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Ground investigation
Geotechnical consultancy
Contaminated land assessment

Climate change: do you really need that borehole?

August 18, 2021
by GEA


Many of us will have spent time today reading the news stories on the IPCC report on climate change, which make for sobering reading. And many people will be doing what I am doing and wondering "what can I do?" - both personally and as someone that runs a business.

It is easy to think that we need to make radical changes, but radical change is difficult, in terms of immediate cost and in selling it to employees and clients. So perhaps incremental changes are more palatable and that is certainly where we are looking.

Like many companies, we are almost paperless. The heating and cooling in our office is fuelled from a woodchip boiler; a number of our staff now run electric cars, we are organising charging facilities at the office and will shortly be investing in electric vans for our engineers to use for site work. A fortunate fallout from the pandemic is that we have significantly reduced travelling for meetings that can just as easily be done on a screen. These are all relatively easy changes to make, but could have a relatively significant cumulative effect if widely replicated.

Something else that occurred to me today came about as a result of two enquiries for sites in Central London. The first was for a new development and when I searched our archive of over 10,000 ground investigation reports (which is now beautifully archived and accessible thanks to our new project management system) I found that we had worked on the site previously and at least one of the proposed boreholes could be omitted. The second enquiry was for a new basement in Chelsea where there there is little time for a ground investigation so we were being asked if we had nearby information - fortunately we had worked on the property next door and the one directly opposite.

This is a common occurrence, and I am sure is for many ground engineering firms that keep good records. As most drilling crews are based out of London, drilling a borehole deeper than say 20 m in London will take two days and involve four journeys, usually in a diesel vehicle. Drilling the borehole involves the use of a diesel engine. There are consumables such as plastic sample containers, paper labels and so on. Omitting a single borehole on a project isn't going to save the planet, but it is another incremental change that is relatively easy to instigate.

The problem of course of using a previous borehole is liability and we are generally told that the client (or more often the funder) needs a new investigation so that they can rely on it, in a contractual sense. Personally I think this is nonsense (although I am prepared to be put right!)

Of the claims that I am aware of that involve ground investigations or geotechnical assessments, it is rarely the actual validity of the information that is in question, but rather the interpretation of the data, or the assessment of its validity. So if GEA drills ten boreholes, and one shows weaker ground for example, we would be expected to report that and assess the potential risks to the client's development. It is not the shear strength results themselves that are significant, but the interpretation of the importance of those results. Similarly, if we carry out a project in an area known for dissolution features in chalk we would be expected to be aware of that and understand the significance of loose deposits over the chalk.

So, it doesn't seem to me to matter whether we have drilled the boreholes that we are reporting on. We just need to be confident that the boreholes reflect the site conditions, and usually we will want to do some of our own ground investigation to corroborate existing data. Clearly there will be occasions when previous investigations haven't provided the right sort of sampling or testing, but there is certainly scope on many sites for using existing archive information to reduce the number of visits to site. (Which will of course have the added benefit of getting us onto the next site more quickly).

We are also looking to make more use of dataloggers for groundwater and gas monitoring - they can be installed during the site work and remove the need for numerous journeys to a site to monitor standpipes. An added benefit is that monitoring programmes can be shortened, but there is usually some cost penalty to the client.

But we need to be looking at "cost" in a completely different way and something that would be good to see in construction news reporting is more reference to "carbon value engineering". Value engineering is generally reported in terms of financial and / or programme efficiencies, but not often in terms of carbon savings. It would be good to get to a point where we talk about carbon saving as readily as direct cost savings.

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Climate change: do you really need that borehole?

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