The American Society of Civil Engineers recently picked Dr. Donald A. Bruce to deliver the latest Karl Terzaghi Lecture. The honor recognizes an individual who has made considerable contributions to the field of geotechnical engineering.

Bruce is president of Geosystems, a specialty geotechnical construction firm based in Venetia, Pa., and Scotsdale, Ariz. He has contributed to more than 300 published papers on different aspects of drilling and grouting, micropiles, deep mixing and other foundations and geotechnical fundamentals. His most recent book, which he edited and contributed to, is titled “Specialty Construction Techniques for Dam and Levee Remediation.”

National Driller spoke with Bruce to get a preview of his Terzaghi Lecture and find out more about how this industry veteran thinks and works.

Q: In announcing you as the latest Karl Terzaghi lecturer, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) cited your “passion” for the geodesign industry. What do you think inspires that passion?

A: I think I love the technical challenges. But I also love, by far and away, the greater percentage of the people that I work with. In every country and different part of the industry, there are outstanding people who are just very skilled in their different areas of expertise. There are no gray people in our industry — very few, rather — and it’s a delight to meet and to work with so many interesting people in different parts of the world.

Q: ASCE also mentioned your “insight in shaping the way we solve practical problems” in the industry. Broadly speaking, can you talk about how you approach complex challenges?

A: I think one of the most important things is to have an understanding of the basics behind the problems, whether they be technical or technologically driven. I’ve been able to do that simply by keeping up with the industry and doing in-depth research into the history and evolution of different techniques. Then, how I approach a big challenge is simply to try to collect as much information as I can, to synthesize it as accurately as possible and to come up with a way ahead for my own work or a way ahead that other people can follow with perhaps different skill sets.

Q: You have a long and proven track record in the industry. Knowing what you do now, what advice would you give a young professional just starting in the foundations or geotechnical fields?

A: I would say regardless of which branch they were in that it’s absolutely essential that they find and use a good mentor. There are so many wonderful short courses available, so many sources of information. Companies have excellent career paths for their professionals. But there’s no question in my mind that the most valuable thing for a young engineer is to have a good mentor.

Q: What topics do you expect to cover in your Terzaghi Lecture?

A: The general subject is the evolution of specialty geotechnical construction processes. Without going into all the details, the thesis that I have is that the evolution of these techniques doesn’t occur gradually, but it occurs by well-defined leaps. I call this the “great leap” theory, and this is in distinction from the “great man” theory by Thomas Carlyle of the 1800s, where he said that history is simply the reading of the biographies of great men. I think the history of our geotechnical construction industry is, of course, littered with great men. But the main technological developments occur in response to one-off inventions or one-off project challenges.

Q: If you could have one idea or concept stick with people walking out of your talk, what would it be?

A: I think the concept would be that, although we have made tremendous strides in each of the four disciplines that I’m going to be talking about, it’s inevitable and it’s to be expected that such leaps should continue. I think it’s particularly important for our more mature engineers who may feel that their leap is the ultimate and final leap. But, in fact, I think it’s probably in all these cases just another step on the way, and that we should always keep our minds open to the next big leap in each technology.

Q: Are there any of these leaps that have perhaps surprised you or an innovation that you didn’t see coming?

A: I think one of the classic examples of that is the TRD (Trench Re-mixing and Deep wall) technology of deep mixing, which is used to create long, deep continuous walls in soil. We’ve had conventional deep mixing since the 1970s, but the arrival of TRD in the U.S. in 2005 has been quite revolutionary.

Another excellent example would be, of course, the development of the hydromill, which is a machine that’s used to create deep diaphragm walls in soil and rock. That was developed by our French colleagues back in the early ’70s and introduced into the United States in 1984 for major dam rehabilitation. That represented another tremendous leap forward for the industry.

Bearing in mind your magazine, I think a third significant advance, which I think is really important, is the commercial development of the Wassara water-powered down the hole hammer. It’s fabulous. It was introduced into the U.S. by the Canadian company ACT in 2001 and in most parts of the U.S. it has become the hard rock drilling method of choice, no question.

Q: Managing complexity is a major part of the function you serve for clients. Can you talk a bit about the tools, for example the software or hardware, you use to help stay on top of projects?

A: I tend to work best from the old-fashioned ways of having hard copies of drawings and reports and information of that nature. One problem that all consultants and boards of consultants have these days is that our clients will drop on us electronically huge amounts of data, which have not been presorted. It is sometimes not very effective. We spend days just plowing through the electronic data to find the fewer pieces of information that are really important. I tend to work best, as I say, in hard copy, and nothing makes me happier than just sitting in a room for days just plowing through boxes of information in order to try to get to basic understandings and root causes.

Q: Tell me about your most recent book.

A: That’s “Specialty Construction Techniques for Dam and Levee Remediation.” That is edited by myself and partly written by myself, but also with contributions from leaders of different technologies in the U.S. and also in Europe. The purpose of the book is just to illustrate by technology descriptions and detailed case histories how far we have progressed in major dam rehabilitation in the U.S. in the last 10 to 15 years. It’s more or less what in the old days we’d call a Polaroid snapshot of our industry and the considerable advances that have been made by a relatively small number of contractors. The book — it’s not intended to be self-congratulatory or boastful — but the purpose of the book is to help engineers both in North America and overseas to have comfort in the kind of works that have already been done so that they would feel confident about doing similar works of their own in the future.

Jeremy Verdusco is editor of  National Driller.