Sustainability in Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical sustainability framework

Geotechnical sustainability framework

As the authors of the above-titled report note, the ecosystem and the built environment are inextricably linked, and understanding the interdependence of the two is the key to sustainability in geotechnical engineering, and all civil engineering. Although I am curious how they came to this conclusion, they state that geotechnical engineering is "the most resource intensive of all the civil engineering disciplines." Assuming they are correct, this is a sobering thought for all of us as designers.

Aditi Misra and Dipanjan Basu of the University of Connecticut Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have published this report where they review the philosophies and definitions of sustainability an interpret them in the context of geotechnical engineering. That in and of itself would be useful to practitioners in this day and age of environmental stewardship, but they also propose a "sustainability assessment framework" that can be adopted for geotechnical engineering projects during the planning and design stages of geotechnical projects.

This quantitative framework combines life cycle assessment, environmental impact assessment and cost benefit analysis, and can be used to assess the relative sustainability of different design choices in geotechnical engineering.

 We as geotechnical engineers and engineering geologists are used to evaluating alternatives on the basis of safety, constructability and economy. But I believe the time is coming where you will see the sustainability criteria added to this list on a more routine basis. This document is not for the faint of heart, and not something that one can implement without some serious thought and effort. I anticipate there will be much more published on this topic in the coming years. I can almost see sustainability becoming a specialized sub-discipline within our industry. But this report excites me because everyone loves the idea of sustainability on their projects, but this framework gives people a starting point for how you could go about implementing it. [Source: University of Connecticut. Image: UCONN Digital Commons]


  1. I congratulate the authors for propagating a wonderful idea and philosophy that can reduce (i) development and environmental conflicts, (ii) provide need to think for better technological-resource utilisation options. thnks.

  2. I have downloaded and plan to read the article; however, I feel that the practice of civil engineering in general, and geotechnical engineering in particular, are already “sustainable” in practice. Our clients and project owners want cost-effective solutions. By being appropriately conservative, or using unique solutions that reduce materials, impacts, etc,. we are being sustainable – using less resources. Look at the service life being demanded for major bridge projects – 100 years is very common. Isn’t this by definition “sustainable” when we are purposely designing a structure to last 100 years before needing to be replaced (we hope!)?

    I feel that “sustainability” has become a buzzword like “green”, something that becomes a check box on a list to evaluate projects, and less something that is meaningful to how we practice engineering. We start looking for the smallest things to count as being “sustainable” or “green” to score points that in the end do not necessarily provide a better facility for the end-user.

    Maybe after I read the report I’ll think differently. I’ll try to remember to come back and let you know!

  3. Hey Robert. You raise some excellent points, particularly the trendy nature of words like “green” and “sustainable”. I’m not sure I would disagree with you, but I do think that we owe it to our kids to try to force ourselves to think along those lines. Who knows, maybe with more work like the report discussed here, the practice of geotechnical engineering will change over time in ways that really do give substance to those words.

  4. It is just by chance that I came upon these posts while browsing the web. I am one of the authors of the report. The idea behind writing the article was to integrate what we found out in the last few months of research on sustainability and its connection to geotechnical engineering. This is largely a review article with some thoughts into how realistically sustainability can be integrated to our profession.

    The research started out of mere curiosity as to whether the buzz word “sustainability” has any meaning for us, the geotechnical engineers. I agree with Robert that many things we do are already sustainable. In fact, you will come across nontrivial number of research articles published in the recent past in the geotechnical engineering discipline where the author(s) claimed that they contributed to sustainability. We found in these articles that the use of the word sustainability is rather vague and very qualitative. The question that came naturally to us was, as engineers, can we have something more tangible – something more quantifiable. Can we say whether a choice is more sustainable than another and whether such a sustainable choice makes any difference in the global scheme of things. Clearly, these are questions we have not found answer to. This article just proposes a way towards those answers. By no means the proposed methodology is complete or perfect, rather a starting point which should evolve as the profession becomes more aware of the different issues related to sustainability.

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