Bob Koerner has devoted more than 40 years of his life to the advancement of geosynthetics, and he’s still pushing the industry forward.
When Dr. Robert M. Koerner talks about geosynthetics, the cadence of his speech quickens and the passion behind his words suggests that geotextiles, geomembranes, geosynthetic clay liners and geogrids (to name a few) could quite possibly be the most exciting materials civil engineers have at their disposal. As a leader in the field of geosynthetics, Koerner has a list of accomplishments that is long and impressive—and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down in his fervor to advance the field and educate engineers and engineers-to-be about the properties of geosynthetics and their associated applications.
Koerner’s formal education culminated in 1968 with a Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering from Duke University and shortly thereafter he began his academic career on the faculty of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He was the founding director and is now director emeritus of the Geosynthetic Institute (GSI), as well as emeritus professor at Drexel. Among his many professional awards and achievements, he’s most proud of being a Distinguished Member of ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers)—the highest honor the organization bestows—and an inductee into the prestigious National Academy of Engineering. In June 2016 Koerner added another achievement to the list when Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA) announced the biennial Dr. Robert M. Koerner Award and Lecture Series.
The little book that set things in motion
For the first eight years of his teaching/research career, Koerner investigated several geotechnical topics among the many areas of civil and/or environmental engineering—but none were in a specific area. Little did he know when an editor requested that he write a monograph on the topic of “construction fabric materials” in 1978, the course of his professional life was about to come into sharp focus on what would later become known as geosynthetics.
“I said no thanks to the offer to write the book based on my perception that there was too little information available other than promotional,” Koerner said. “But shortly after I obtained the conference proceedings that took place in Paris in 1977 and there was indeed many very intriguing papers and results of trials [on the topic]. So I came back to the editor and said: ‘Yes, I’ll do it with a co-author, Joe Welsh, who had been involved with fabrics.’”
While the book—Construction and Geotechnical Engineering Using Synthetic Fabrics—ended up being a turning point for Koerner, he doesn’t consider it a rousing success in terms of the information it offered. “The timing of this little book was fortuitous, but in retrospect [it] wasn’t very meaty,” he said. “However, after it was published, truly the phone never stopped ringing. The book was the only one of its kind out there at the time and because of it people got to know about me and Drexel, and research and publications started coming [my way]. It was wonderful. I even got to the point within a couple of years where I was teaching geosynthetics courses, which I never could have envisioned in the beginning.”
Coining geo terms
At the time Koerner wrote his first book, the polymers now known as geosynthetics were simply known as construction fabric materials, and even that term wasn’t formalized. Koerner says civil engineer Dr. J.P. Giroud coined the words “geotextiles” and “geomembranes” and the term “geosynthetics” came from Joe Fluet Jr., P.E. The phrase “geosynthetic clay liners” is attributed to Koerner.
Although he contributed to the current terminology, Koerner said he wishes the field of geosynthetics was known instead as geopolymers. “I went along with geosynthetics, even though I’d written a couple of papers by then using the term geopolymers,” he said. “I wish I’d stuck to my guns because in truth everything is a synthetic. Concrete is a synthetic. Steel is a synthetic. Really we’re in the polymer business.”
By the mid-1980s, the terms were solidified and the field of geosynthetics was gaining steam. And despite his feelings about what he would like the field to be called, Koerner doesn’t dwell on what could have been. “I do wish our field today would have been geopolymers but, as they say, that horse done left the barn.”
The good book
In 1984 Koerner wrote another book—Designing with Geosynthetics—that, when compared to his first book, he says is “the good one.” Now in its 6th edition, the 900-plus-page book has been published in four languages, with approximately 40,000 copies sold.
What made the book better than the first one, he said, is that it had chapters on geotextiles, geogrids, geonets, geomembranes, and geocomposites, by which he was able to organize the book. “And each edition includes more and more chapters devoted to emerging materials such as geospacers, geofoam, and geocells. The book has been really good for the industry and by association for me, Drexel, and [eventually] GSI.”
Two years later, Koerner founded the Geosynthetic Research Institute (GRI), a consortium of organizations with the mission to develop and transfer knowledge, assess and critique geosynthetics, and provide services to its members. “It was clear to me that geosynthetics were hot and I was still teaching as a full-time faculty member at Drexel and did not have enough time for the growing interest in geosynthetics,” he said. “The question was: Do I stay at [the] university to continue what I was doing, do I go into private practice, or do I create some kind of an institute? I chose a third option and created GRI within Drexel” in 1986. It morphed into the Geosynthetic Institute (GSI) as a stand-alone off-campus nonprofit organization in 1991.
These days one of Koerner’s sons, Dr. George Koerner, is now the director of GSI and as such has taken over many of the responsibilities that his father had, including plenty of travel. “George is an expert in his own right,” Koerner said. “He has a doctoral degree in geotechnical engineering, the same as mine. He worked in the geosynthetics industry, returned here in the latter part of the ’80s, and became director about four years ago. One of the ways you make sure someone stays with an organization is to make them the director and you become emeritus. We have a nice division of duties.”
His virtual presence
Now Koerner’s duties include being an online, distance-learning instructor, thereby sharing knowledge he’s gained in his more than 40 years in the industry. Last year alone he did 55 webinars, as well as several day-long courses on geosynthetics.
And he still writes for a variety of publications including Geosynthetics. In the June 2016 issue of that magazine, his article “We’re losing the battle” tackles a topic that’s at the core of his current industry concerns—that universities aren’t offering in-depth courses in geosynthetics. “There are so many engineering students graduating who could come into this field but they don’t because they don’t know anything about it,” he said. “The universities are not equipped to do anything but traditional kinds of courses.”
Koerner is doing his part to change that lack of university-level geosynthetic instruction. He put Designing with Geosynthetics in a series of more than 1,500 PowerPoint® slides, each with a voiceover by him. “This will enable students to take an entire academic course in geosynthetics online,” he said. “We’ll now be offering this to universities around the world in the form of distance learning.”
The details of the course are now formalized and will likely vary from university to university, but Koerner’s preference is that professors would team teach the course with him. Koerner would be available online as an expert resource and the professor would handle the heavy-lifting of homework, quizzes, and reporting to the university.
The only thing Koerner does every day other than work in geosynthetics is run. The distance varies but since 1972 running has been a part of his routine, and that includes running a number of marathons nationally and internationally.
Even though he categorizes running as a separate interest from geosynthetics, it too helps him generate ideas related to the field. “I’m not a great runner. I am a middle-of-the-pack runner,” he said. “But I do some interesting thinking when I’m out on these long runs.”
Koerner likens the thinking he does when running to dreaming, especially on the long-distance runs. “Little vignettes come into your mind during an hour or an hour-and-a-half run,” he said. “The problem is, you can’t think a specific topic all the way through. You have a vision for something and then another thought comes, so I do what a lot of people do with their dreams. When I get back from a run, I write those thoughts down. And then during the day they might come to fruition or not.”
A family affair
If there’s one thing that trumps geosynthetics for Koerner it’s his family, but there too, geosynthetics comes into play. He and his wife, Paula, have three children, and each of them is an engineer. Those three are now married and have two children each, and they are all engineers or in school for engineering. It seemed a natural extension for Koerner and his wife to create a charity to support graduate students in engineering, and so they created the Koerner Family Foundation (www.kffoundation.org) about 15 years ago.
And who is the person who has most influenced Koerner’s life? No contest. It’s his wife, Paula. “She has been fundamental with every major decision I’ve made,” he says. “She has just been fantastic in every way. I love her dearly and respect her accordingly.”
Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.
Q: What do you wish people understood about geosynthetics?
A: In the beginning—and even still—people question the durability of these products. They have the perception that plastics are going to disintegrate or that there will be some kind of micro-organism in the soil that will want to degrade them.
We finished a keynote paper in April 2016 giving the results of 25 years of GSI research into lifetime prediction of geosynthetics. For buried geosynthetics, the time frames are anywhere from 200 to 500 years plus. And for exposed geosynthetics, the geomembranes, the time frames are anywhere from 50 to 100 years, depending on where they’re located. So I think I, and others, have gradually been putting the durability question in the background.
So now, what becomes important for me is to have people understand the different functions that geosynthetics can provide. I would like people to understand the basic five functions—separation, reinforcement, filtration, drainage, barriers—and to know what geosynthetics apply to these various functions; and furthermore, to know how to properly design them and appropriately install them.
In almost every edition of Designing with Geosynthetics, Bob Koerner has given an acknowledgment to the geosynthetics manufacturing community because they’re the people who made the industry. He keeps current on industry advancements and follows up on what manufacturers are doing in terms of leading the pack.
“The manufacturers are the gamblers,” he said. “I, and others, accomplished some neat things, but at the end of the month we always had a paycheck. A manufacturer might have to get a second mortgage on their house to do the work they do.”
When the opportunity arises, Koerner observes what new products manufacturers are working on and contributes what he can to inform the process. When geosynthetic clay liners first came on the scene, he visited a factory where they were being developed and offered some vital information that affected the outcomes.
“Geosynthetic clay liners are thin bentonite layers between two geotextiles,” he explained. “It was a very interesting idea but I said to them that once bentonite gets wet, it loses its shear strength and that could very easily result in a sideslope failure. The people who invented geosynthetic clay liners were textile engineers and had no idea about shear strength.”
The next time Koerner visited the factory, the workers were sewing the top and the bottom of the geotextiles together to contain the bentonite. “So I contributed this little idea: beware of the shear strength, and [the manufacturers] found a solution—probably before I even got on the plane to go home. I very much like that kind of interaction where I can add a little value to their work and have a better material for them, and for the industry as well.”