Q&A with Jim Cook

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Full Name: Eur Ing Jim Cook BSc, MSc, C Eng, C Geol, FICE, FGS

Job Title: Director

Company: Geotechnical Services Bureau Ltd

I am a both a chartered civil engineer and a chartered geologist and have worked in the geotechnical industry for over forty years both as a specialist contractor and a geotechnical consultant. I am experienced in most of the facets of geotechnical engineering including site investigation, foundation construction and geotechnical design for many different types of structures and buildings. I have substantial overseas experience particularly the Gulf States, West and East Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. In recent years, I have been involved in major geotechnical design and construction assignments in USA and the Caribbean.

What or who inspired you to join the geotechnical industry?

I was initially indentured as a civil engineer with a local authority in London and undertook part time education at Westminster College. After a couple of years, I joined a major civil engineering contractor, Costain, and was immediately seconded to their geotechnical company, Foundation Engineering Ltd, who undertook most forms of geotechnical engineering including site investigation, foundation construction and geotechnical design. It was with this company that I was trained in all aspects of geotechnical construction and foundation design.

What inspired me into geotechnics initially  was the lifestyle of a young engineer travelling all over the UK and working on different sites. My recollection of a structural engineering lecturer stating that “he could design a concrete and steel structure to perform as required as both had man-made  stiffnesses but a geotechnical engineer who has to deal with the ground which has no guaranteed stiffness or behaviour has major issues”. This wetted my appetite for the challenges of ground engineering.

As a young geotechnical engineer I was given responsibility to manage teams of drillers, grouters, anchorers and pilers on site and learn the “how to do” of the geotechnical contracting industry. It is from these experiences that I owe my wealth of foundation construction knowledge.

I was fortunate to work with and be guided by some of the “leading lights” in the ground engineering industry such as John Jennings, Stanley Serota and in particular Roy Wakeling.

With regards to academics, I clearly remember meeting Professor A W Bishop to find out how the Bishop Sand Sampler worked. Professor P Fookes also inadvertently raised my keen interest in geology. Professor Noel Simons of Surrey University was my key mentor who helped to further develop and enhance my geotechnical design expertise to match that of geotechnical construction, this is how I became an all-round geotechnical engineer.

What does a typical day entail?

A typical day nowadays starts with reviewing overnight emails and dealing with one or some of the following matters which may require desk studies, site visits and collaborative meetings.

  • Litigation type matters. Sometimes these can between a specialist contractor and a main contractor or an owner and contractor but all involve some aspect of ground engineering.
  • Design and Peer reviews for other consulting engineers or contractors.
  • Optioneering reviews to develop the best foundation solution at concept stage and taking this through to construction.
  • Training of young civil engineers, particularly in the areas of geotechnical and geological risk.
  • Undertaking “pro-bono” work for RoGEP, AGS or Ground Forum.

Are there any projects which you’re particularly proud to have been a part of?

I am particularly proud of returning to my “roots” in London, I was involved in the Thames Barrier as a young geotechnical engineer some 40 years ago and since then have worked as a geotechnical engineer in over 30 countries on many significant projects. But I was extremely pleased to lead the Buro Happold ground engineering team that worked on the Lower Lea Valley proposal for the UK Olympic bid which then won and became the 2012 London Olympics.

In addition, I was involved at a senior level on the Arsenal Stadium, London Olympic Stadium, the refurbishment of The Cutty Sark and Emirates Cable Car which crosses the River Thames at the O2. These all posed tricky geotechnical issues which required some form of innovation. I consider that I have put something positive back into my “roots”.

Overseas I am quite proud of the basement structure which was about 18m deep with a footprint of approximately 22,500 square meters which was designed and constructed for Harvard University in Boston USA. This was arguably the largest single basement structure to be constructed on the East Coast of the USA. The ground conditions comprised Boston Blue Clay over gravel then rock close to the Charles River which, presented major challenges that were met by using European sophisticated ground investigation techniques and high quality laboratory testing provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

What are the most challenging aspects of your role?

The challenges of today are quite modest compared to managing a multi-million pound geotechnical consultancy or geotechnical contracting company both of which I have been fortunate to manage. The challenges were and probably still are getting young people interested into geotechnical engineering, finding well educated graduates and training them to become innovative ground engineers.

What AGS Working Group(s) are you a Member of and what are your current focuses?

I am a member of the Senate and focus on membership issues.

I have been a long serving Treasurer and also Chairman of the AGS and was instrumental in the conception of the AGS and have over 20 years of active participation.

What do you enjoy most about being an AGS Member?

I suppose what I enjoy is the comradery which its membership provides and more so the fact that the ethos is all about raising the profile and standards in ground engineering in the UK.

What do you find beneficial about being an AGS Member?

The benefits are not only the wealth of publications that are produced which are extremely informative, and also provide sound risk advice. There is also inputting into a collaborative view on where the industry is going.

Why do you feel the AGS is important to the industry?

The AGS is now probably the major voice of the ground engineering industry and punches above its weight with clients and local authorities. It provides regular support to those business institutions such as BSi, HSE and other government agencies.

What changes would you like to see implemented in the geotechnical industry?

I would like to see more collaborative efforts from industry, academics, institutions, local authorities and government departments. Some of these organisations are still somewhat disconnected. Ground Forum continues to develop the above linkages, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

There are still many so called “engineers” offering clients ground engineering services outside of their skill and experience base.

I would like to see all ground engineering practioners becoming RoGEP registered as this will raise them to a higher level of recognition and enhance the clients’ ability to select a competent and suitably experienced ground engineer for their project.