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Subsurface Utility Engineering enhanced through collaboration

The below article was first appeared in Consult Australia‘s official quarterly publication, Consulting Matters; first published 18 April 2019.

The process of managing subsurface utilities can only be a success in Australia (and quite frankly, most places in the world) with collaboration by all stakeholders. These stakeholders include a long list of project owners, developers, project managers, State and local authorities, public utility authorities, design engineers, surveyors, locaters and last (but no means least) the constructor on the ground. The contention of this article is that the correct practice of Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) is very much dependent on successful collaboration amongst all stakeholders.

National engineering consultancy firm Wood & Grieve Engineers, now part of Stantec (WGE) has been working with Standards Australia and Engineers Australia to improve our country’s generally poorly regulated approach to managing underground utilities. The new approach looks to focus on solutions implemented during the engineering design process rather than waiting until construction occurs, as is current practice.

The Standards Australia committee has recently completed the upgrade of AS5488 which will now include a new Part 2 that focuses on the management of of subsurface utilities and is expected to be available in /Australia (via SAI Global) in March 2019. This committee has been chaired by former Queensland Department of Main Roads Director General Bruce Wilson. Bruce himself is an outstanding advocate for collaboration and has been throughout his long and distinguished career.

SUE refers to an engineering management process that involves engineering, geophysics and geospatial disciplines and technologies to manage certain risks associated with utility mapping at appropriate quality levels, utility coordination, utility relocation design and coordination, utility condition assessment, communication of Subsurface Utility Information (SUI) utility data to concerned parties, utility relocation cost estimates, implementation of utility accommodation policies, and utility designs.

So in review of this definition of SUE, it is evident that this process can only be successful with good collaboration. There are so many intricacies and nuances associated with developing a project in consideration of what utilities may be affected and if so how to design around, protect or relocate them. Anyone who has worked within arm’s length of subsurface utilities will recall negative outcomes and on review will most likely agree that with better collaboration, ‘things might have ended better’.

Fives countries have SUE standards in place – the USA, Canada, UK, Malaysia and Ecuador.

Specifically with regards to Canada and again on the collaboration front, WGE are in a final due diligence phase of a merger with Stantec*. The concepts of mergers are by no means foreign to the engineering industry both within Australia and abroad. WGE’s National Underground Utility Manager Rob Sansbury says, “The collaboration that we have enjoyed with Stantec to date, across numerous aspects of our business, has been truly enlightening and most rewarding.”

Canada has a subsurface utility standard known as CSA 250, and Sansbury has picked up close collaboration with Canadian counterparts of his within Stantec, to further align approaches to the management of subsurface utilities. “We have much to learn from such a large organisation that has been managing subsurface utility designs across enormous projects for a number of years.”

WGE in collaboration with Engineers Australia, Consult Australia and Open Learning has created an online training course to lift the understanding and importance of subsurface utility engineering across the country. In short, the intent of the online training material is to inform all participants that SUE should be recognised as a specialist area of engineering and through strong collaboration the new AS5488 will better serve the industry and all utility stakeholders.

The online course is not expensive at $285, takes on eight hours to complete and gives a strong overview of SUE as well as some detail about what the upgraded AS5488 is aiming to achieve. Course attendees are able to directly input what they think subsurface utility management should include, which is a first of its kind. In addition, the online training method could equally be viewed as a collaborative opportunity for participants and engage directly through the platform with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Check on the online course here.

Sansbury further notes that. “A key factor in the success of the upgraded AS5488 will be if it is released to an informed marketplace. The current AS5488 has not been well adopted, primarily as a result of ineffective collaboration within the marketplace and we realise that, in parallel with upgrading AS5488 we needed to create a training course that was accessible to all to permit collaboration toward an improved environment within which to manage subsurface utilities.”

*Editor’s note: Following the successful completion of due diligence, award-winning firm WGE has now begun the job of integrating its business into global consulting firm Stantec.