Osterberg Lecture Links Geotech Engineering, Quantum Physics
Drilling is a spectrum that ranges from the 2-inch backyard water well to drilled shafts dozens of inches in diameter that can support the world’s largest structures. John A. “Jack” Hayes, PE, D.I.C., is an expert in the latter. A founder and former president of Loadtest, Hayes is a widely recognized authority on Osterberg cell (O-cell) testing, a method of evaluating the integrity of piles.
Hayes’ expertise earned him the honor of delivering the Deep Foundations Institute’s 2018 Osterberg Memorial Lecture. The lecture bears the name of the inventor of the O-cell, Dr. Jorj O. Osterberg. Every year, the lecture is delivered by an industry veteran who, like Osterberg, has made valuable contributions to engineering design, testing or education in the field of deep foundations.
This year’s Osterberg Memorial Lecture was delivered in March at the International Foundations Congress and Equipment Expo (IFCEE), held in Orlando, Fla. The event was hosted by DFI, the ADSC (International Association of Foundation Drilling), ASCE Geo-Institute and PDCA (Pile Driving Contractors Association). We spoke to Hayes at the event, and our interview here has been edited for clarity and space.
Q. First off, tell me who you are and why readers should pay attention to what you have to say.
A. I’ve spent most of my career as a geotechnical engineering professional, first as a consultant, and lately as the founder and president of a company called Loadtest, which specializes in a technique for testing deep foundations. So, people who would like to hear what I have to say typically would be anyone who’s involved in deep foundation construction.
Q. You presented the 2018 Osterberg Lecture at this year’s IFCEE in Orlando. In a nutshell, what was the message of your lecture for those attending?
A. My message … was titled “Quantum Mechanics and Deep Foundation Design.” The connection with quantum mechanics is that these quantum physicists have come to the conclusion that one of the basic elements of the universe, what makes it tick, is a thing they call “information.” Their definition of information is anything that causes two particles or two entities, when they’re close enough to come into contact, to cause some sort of reaction. … Information is essentially everywhere. It’s essentially information that causes us to do things. I can’t think of anything that I’ve done today that didn’t start with some kind of information.
The information that we have to deal with is the information that a building load, through a foundation, is applying to the existing ground system. Those two inanimate entities are actually conversing — or at least there’s information being transferred from one to the other. Based on that information, things will happen. If we don’t have the right information, for example, instead of a building having no momentum, in fact it will keep moving, which is anathema to us foundations engineers. We want our buildings not to move.
Realizing that this concept of information is ubiquitous in the universe, it occurred to me that one of the problems that we have as geotechnical engineers is that we often have a hard time convincing others of the value of the information that we can provide. … Sometimes we endeavor to provide predictions of this kind of thing with certainty, but most of the time, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to whether our predictions are actually going to be valuable. We’ve tended to cover up what I call the uncertainty of ignorance. We’ve covered that up by using a factor that we incorrectly call a “factor of safety.” But a factor of safety is actually the inverse of a factor of uncertainty. The higher our uncertainty, the higher the factor of safety we apply to our design. So we’re not being honest with people when we say we’ve designed this with a factor of safety of three, because we’ve really designed it to a factor of uncertainty of three.
I think of your reaction — if you were my client — to knowing the factor of safety is really a factor of uncertainty. You’d say, “Well, wait a minute. You want me to invest a whole bunch of millions of dollars on this project, and you’ve got that high a factor of uncertainty? I think I better find someone that’s more certain.” In a sense, in the past, we’ve fooled people — including ourselves — that we’re designing safe foundations.
My point is that we’ve gotten into this uncertainty rut, and what we need to be doing is working toward certainty.
Q. How do you make the case for the value of the information you’re talking about to project planners and investors on these projects?
A. You have the 4-H Club. … Well, we need a 2-H Club. I think every designer should belong to the 2-H Club. Every designer worth his salt can easily do two hypothetical designs. One hypothetical is the standard approach with all the uncertainties, typical code values and so on. The other hypothetical is based on having certainty. I call the one the uncertain design and the other the certain design. I guarantee you that any designer that does that is going to find a huge difference in the cost of those two. That hypothetical analysis — it’s an armchair exercise — illustrates the funding that could or should be available to move from the uncertain design to the certain design.
Q. What’s the recipe for a successful load test? How much of it is design, and how much of it is execution out in the field?
A. In terms of uncertainties, it’s about 50/50. … There’s always going to be construction or manufacturing involved, but the information value needs to be split. I’d say, based on my experience in deep foundations, it’s about 50/50.
Q. You’ve been part of the deep foundations industry for decades. How have methods and technologies evolved or changed in that time?
A. They’ve changed rather dramatically, but not dramatically enough. It could be a lot better. My example of dramatically is that, when we first started Loadtest using the O-cell for testing deep foundation capacity, the maximum load that was applied to drilled shafts was about 1,000 tons. The capability of testing to more than 1,000 tons was really unavailable. Well, our technology has allowed us to get to the point where — since we got started, we’ve been setting all the world records — we’ve gradually gone from 3,000 to 10,000 to over 35,000 tons in one test. This is the capacity of one drilled shaft. It’s what an ocean liner weighs. So, we’re actually putting 35,000 tons on one of these drilled foundations. That’s been a huge advancement in the drilling of foundations field. But, we haven’t taken full advantage of it for reasons that I outlined in my talk today. We still design with all this uncertainty and don’t take advantage of the tools we have available for the information that we need.
… Drillers should stop thinking of themselves as drillers. They’re actually manufacturers and they need to adopt all of the techniques that manufacturers have adopted to produce a better product: lower waste, fewer defects and all that. The drilling industry should be looking at Sigma 5 for the processes they’re involved in. … more repeatable and reliable. Certainty is what we’re after.
Q. What advice do you give young engineers and others who are coming up in the foundations industry?
A. Get out of the uncertainty rut that plagues design and work harder to achieve certainty in your design and your predictions. A simple way to do that is to join what I call the 2-H Club. Design your two hypotheticals and convince people that it’s worth spending a lot of money getting the right information.
Q. We hear a lot in the U.S. about a lack of interest in STEM fields among young people. What can be done to generate more interest in science and technology fields for the next generation?
A. I think our education system is failing young people badly. It’s not producing illiterate young people … but it’s not producing young people who marvel at what’s going on in the world around us, who would marvel at the achievements of not only technical people but business people, and instilling in them the curiosity to be involved in the productive, technical side of the world we live in. Unfortunately, the current school system has emphasized the more emotional issues that have arisen. Instead of making young people better thinkers, they’re trying to make them better people. But better people in the academic world is a lot different from the more productive world we live in. …
The technical world we live in, and the information that is out there about that, is almost limitless. If our teachers aren’t inspiring young people to get that information, then I think they’re failing them. This whole idea of the pursuit of happiness — it’s the pursuit part. There can be no happier result for a human being than to live a highly productive life. Learning how to do that is what we need to accomplish.
Q. Are there any unknowns specific to load testing or foundations in general that you’d like to better understand?
A. The white whale out there is actually the indifference that exists [toward] what I think is an innate human thing, which is to strive to make things better. This comes down to quality of manufacturing, quality of construction. If people who can make a difference are indifferent to that idea, that concept, we’re never going to progress as fast as we should in terms of making this world a better place to live.