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Comment: Launch into an uncertain dimension

In the late 1960s we thought the whole matter of soil investigation, piling and creation of solid dependable foundations was actually fairly well understood. How wrong we were.

richard tilden smith crop crop

richard tilden smith crop crop

Richard Tilden Smith was GE’s field editor in 1968 and later became editor

Through the launch of International Construction magazine by Illiffe Publications, we heard more and more about foundation failures and massive cost overruns. We became increasingly curious as to whether there were generic causes – because it was so random in occurrence.

It was a period of massive investment in new construction, of increasingly large high rise structures on apparently more indifferent ground conditions, underpasses and transit systems driven through all conditions. 

But foundations were failing and costly damage claims were hitting headlines – they really did need to be checked out and the causes more properly understood. But how might Illiffe support the practical end of geotechnical engineering in support of the British Geotechnical Society’s (which later became the British Geotechnical Association) in-depth technical reviews of advances in knowledge?

John Moss, the editor of International Construction and who was editor of the launch issue of GE, supported the views put to him by Illiffe’s commercial leader Barry Johnson about the concerns that insufficient budget was being allocated to ground investigation and soils analysis prior to build.

The base line question among the geotechnical engineers was – why do we go on launching into sometimes very expensive construction projects without taking into account and understanding the bearing abilities of the ground on which they were being founded?

Was it that basic preliminary risk reduction measures were simply too often being ignored or clients were not sufficiently persuaded that paying out for anything but the minimal site investigation was of value?

”GE emerged on a wave of a great deal of exciting knowledge”

The question within the publishing sector was whether a bridge could be built between the readership of a general contracting title like International Construction and a new highly specialist subscription-funded technical journal. Every time there were features on foundation engineering the reader enquiries poured in, but would the publisher back the launch of a high tech, low circulation publication, even though there was an increasing realisation for the need?

The energies of Willi Braun – who introduced us to the genius of such continental Europeans as Icos’ Martin Fuchsberger and Christian Veber of Graz University – support from Arthur West, whose life had been in the gamut of piling types and techniques and a leading light in the Federation of Piling Specialists; Stanley Serota, one who had attained great practical contractor experience in large scale construction with Costain Construction; and Stuart Littlejohn of the University of Aberdeen produced the foundation that GE needed.

Through their influence we started to see the wider implications of the many issues affecting geotechnical engineering and helped to educate more widely.

The editorial team started to collect together technical bulletins from the Building Research Station on guiding better practice which led us to work with John Burland, who was a great advocate and is a brilliant geotechnical engineer, and Arthur Penman, a specialist in mass earth dam construction and their performance which came to prominence after high profile failures.

GE emerged on a wave of a great deal of exciting knowledge and some very determined engineering specialists who wanted to spread the benefits of that knowledge.

Many friends were made from the launch and GE flourished in technical expression and content and the message of the journal is very consistent: by improving knowledge in geotechnical engineering, ever more exciting investments like London’s mighty Shard and Crossrail can be achieved.

That GE will simply run and run, and still be keenly studied throughout the next half century, is thanks to the insight and foresight of John Moss and Barry Johnson over 50 years ago.

  • Richard Tilden Smith was GE’s field editor in 1968 and later became editor

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