The Lifecycle of Geology in a Civil Engineering Project - Part 1

Do Civil Engineers need to know any geology? Find out in our latest blog series which walks you through the lifecycle of a project and just why geology is key:

Geology for Initial Planning and Scoping

Geology for Construction Materials

Geology for Foundation Design

Geohazard Identification

Impacts of Geology on Construction

Initial Planning and Scoping (Part 1)

The geological conditions of a site are a significant consideration for any development.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa provides a good example of why it is important to understand the geological conditions of your site (Madrid Engineering Group, 2021)

The geological conditions of the site were not fully understood until 2001, when the first serious stabilisation effort was completed. This was 828 years after construction began!

More details can be found here.

If only they had fully understood the geological conditions during the planning phase of the project.

Before planning and scoping out a project, it is important that all available geological information is used. This includes, reviewing:

  • Published geological maps. What types of soils and rocks are beneath the site? Are there any geological features, like faults, in the area?
  • Published topographical maps. Are there changes in slope angles, steep sided valleys, cliffs?
  • Hydrogeological and hydrological information. Is there surface water? How high is the ground water? Where might flood waters reach? What direction/s do waters flow in the area?
  • Aerial photography and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). To find out additional information about features (geomorphological) and geological boundaries.

Some geological features that are important to identify for civil projects include:

  • Soft alluvial (river) or organic soils beneath the site where large structures are proposed. This makes for difficult engineering solutions.
  • Highly expansive clay minerals. These are a great risk to roads, rail and other infrastructure as they cause significant movement (through heave and shrinkage).
  • Any other geological hazards on the site.
  • Construction materials suitable for the project. It is brilliant when some of the things you need are already on site.

Once you have checked for these potential issues (or benefits), solutions can be worked out. These can include:

  • Moving the locations of structures and infrastructure (we do NOT want that large building tilting like the Leaning Tower of Pisa!) or where we cannot move them, adjusting their design to suit the geology of the area.
  • Finding other sources for construction materials (if they do not already occur on site).

Project Example

The image below is of a published geology map for an area in the north of Western Australia. The area has been proposed for a large civil project. This map displays the surface geology that has been mapped in this area. The area includes:

  • Mangrove and marine muds.
  • Shelly sands in coastal dunes and beaches.
  • Silt and muds in supra and inter-tidal flats and lagoons.

Geology map of the proposed site (1:100,000 Geological Map published by the Geological Survey of Western Australia)

Once we start looking at topography and aerial images, further geological interpretations can be made. The image below highlights the presence of some potentially rocky ledges. These have been identified from changes in slope angles. These could cause problems if we are trying to place structures here or are planning to excavate.

Labelled aerial image (CMW Geosciences, using Digital Elevation Models (DEM) and ArcGIS feature classes including hillshade and slope angle)

Now we have looked at the data we have an idea of what is present (the geomorphological conditions):

Map marked with features for this area (CMW Geosciences, using Digital Elevation Models (DEM) and ArcGIS feature classes including hillshade and slope angle)

This information and the additional data we looked at give us a detailed appreciation of the ground conditions in the area. This allows adjustment of the design process to account for potential issues.

In the example above, the proposed layout of the development was changed to avoid the areas of potential mangrove muds (remember the problems of clay moving). Instead, they built on more stable geological areas (terrains).  If they had not gone through this planning phase properly, considering the geology, their project could have been a disaster.