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The industry's voice

Creating solutions and driving projects forward are concepts that Tensar vice president of global technology Ian Fraser says he has thrived on during his career in the geotechnics industry. These values are already being brought to bear in his latest career development as chairman of Ground Forum – a role he took on earlier this year.

Ground Forum, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was set up by David Sherwood in a bid to unite different parts of the geotechnical business to discuss common issues. Two decades on and the remit remains much the same, but the organisation has gained both political and industry respect in the intervening years.

Fraser took on the role of chairman of Ground Forum in March this year from URS’s Ivan Hodgson. He says his main aim for his two-year tenure is to build on the work that Hodgson undertook under his chairmanship and to continue raising the profile of Ground Forum.

Ian Fraser

“The group represents learned societies, institutions and trade associations,” says Fraser (see box).

Ground Forum recognises the need for the chairpersons of ground-related bodies to meet on a regular basis to coordinate activities, communicate and cooperate in areas of shared involvement.

 

Geotechnical voice

The organisation provides a single point of contact for ground-related industries and for government and official bodies, giving the geotechnical fraternity a voice within the construction industry.

“There is a good mix of people with a strong sense of the commercial issues, academic problems and a desire to progress discussions beyond sharing problems,” says Fraser.

The group holds regular meetings that facilitate dialogue between learned societies and trade associations to identify emerging issues. This allows the interests of the geotechnical community to be aligned to promote the sector, enhance awareness of the ground and raise the profile of ground engineering in the construction industry.

The group aims to promote professional standards and is leading the UK Register of Ground Engineering Professionals (RoGEP) initiative.

“How much of the UK’s assets are tied up in infrastructure? All of it relies on ground engineering but few appreciate this reliance on geotechnics. This is why it is good to have a voice within government”

Lobbying government is another key element of its work and Ground Forum’s efforts helped ensure ground engineering professionals were retained on the shortage occupation lists to allow companies recruiting in the UK to more easily recruit staff from overseas to meet demand.

Another campaign focuses on funding for MSc courses and, if successful, will help to ensure that the shortage occupation lists are no longer needed in the long term. Ground Forum has the backing of a peer in the House of Lords to raise the profile of the issue in government.

The group is also involved in the Parliamentary Scientific Committee. “How much of the UK’s assets are tied up in infrastructure?” Fraser asks. “All of it relies on ground engineering but very few appreciate this reliance on geotechnics. This is why it is good to have a voice within government.

“It is important that we help government to understand the implications of the lack of geotechnical engineers for UK plc. For example, the ground investigation programme called for HS2 raises some real staffing and equipment issues for the industry and government needs to understand that you can’t just turn a sector on and off like a tap.”

GE

Despite the wider use of geosynthetics, Fraser believes there are still challenges to overcome

Another focus for Ground Forum at the moment is Building Information Modelling and Balfour Beatty Ground Engineering’s Mark Pennington is representing the organisation on the Construction Industry Council’s committee on this. “It is important not to get left behind on BIM,” says Fraser. “A lot of the work we do cannot be seen but can provide information that is useful to the rest of the work – the jet grouting work that Keller is undertaking at the Victoria Station upgrade is a good example of this.”

 

Chance presentation

It is clear that Fraser has a passion for geotechnics and tackling the issues facing the sector, but it was only a chance presentation during his degree course that brought him into the sector.

He started out as a geologist undertaking a degree at Glasgow University, which he completed in 1986 and then undertook a post-graduate course (Now an MSc) in geotechnics at Bolton in 1992

“I spent the first six years of my career in a geotechnical consultancy,” he says. “When I graduated, the price of oil had dipped so there weren’t so many jobs for geologists and working in mining meant a move to South Africa or Australia.

“During my degree a geotechnical engineer came to speak to us and the variety of the work appealed to me.

“My first job was with a small consultancy called Johnson, Poole and Bloomer in the Midlands and it was a very hands-on role,” says Fraser. “My four years there gave me a good grounding in digging, logging, contaminated land issues, mining and stability problems.”

From there, Fraser moved to another consultancy firm but was frustrated by the lack of commercialism in his daily work, so he left to join specialist contractor Forkers and worked on ground stabilisation schemes.

“As well as the geotechnical elements of the job, I learnt a lot about value, getting paid and getting work done,” he says. “I also worked on claims and industrial tribunals.”

Then came Fraser’s move into the world of geosynthetics. “I liked the concept of selling technical solutions to clients,” he says. Initially he worked for the Reinforced Earth Company and then joined Comtec, which was part of Keller, and covered the Scottish region and ran the Chesterfield office.

Fraser has stayed in the industry ever since and this is mainly due to the enjoyment he says he gets from helping clients to find solutions.

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Fraser says he gets satisfaction from the finished project

“I get a lot of satisfaction of the finished structure too,” he adds. “This was one the frustrations for me in consultancy as often projects were not taken forward but in the contracting world there is a faster turnaround from an enquiry to the project getting underway.”

From Keller, Fraser joined Tencate and worked his way up to become managing director in 2001. His move to Tensar came in 2007 when he was appointed as UK business manager and was promoted to his current role in 2011.

“As vice president of global technology, my role is to look after research and development, design and support,” he says. “Our teams look after disciplines rather than regional areas.”

Despite the greater use of geosynthetics in construction now compared to when he moved into the sector, Fraser believes there are other issues that come with this. “I have seen greater commoditisation in the industry which is lowering standards and the UK has a lack of regulation when it comes to geosynthetics. However, if you have more regulations then you have no room to innovate.”

As an example, Fraser points to BS8006 for soil structures. “Since that came into force, there has been no research as consultants won’t step away from the standard and it presents very safe options,” he says.

“Geosynthetics are still a relatively new material having been available for 30 to 40 years, so their use does need to be regulated but if the policies are too strict then no one will be able to advance the science behind the solutions.”

Fraser first became involved with Ground Forum through his chairmanship of the International Geosynthetics Society, which led to Hodgson asking him to take the role.

While he clearly has a good idea of the challenges facing the geosynthetics market, Fraser’s background in general geotechnical consultancy and contracting means he is also well placed to understand the issues facing the wider industry too. Fraser’s passion and determination to find solutions certainly leaves an impression that he will be a hard act to follow in the chairmanship of Ground Forum, but he says he already has a few ideas about who he’d like to take over from him in 2015.

 

GROUND FORUM MEMBERS

  • Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists
  • British Drilling Association
  • British Geotechnical Association
  • British Tunnelling Society
  • Federation of Piling Specialists
  • Engineering Group of theGeological Society
  • Ground Source Heat Pump Association
  • International Geosynthetics Society
  • Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining
  • The Geological Society’s Near Surface Geophysics Group
  • Pipe Jacking Association
  • The Society for Underwater Technology

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