “Micropiles Ease Historic Bridge Replacement”; Linda Kaplan, P.E., of TRC, and Greg Braun, P.E. of Gannett Fleming, attended and presented “Geotechnical and Structural Engineering Collaboration on a Large Scale Bridge Project: A Case Study of the Hulton Bridge”; Jonathan McHugh, P.E., of Gannett Fleming presented “PHX Sky Train Phase 1 – The Interaction of Structural and Geotechnical Design Considerations”; Dick Gray, P.E., and Robert Hanna, P.E., of DiGioia Gray and Associates, attended as well. 

Highlighting the conference was a series of special events and receptions. 

  • The exhibit hall reception on the first night included a Champagne toast by ASCE National President Mark Woodson, PE to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the institutes and this landmark joint Congress. 
  • On the second evening, at a reception at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, colleagues from around the country networked. 
  • The final night of the conference featured the SEI Futures Fund Reception, hosted by Ashraf Habibullah, President of Computers and Structures, Inc.  The event was held in the Phoenix Art Museum and included live music, dancing, and door prizes. 

Following the conclusion of the conference, some of the Pittsburgh Section members got a chance to take advantage of the warm Phoenix weather prior to heading back to Pittsburgh.  Greg H., Greg B., Jon, and Linda decided to hike Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak) to take in the view.

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