John Wolosick has had a knack for designing and engineering since his high school days. The self-proclaimed “technical guy” initially dreamed of being an architect, but says he wasn’t as artistic as he was good with science and math. After deciding on civil engineering as his college major at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign, he was drawn to concentrate in geotechnical engineering by a professor who specialized in the trade. Now, more than 35 years later, he’s a leader in the industry. Wolosick, who’s been with Hayward Baker just short of two decades, directs engineering at the company’s Atlanta office. The specialist in slope stabilization, soil nailing, micropile foundations, grouting and support of excavation was has been appointed president of the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI), effective Jan. 1, 2015 through Dec. 31, 2016. He recently spoke with National Driller about his plans for the role, the state of the industry and what’s different about the geotechnical and deep foundations fields now compared to three decades ago.
Q. How does it feel to be elected president of the DFI?
A. It’s great. I knew it was coming for a long time because of the way DFI works. If you’re a trustee and you’re asked to be part of the executive committee, you progress from secretary, treasurer, vice president and then president. So you know for like six years that you’re going to be president. And you’re part of the executive committee where most of the decisions pass through. So I’m excited about it. I’ve been a member of DFI since 1987. I always liked the organization — what it stood for, what it did — so I’m really happy about it.
Q. What do you hope to bring to the role?
A. My initial concepts are to give an esprit de corps to the DFI board of trustees and the staff at headquarters. We distributed DFI polo shirts (sweaters for the ladies), t-shirts and baseball caps to the board and committee chairs a few weeks ago at our winter planning meeting in New Mexico. I think it gives everybody a sense of team when everyone’s wearing the same garb. I’d like everybody to head in the same direction. One of the ideas I’m concentrating on is getting back to our core competencies; technology sharing through educational events and publications. DFI’s expanded internationally over the last few years which has been a bit difficult and caused resources to be pulled from our efforts here in the U.S. Still, I’m gung-ho about expanding our mission through the international regional chapters of the DFI but I’m not as keen on putting up a bunch of new ones all over the world. I’d rather concentrate on what we’ve already established at this time and growing the existing chapters - DFI Europe, DFI of India, and DFI Middle East.. I’m going to try to concentrate on helping these along unless a great need or opportunity comes up in other regions.
Q. Considering your experience as a director for Hayward Baker and all of those past leadership roles on the DFI, how do you expect this role to differ?
A. Well, it’s a totally different assignment. There’s a lot of business end work that has to be done as far as strategic planning and audits and that type of thing; where you have to keep the business going in the same direction. While I was involved in that type of work earlier on with Hayward Baker, I’ve been more of a technical guy lately. So it’s kind of fun to get back into that role now because I have done it before I was with Hayward Baker and during the first five to ten with Hayward Baker. But really the heart of DFI is the technical committees. We have, I believe, about 20 technical committees or working groups and since I’m a technical guy I’m really excited about what our technical committees are up to. We have a committee project fund, which annually provides approximately $100,000 worth of research funds that we award to projects endorsed by our committees and that’s been going on for four years now. That’s a very exciting part of DFI through which we’re giving back to the membership and the industry — it’s going to be like $450,000 awarded in a four-year span to investigate research topics that our committees are interested in to help them with their work and their business.
Q. How has the DFI evolved since you kicked off your career?
A. It’s grown significantly. The DFI was founded, I think, in 1976 when I was still in college, and when I joined it was a much smaller organization, probably not much more than 500 or so. Now we’ve got like 3,600 members so it’s just a lot bigger. We have a lot more committees than we used, and we cover many more deep foundation technologies so it’s a much larger endeavor to keep it all going. The heart and soul of the DFI is our executive director, Theresa Engler. She’s been with DFI for 20 years now and she’s really the one who manages all aspects of the business and keeps it running in the right direction; keeps it going. She’s the real CEO while, as president, I’m the volunteer leader.
Q. What’s different about the industry as a whole compared to when you started?
A. I would say the biggest thing that I’ve seen is maybe more design-build work than design-bid-build. A lot of the contractors now have in-house engineering and are offering a design-build product, where that was very rare, at least in the United States, when I first got into the industry.
Q. During your time as a geotechnical engineering professional, you’ve dealt with a lot of complexity and problem solving. What applications stick out as some of the most difficult to work with and why?
A. Speaking generally I think the biggest changes have been changes in building codes for earthquake intensities. When I first started working in the industry you obviously had big earthquake design requirements in California and around Charleston, S.C., but now we’ve got the New Madrid zone that has gotten stronger and stronger earthquake requirements around the middle of the country and a recent earthquake in the Virginia/Maryland area. Year after year the building codes increase those earthquake intensities that you have to design for and they’re much, much larger than when I first started in the field.
Q. More broadly speaking, what are some of the biggest challenges the deep foundations and geotechnical industries are faced with today?
A. For the geotechnical industry, on the geotechnical consulting side, it’s definitely a commoditization of their efforts, where they’re asked to be low bidders on geotechnical investigations for sites and that’s just not right. The selections should be based on qualifications, not on low bids. So that industry has really been commoditized. In the geotechnical construction area for deep foundations, I would say the challenges are to use the new equipment that’s available. We have larger and better equipment available to us. It seems like they come up with something new every year that’s more fantastic and can install deep foundations for lower costs to owners, so that’s something to keep up with, the equipment side of things, and the innovation going on in the equipment arena.
Q. How does demand for geotechnical and deep foundations expertise today compare to 30 years ago?
A. It’s very busy. Everybody that I talk to is working at or near capacity. It boils down to the fact that all the good sites are gone — they’ve already been built on, so the sites for construction that were skipped over in the past due to expensive foundation options are the only ones left. It’s really true. That’s a saying in our industry is, “All good sites are gone.” A lot of deep foundations are being used. We’re all very busy.
Q. What do you like most about what you do?
A. I like working with young people; I like doing mentoring inside our company. We have a lot of really bright young people. I enjoy variety in projects. I work on a wide variety of projects in a wide variety of locations, so I rarely do the same thing two days in a row. That’s something I really enjoy. I used to like traveling, but I don’t anymore. I’m kind of tired of it. All of the airplanes are full to the brim and schedules are tough. I’ve been everywhere once almost, so I’m not as excited about the travel as I used to be.
Q. What technology and/or methods available stick out as the most useful and exciting?
A. I would have to say micropiles are really the thing that I get most excited about and seeing them used more and more for a wider variety of projects and their use going from a miniscule amount in the 1980s to being a mainstream deep foundations type currently. It’s really what I get excited about because I was involved during the early stages of micropile development and use, so now to see everybody using them, it’s great.
Q. In what areas of the industry would you like to see advancements made?
A. I think some of the areas that are going to see the greatest advancement are deep soil mixing, maybe diaphragm wall use. I would say those are the areas that stick out to me the most.
Q. Are there any big unknowns regarding your geotechnical specialties you personally would like to better understand?
A. I think we rarely get enough soils data to really hone in our design work. There’s a lot of experiential estimates, or guessing, that occurs. Owners see soil testing and exploration as a cost, but really, for every dime they’d spend they’d save 25 cents. So it’s a shame they don’t do more soil testing because we really need it. Actually DFI just formed a subsurface characterization committee for this very reason.
Q. If someone would have told the 30-year younger you that you’d have accomplished all that you have with geotechnics, how would he react? Did you see yourself here early on in your career?
A. I would say yes and no. I thought that I would progress through the industry because I liked what I was doing and when you like it, it makes it easier to come to work every day. I guess I’m about where I thought I would be. The one thing I didn’t foresee was opening a new branch for a company, for Hayward Baker in Atlanta 18 years ago and that it would become a successful operation with 180 employees. That’s really gratifying to see. That’s probably the one thing I didn’t see. I went to a good school, I got a good education, I worked hard when I was in school and I liked what I was doing, so it kind of went along the lines that I expected. But on the business side of opening a new branch and having it flourish; that was something I didn’t see.
Q. What advice would you give that younger version of yourself, knowing what you know now?
A. I don’t know if I’d change anything. I kind of like the way it all came down. I had a lot of good breaks, I had some really excellent mentors through the years and great people that I can’t imagine could have done any better mentoring. I think I did the right thing. The one change I did make, which was really good, was I left consulting engineering after about eight years and went into contracting instead. It’s certainly, in my mind, a lot more exciting that consulting was. There’s just a lot of excitement on this side of the business with really getting to build the things that you propose on and design, and you actually get to go out there and build them. So that change was the big change in my career — it really worked out.
Valerie King is associate editor of National Driller.