If asked to name the types of professional involved in the design and construction of any major development, most people would start by listing architects, civil engineers and surveyors. In doing so, they would be overlooking the role of geotechnical engineers whose efforts and expertise may not always get the attention they deserve, but are nevertheless crucial for virtually every construction project.
Essentially, geotechnical engineering is a discipline that deals with the forces of Mother Earth. Among other things, it relates to the installation of foundations to support superstructures, the positioning of retaining walls to counteract changes in elevation, tunnelling methods required to overcome mountainous topographies, and maintaining the stability of slopes.
"We analyse soil stability and rock slopes, as well as doing risk assessments of earthworks, foundations and deep excavations to make sure any development is safe and cost effective," says Yin Kek-kiong, associate director of Ove Arup & Partners. The ultimate goal is to advise clients how to get the best value from the site in question.
Unlike for structural and mechanical engineers, there are no hard and fast rules for geotechnical design. How the soil behaves will vary case by case, depending on the exact location and the prevailing conditions of the ground, says Dr Yin. As a result, it is necessary to apply a creative approach and to make engineering judgments derived from a detailed understanding of the soil and backed up by scientific measurements. Each project, no matter what size, presents a new set of problems and requires different solutions.
People should keep asking in order to learn
Dr Yin began his career in the geotechnical field 13 years ago when he joined Ove Arup as a graduate engineer after completing a PhD in the UK. Since then, he has been involved in numerous projects, including the design of rail stations and tunnels, viaducts for the MTR, and the Tsuen Wan station for the KCR's West Rail extension. The latter project provided a unique challenge, as it was a large site and required deep excavation work. "Besides, there was reclamation going on at the same time as construction," he adds.
As an associate director, Dr Yin now focuses more on training, management, business development and project reviews, while maintaining his involvement with day-to-day design work. He is currently overseeing geotechnical work for the final phase of development for Kowloon station, which includes Hong Kong's tallest building, a 480-metre 102-storey mega tower.
Every year, Ove Arup employs five to six graduate engineers. They must have a civil engineering degree, since local universities do not offer a specialist degree in geotechnical engineering, and be fluent in English and Cantonese. The ability to speak Putonghua is an advantage as is a generally questioning attitude. "People should keep asking in order to learn," says Dr Yin, adding that local students in general are too passive.
He explains that geotechnical work requires engineers who are imaginative and have the ability to resolve problems. "They should have the courage and confidence to face challenges and take risks," he says. This is in line with his own personal motto "If you can dream it, you can do it", which he has borrowed from Walt Disney.
All engineers must upgrade themselves continuously and keep pace with industry developments. Dr Yin notes the growing importance of multi-disciplinary knowledge and for geotechnical engineers to understand structural, mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as the key principles of architectural design.
Looking ahead, Dr Yin is positive about the long-term prospects in Hong Kong and is confident that new projects like the West Kowloon Cultural District will give the construction sector a timely boost.
"Even if there are fewer major building projects than before, we still have a lot of work to do in maintaining the safety of slopes," he says. There is also consistent demand for geotechnical assistance in checking and building basements. Dr Yin says that Hong Kong will need a small but steady supply of geotechnical engineers and hopes that the general public comes to have a clearer understanding of the profession.
In view of the potential size of the market, Dr Yin believes that mainland China will offer many attractive opportunities for geotechnical engineers. He says that the country's natural environment with its coastal areas, variable weather conditions and different types of soil provide many challenges for construction projects, and would allow engineers to gain extensive experience.
Currently design institutes and contractors in China may work alongside Hong Kong consultants and engineers for difficult projects or those with an international aspect. According to Dr Yin, these positions are, by necessity, for senior engineers and remuneration packages will be comparable to what is available in Hong Kong.