General considerations in selecting
a geotechnical consultant

Engineering Geologist or Geotechnical Engineer?

An engineering geologist is an earth scientist who has specialized in the application of geologic principles to civil works. A geotechnical engineer is a civil engineer who has specialized in the design and construction aspects of earth materials. Both professions share many of the same knowledge, skills and abilities. Each field, however, has particular strengths. Engineering geologists typically have greater skills in characterization of geologic conditions and processes, and in evaluation of how processes will be affected or will affect a specific development activity. Geotechnical engineers will typically have greater skill in development of site-specific geotechnical design recommendations and criteria.

Many geotechnical problems involving site conditions, slope stability and other common issues can be addressed by either an engineering geologist or a geotechnical engineer. Some municipalities specifically require one or the other (or both) if the work is to be used in applying for certain permits. In selecting a consultant to advise you on a geotechnical matter, the experience and expertise of the consultant is more important than their label. In general, if the main issue is engineering, retain an engineer. And if the main issue is geology or geologic hazards, retain a geologist. If either professional identifies the need for input from the other (for either technical or regulatory reasons) your consultant can advise you of that need and obtain the required input.

Must be licensed in State of Washington.

Whether a geologist or an engineer, anyone practicing in these fields within the State of Washington must be licensed to practice in the State of Washington. The licensing acts for both professions have specific educational and experience requirements, and therefore provide some assurance to the public that the consultant meets certain professional standards. In the case of geologists, specialty certification as an engineering geologist is required for geologists whose practice is predominately in that field. In the case of engineers, no similar specialty certification (such as a geotechnical engineer or geological engineer) is identified in this state. In either case, the qualifications of the consultant should be evaluated based on their experience and not solely on their license.

Ask about local experience.

Geologic principles are the same everywhere, and many geologic materials and processes are also nearly as widespread. However, enough differences occur in the characteristics of geologic materials and processes that it is important for the professional geologist or engineer to have substantial experience in the same region (the Puget Sound area, for instance) as the project or property you are considering.

Ask about experience with similar types of projects.

Experience with site development and related issues, such as potential or actual landslides, is very different from experience in other areas, such as mineral or water resources development. It is important that the professional geologist or engineer have experience with the types of issues involved in the project or property under consideration.

Ask about educational background.

Though the State licensing requirements establish minimum educational qualifications, some types of problems are more complex than others and may be better addressed by those with specific training, such as postgraduate education or professional development seminars and workshops. Ask about the consultant's educational background and training relative to the type of services being requested.

Who will really do the work?

Sometimes more than one person within a company will provide services relative to a project or property. If so, it is useful in selecting a consultant to know who will actually be performing the fieldwork, analysis and report writing. And who will be available to attend meetings, hearings, or other proceedings if necessary.

What about reputation and references?

Commonly, geotechnical consultants are selected based on referrals from others who have retained them in the past. Such referrals are generally a very good basis for consultant selection, particularly if the prior services were similar to those being sought. If you have friends, acquaintances or neighbors who have retained geotechnical consultants in the past, you should ask them about their experiences. If you have narrowed your choice to one or two consultants, it is also reasonable to ask the consultant for references. However, because it is an imposition on the previous clients to request such references, it isn't encouraged for every project.

Ask about scope, schedule and fees.

When you first contact a prospective consultant, discuss the project or property in sufficient detail that the consultant has an adequate basis for developing an appropriate scope of services. For small projects or property evaluations this can often be accomplished over the phone, but for larger projects a meeting (preferably at the site) is advised. If the latter, you should expect to pay the consultant for the time involved in the site meeting and scope development. The consultant's fee will be based on the agreed upon scope of services, so if you are comparing fee estimates from different consultants you must also compare the different scopes of services proposed. Sometimes time is of the essense, and so you should get a clear statement of the amount time required for completion of the consultant's services. The scope, schedule and estimated fee should be documented in a written proposal or services agreement. Although obviously important, you should not base your selection primarily on the fee estimate. The fees of the geotechnical consultant are typically a very small part of the total project or property cost, and it's more important to select the right consultant for the project than to try to save a few dollars.

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