DFI: Making a Difference

Theresa Engler, Executive Director, Deep Foundations Institute
Theresa Engler, Executive Director, Deep Foundations Institute, explains that the DFI chapter in India will encourage geotechnical investigation, educate owners to implement adequate subsurface exploration, and undertake construction observation monitoring. It has also set up a skill training program for soil investigation lab technicians and field supervisors in collaboration with the National Academy of Construction.

You have been associated with the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI) for more than 25 years; how is DFI serving the industry and addressing the issues in the sector?
DFI has always served the industry by providing a forum for all persons and companies involved in the design and construction of deep foundations to discuss, debate, and come to a consensus on topical matters affecting the industry.

DFI has and is still bringing educational and unbiased information on all deep foundation technologies and their applications to the forefront; thus explaining to constructors, designers, and owners, the benefits and limitations of each foundation system and where it is best applied. These forums are in the form of technical committees, conferences, seminars, webinars and courses, and which result in technical guidance documents, white papers, manuals, panel discussions, question and answer sessions, etc.

Each individual that participates does so at an equal level. We are not advocating for contractors or engineers or owners; we want everyone’s input to be considered equally and that includes professors, material and equipment manufacturers and suppliers as well as students. Most recently, DFI is involved in ensuring that projects are sustainable, resilient, safe and economic, while evaluating and managing risks.

What does working with DFI – a non-profit association, mean to you? What influenced you to work with this specialty?
I didn’t exactly choose to work within the niche of deep foundations and underground design and construction. It found me! I was working for the wife of a DFI member in a completely different industry as a marketing analyst when the opportunity presented itself to work for a timber piling council he managed while he was chair of DFI’s driven pile committee. Through that work I was asked to work directly for DFI and the rest is history.

Why I have continued to remain in this specialty industry is my love for how these geo-professionals work in uncertain conditions and seek out the best solutions to create safe foundations for the world’s infrastructure. Their passion fuels mine and the fact that they find time in their busy careers to support our industry association and volunteer to create publications and events that advance the industry’s practices, is inspiring.

How has your experience been working in a male-dominated civil construction industry?
I believe I have been quite fortunate to have had little discrimination as a woman in this field; though I will admit that I felt the need to work harder and longer hours to prove myself when first being placed in the role of executive director. I have had instances of feeling more like a secretary than a leader and visionary and am proud that I now feel respected and looked to for direction and ideas. It’s hard to tell if that was due to my gender or my inexperience with the overall geotechnical industry.

I did have times when I was inappropriately addressed by event attendees and was grateful to have board members and other mentors in my life who assisted my navigation of those few instances. I see the industry making great strides in being more inclusive and embracing diversity to improve the way they manage projects and find new solutions because all types of people come at things from different perspectives.

DFI: Making a Difference

Is DFI encouraging and bringing more women to work in the field of construction?
I believe DFI’s Women in Deep Foundations committee has been instrumental in not only bringing difficult subjects of discrimination to the forefront as part of our discussion forum, but it has also empowered women and other minority members already in the industry to feel comfortable speaking up for what is right, be it salary adjustments, more challenging work, recognition of their professional contributions, or permission/invitation to attend or speak at conferences.

Having the committee as a resource has brought many more women from DFI’s corporate member companies to get involved and gain leadership roles as trustees, committee chairs, and keynote speakers, and encouraged them to stay in the industry. It has also served as a “welcoming committee” to female students and young professionals.

The committee is comprised of both men and women, which is extremely important. Having men to hear the challenges women are facing helps them understand and bring about positive changes in the company’s culture.

Despite not being from a civil engineering background, you have won many accolades in this industry including being unanimously elected to The Moles, a prestigious organization of the heavy construction industry. How challenging was it to work in a completely new field and what achievements are you most proud of?
Thank you for the kind words. Being elected to The Moles was a great honour and I’m proud to count myself as an industry professional who is making a difference. From day one when I agreed to become executive director of the organization, I knew I did not need engineering expertise or industry knowledge to lead this organization. I needed to listen to the industry experts who make up our membership and provide them with valuable platforms to work together and advance their careers, which, in turn, advances the overall deep foundation construction industry.

My role is to ensure the integrity of our programs is maintained, our policies upheld, and our missions fulfilled. It is also to ensure inclusivity from all personnel involved in a deep foundation/underground construction project, be they male or female, engineer or technician, salesperson or rig operator. Each one has something to contribute to the conversation. I am dedicated and I work hard because our member volunteers do the same.

As mentioned, I am very proud of our Women in Deep Foundations Committee. I am also proud of our contributions to industry safety through our involvement in several Working Platforms working groups. Two other areas where I believe DFI has made great strides is our Educational Trust Scholarship Fund and our Committee Project Fund. Each one has provided around $1.5 million dollars to advance our industry. The first by assisting students in pursuing their career dreams and the other by empowering our committee members to determine what research is needed to improve their everyday practice in the field and produce valuable resources.

How do you see the key challenges and issues of geotechnics engineering & deep foundation construction from the global market perspective?
The main challenge I see is having qualified laborers, design professionals, and technicians to handle the growing infrastructure needs, be they new infrastructure in developing countries or repair of old infrastructure in places like the US and Europe. We need people to continue to study in the field of civil engineering as well as be willing to take on the important role of field workers, lab technicians, and machinery mechanics.

The other challenge is quality control from beginning to end of the project. That includes more geotechnical investigation/subsurface characterization before a project is begun so that enough information is gathered to make the right design decision where the engineer can find the most economical, sustainable solution. Then, during the project, the need for quality in the construction methods and safety of the personnel, plus instrumentation of the foundations so monitoring can occur after the project is complete.

One of DFI’s programs is called ITS Money (Increased Testing Saves Money) and it’s been a great public service message for owners and owner representatives.

What is your view of the Indian market in terms of awareness of geotechnical investigation, challenges in design and construction of pile foundation (in non-liquefiable and liquefiable soil), adoption of innovative technologies and right practices for Quality Control/Quality Assurance of deep foundation testing?
All markets can benefit from more geotechnical investigation and for that reason our chapter in India, DFI of India, formed a committee, the Geotechnical Characterization for Foundations committee in 2018. Their goals are to educate the owners to implement adequate subsurface exploration and include adequate construction observation monitoring. They also developed a skill training program for soil investigation lab technicians and field supervisors, which will be implemented in collaboration with the National Academy of Construction (NAC).

Additionally, the chapter is introducing new technology for the region. One example is the Continuous Flight Auger (CFA) Pile Technology Implementation Program. A successful CFA pile installation and testing demonstration was conducted in 2018/2019 to show the viability for use of this technology in India and potential cost and time savings if used in the correct soil conditions. They are also introducing Helical Pile Technology via presentations at their annual conferences.

What positive impact do the forums organized by DFI have on civil construction methodologies and on geotechnical & deep foundation technologies?
Our impact has always been bringing all disciplines together to learn from each other and communicate so that a project can be completed with everyone who is involved talking from the outset and adjusting as needed to unexpected conditions. Without early and clear communication, project owners and their representatives as well as the design engineer, constructor, and material/equipment suppliers cannot provide solutions and innovative techniques and tools to solve the problems that soil conditions may present.

If a member has an initiative that he/she wants to vet with other like-minded professionals, DFI will create the committee or hold a panel discussion so the discussions can ensue and practical deliverables and resources can be produced and shared globally with other industry professionals.

DFI: Making a Difference

How effective is the outcome of the discussions on industry’s concerns and issues during the DFI events, and in presenting them to the government’s policymakers and other industry leaders for consideration and implementation?
Here, in the United States, we are collaborating with the Federal Highway Administration, State Departments of Transportation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Transportation Research Board and other government agencies. We have also provided workshops when requested for agencies in Canada, such as the City of Toronto on groundwater management and in India with Chennai Metro Rail Limited on soil investigation. We are there to serve the industry as possible when requested by enlisting our members with the appropriate industry expertise.

What is your vision for the future of DFI?
I see DFI continuing to be a leader on all topics in the deep foundation and underground construction realm, providing valuable resources and a broader global forum where, with the help of increasing digital means, we can gather professionals more readily from across the globe to solve the problems that present themselves.

We are looking towards more training programs for young professionals and ways to connect students with the professionals through mentoring and internship programs so that our member firms can find the future employees they so desperately need to continue to support the world’s infrastructure in a sustainable, resilient, quality-focused and safe way.
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