Geotech firms design smart development

GeoDesign strengthens Vancouver presence, growth points to Southwest Washington trends

What is the best road bedding for clay soils? How do you ensure high-rises built on riverfront soil can withstand an earthquake? What’s the best way to mitigate storm water runoff? Addressing questions that arise where development meets the environment is what geotechnical experts do on a daily basis.

One geotech firm that has seen phenomenal growth is GeoDesign Inc. GeoDesign has a significant presence in Southwest Washington, with a fast growing office in Vancouver. Since 1997 the Portland-based company has grown from seven people in one office to 100 staff in four offices. On March 24, GeoDesign turned 10.

Sam Adams, Battle Ground’s Public Works Director, said Clark County’s development climate grows companies like this one.

"We are getting more sophisticated in our construction techniques," he said, and higher land prices cause developers to "investigate what you’ve got to work with as you go into a project."

Mark Hinton, owner of Vancouver-based Hinton Development, said that geotech firms "provide a service that commences very early on in the acquisition process." Determining soil type and identifying stability problems can help eliminate costly mistakes in base rock, asphalt engineering and foundations.

Geotechnology is an area poised for explosion as evidenced by the growth of geotech staff at top local firms such as PBS Engineering and Environmental and others.

According to Hinton, geotech firms have matured, adopting faster and better technology.

"They can get us the results we need quicker and more accurately," making the use of geotech firms more economically feasible, said Hinton.

Also, several trends are driving geotech firms to the forefront of the development scene.

No more simple sites

First, as "easy" developable land gets used up, new projects are located on hard-to-develop sites – slopes, wetlands or less-than-ideal soil types – which, said Hinton, "take a higher level of expertise to develop."

Ken Hines, principal of Camas-based Pac Rim Homes LLC, said he reminds people that "a good share of our land for 50 miles is sloped." As a result, said Hines, "professional observations and assurances are necessary during the design, implementation and inspection process" to ensure that a project is long-lasting.

Brownfields are another challenge.

"There has been a huge shift to using old industrial sites," said Derek McGregor, a senior associate geologist who recently came on board at GeoDesign.

Starting around the mid-1990s, this trend is now "hitting its stride." As land prices climb, developers are increasingly likely to pursue the tax incentives available for reclaiming these sites – but they come with complicated environmental issues which require input from geotech experts in ground water quality and hazardous material mitigation.

Environmental issues

A growing awareness of environmental issues – both from the "top down" and from the "bottom up" – is drawing geotech firms into the development process.

An example of "top down" awareness is Critical Area Ordinances (CAOs), which identify areas where development and the environment may be in conflict. Developers must answer specific questions about geologic and environmental hazards on and near the development site, and plan to address these concerns.

Geotech firms can help update CAOs, as well as help developers with required site studies and hazard resolution. Dan Trisler, a geotechnical engineer with GeoDesign, stated that GeoDesign staff serve as third party reviewers of site reports for proposed development projects in Vancouver, and have consulted on CAOs for both Vancouver and Cowlitz County.

"Bottom up" environmental awareness has also increased. McGregor said that thanks to the Internet, "people are much more prepared – they know what is going on." According to McGregor, action groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) "push a lot of the work" for geotech firms by pressuring for environmentally sensitive development.

In particular, geotech firms can help with recommendations for mitigating storm water runoff. In October 2006, Vancouver passed new storm water rules, which led several GeoDesign staff to become certified as Certified Erosion and Sediment Control Leads.

Waterfront development

A third trend that Trisler sees driving the growth of geotech firms is the increasing demand for waterfront development, citing as examples the proposed Washougal Riverwalk project and Vancouver’s efforts to connect the Esther Short Park area revitalization to the waterfront.

"We have seen this in Portland," said Trisler, "and it will eventually make its way to Vancouver and Washougal."

Trisler said that waterfront development is specialized work that requires input from a geotech firm. McGregor pointed out that "brownfields" tend to be along rivers; in addition, ensuring the stability of large buildings situated on soft river-bank soils requires technical expertise.

The future of geotech

A trend toward low impact development
(LID), already visible in King County, said Trisler, is bound to "become an acronym in Clark County." LID tries to minimize the effect of development on the surrounding environment, and includes innovations such
as pervious pavement. GeoDesign has an
entire department dedicated to pavement design.

McGregor said that geotech firms can help close the gap between the extremes of "no growth at all" and "build on anything."

Growing with its clients, literally

GeoDesign Inc. has strategized to grow. One approach has been to springboard off their clients’ growth. For example, in 2003, GeoDesign saw that the Southwest Washington construction market was being served mainly by geotech companies based in Portland. Sensing an opportunity, they opened a Vancouver office in spare space in a client’s building. Two years later, they moved, again to a client’s building – this time to the Columbia Tech Center, on which they had worked since its inception, and continue to be involved in the ongoing phases of the project. Currently, the Vancouver office is home to 16 staff members.

Client needs have also driven the direction of the company’s services, said Trisler. In the beginning, GeoDesign concentrated on strictly geotech and environmental services. But as clients expanded their needs, GeoDesign expanded as well – into pavement design and hydrogeology.

GeoDesign’s growth feeds the success of other local businesses. Trisler gave examples of these, such as drillers (for soil samples), labs, blueprint companies, safety and field supply companies and environmental remediation contractors. He also mentioned that GeoDesign’s growth has allowed them to become a team leader for some projects, serving in an oversight capacity as opposed to doing all the work themselves.

In house, Trisler said they try to maintain a company-wide stress on innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. To wit, one-third of the employees (including top-level management and office workers) are company owners. Therefore, the employees are personally vested in the company’s success. Their eventual goal, he said, is to become a "West Coast firm."

It’s in the water

"Water will be the oil of the 21st century," said Derek McGregor, a senior associate geologist who recently came on board at GeoDesign. In other words, water will be the resource most sought after, in short supply and demanding a higher price.

McGregor, a ground water specialist, said that most drinking water comes from ground water, but that the quantity and quality of ground water is declining rapidly. In the Pacific Northwest, he said, there is a perception of "water everywhere." But with population growth, there is less water available per capita, and more contaminants getting into the water.

In his work for GeoDesign, McGregor helps developers find ways to improve water quality by controlling sediment and erosion during development, and managing storm water. Developers need recommendations about best management practices, such as covering mounds of dirt with vegetation, keeping a greenbelt between the construction site and any lakes or streams, using the correct type of screen around the site, and so on.

"These plans need to be completed way before the first shovel hits the ground," said McGregor.

Once containments get into the ground water, they are very hard (and expensive) to get out. In the last five years, said McGregor, water well consulting – especially well-head protection – has been a growing field. Municipalities, commercial sites, and residential developments all want to assess the potential impact on well water quality from activity in an area, and avoid bad areas for new well fields. This is achieved through a combination of sampling and modeling.

He was also excited about a new groundwater storage and reuse technique called Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR). Using "reversed" wells, municipalities pump extra water during wet seasons into the watershed (fractured rock or sandstone areas). Then, in dry periods, this water can be pumped out again, treated if needed, and used. Because ASR doesn’t use up massive amounts of land for reservoirs, it is very cost effective.

McGregor stressed that it isn’t only large commercial and industrial sites that contribute to groundwater contamination. He said that "non-point" contributions – those little sources that add up over time – are a big problem. Examples include the single pound of fertilizer that runs off from 100,000 homes, or the half-pint of oil that leaks from 200,000 cars.

The good news, said McGregor, is that Vancouver is "way ahead of the curve" with better groundwater management practices. His firm has often consulted with subdivision developers and golf courses to help reduce the use of pesticides (native plant species tend to require less bug protection), use grass types that require less water and other groundwater friendly techniques.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.