Q&A with Alex Dent

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Full Name: Alex Dent
Job Title: Associate Director
Company: WSP UK Ltd

I have 25years experience in ground engineering, covering a wide variety of ground conditions, market sectors, geotechnical structures and deliverables. I have worked on UK and international projects. I have extensive experience in the design of foundations, basements and earthworks and in the assessment of ground movements and slopes. I am WSP’s Geotechncial Net 0 lead and mentor a number of junior team members on their route to chartership. I believe that the best way to deliver cost effective ‘joined up’ design solutions is through close collaboration with our structural, civil engineering and geo-environmental colleagues.

What or who inspired you to join the geotechnical industry?

Desperation! I graduated from a B.Sc in Geology and Geophysics (University of Durham) in the mid 90s recession and jobs in the oil and gas sector were hard to come by. Out of desperation I researched other geological opportunities and Engineering Geology came up as an option. It sounded like and interesting technical challenge involving geology, physics and maths. I also liked the idea of an industry that that provides direct benefit to society.

What does a typical day entail?

There is no such thing a typical day! But broadly speaking this week; Providing technical advice for the ground investigation on part of HS2, reviewing settlement monitoring data on another project, resolving contactor queries on a slope stabilisation project, line management duties, progressing WSPs Net 0 priorities and duties as an AGS Committee member.

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

Geotechnical design for the award winning Proton Beam Therapy Centre for UCL Hospitals – at 24m, then London’s deepest basement with nearby tube tunnels, Thames Water assets and surrounding buildings all requiring consideration.

Freetown, Sierra Leone. A lovely locally based client team and a project with great vision and the potential to raise people out of poverty.

What are the most challenging aspects of your role?

Clients, or perhaps more correctly, their Project Managers and QSs, nearly all mistaking cost for value. Clients should be educated to ‘invest’ in ground investigation and ‘invest’ in design – this could pay substantial dividends over the project lifecycle. But no: they would sooner quibble over a handful boreholes or ‘brow beat’ over design fees etc.

The industry wide lack of qualified and suitably experienced engineers/geologist, with resultant resourcing issues is a challenge. This challenge is only going to get harder if the numbers taking up geology degrees continues to decrease.

The theories behind our designs assume that soils are homogenous and isotropic. They aren’t. We only sample (let alone test) as small fraction of the ground we are modelling. There also a number of factors that may influence a given soil parameter, e.g. strain magnitude. Modelling of the ground is therefore a perpetual joy and challenge.

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

I am the leader of the AGS Geotechnical Working Group (GWG). My focus is to ensure that our meetings are stimulating and provide tangible results for the benefit of the AGS membership. The GWG are looking at a number of matters relation to Net 0 in geotechnical design, the next generation of Eurocodes and a number of other interesting topics.

What do you enjoy most about being an AGS Member?

Sharing knowledge.

What do you find beneficial about being an AGS Member?

A sense of community; we are all in this together. We are facing the same challenges and generating guidance to benefit of each other.

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

It provides some great resources which are really helpful for briefing and guiding more junior team members. It helps ensure that the quality of work produced by its members is of a suitable standard, and hence drives up standards for the industry as a whole. Through the Ground Forum, its gives us a collective voice.

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

A change in Client’s/QS’s/Project Manager’s attitude to geotechnical engineering – Geotechnical engineering is not a bolt on to a Geoenvironmental investigation required to discharge a planning application. When we write a report it is meant to be read, understood and its advice considered – not ‘ticked’ as done and then filed.

A chance to be ‘on the top table’ and present the findings of our reports and our design solutions directly to clients. This might help them better understand the issues that their projects face, the key role we play in helping them manage their risks, the value geotechnical engineers can bring to a project and ultimately help them to ‘invest’ in what we do.

Some better quality logging (and checking of logs prior to issue) would be nice too – how is it 25years in and I still see logs with ‘stiff SAND’, ‘dense CLAY’, ‘very sandy very gravelly CLAY/SILT with many cobbles and boulders’ and the like in factual reports?