Subsurface sustainability

March 2013 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

Within the last few decades, subsurface utility engineering (SUE) has become a discipline in its own right and a niche for some civil engineering firms. For example, check out Cardno TBE's website at, or KCI's web page at According to the Federal Highway Administration, "The SUE process combines civil engineering, surveying, and geophysics... Its use has become a routine requirement on highway projects in many states" (

But it seems that too often, SUE is perceived and utilized more as a scouting activity – discovering what's "in the way" of a current project – than as a tool to more effectively use underground space for multiple, long-term applications. A recent report from the National Research Council (NRC), "Underground Engineering for Sustainable Urban Development" (available at, makes the case that "sustainable urban development is dependent on coordinating and managing underground infrastructure – such as utilities, transportation networks, and building foundations – as part of an integrated, above- and below-ground system." The authors state: "For thousands of years, the underground has provided humans refuge, useful resources, physical support for surface structures, and a place for spiritual or artistic expression. More recently, many urban services have been placed underground. Over this time, humans have rarely considered how underground space can contribute to or be engineered to maximize its contribution to the sustainability of society."

Among the many areas of research identified in the NRC report are the following of particular relevance to civil engineers:

  • Explore models for designing sustainability into engineered systems of urban systems that recognize interdependencies, vulnerabilities, complexity, and adaptability.
  • Expand U.S. research that advances and revolutionizes, for example, materials technologies, robotic construction technologies, laser guidance systems, geographic information systems, and enhanced computer analysis and visualization systems that improve the ability to model, design, plan, and reduce risk associated with complex underground systems.
  • Explore how technologies and innovations from other industries (e.g., exploration tools, in situ analytical techniques, measurement-while-drilling systems, laser scanning, fusion of multi-sensor data) and civilian application of military research could be applied to underground engineering.
  • Conduct comprehensive and scientific investigations to retrospectively identify the life cycle performance of various types of underground infrastructure and to identify the aspects of project planning, design, construction, and operation that contribute most to project costs and performance.

Among the many "potential actions" recommended in the NRC report are the following:

  • Integrate graduate underground engineering studies with research programs or a critical mass of coordinated faculty activity to anchor research to existing programs. Create opportunities to specialize in particular aspects of underground engineering, but with a multidisciplinary approach. According to the report's authors, "Underground engineering knowledge, expertise, and training in the United States today are obtained mostly through mentoring and on-the-job experience, rather than through higher education."
  • Design infrastructure that allows ease of access for inspections, maintenance, repairs, upgrades, and reconfigurations in response to new needs or technologies that allow such work to be completed at lower costs. Combine utility services into common utility tunnels (utilidors) to isolate utilities from the surface in a continuously accessible location.
  • Institute planning of all underground space as part of an evolving urban system to be carefully engineered or preserved for optimal long-term use and regional sustainability.
  • Establish reasonably intensive groundwater, soil, and infrastructure monitoring practices to track the health of the underground urban environment according to the general geologic conditions and use. Use data generated from a range of environments and situations to inform urban planning in other areas.

I welcome hearing – and sharing with readers – your experience with SUE, its evolution, civil engineers' role in it, research needs, and its application in designing and constructing a sustainable urban infrastructure.

Bob Drake

Upcoming Events

See All Upcoming Events