NZ Geomechanics News

Gavin John Alexander

Gavin Alexander passed away on 19th November 2020 after a battle with cancer. A highly respected engineer and trail motorcycle enthusiast, Gavin has left a significant legacy through his work with the New Zealand Geotechnical Society, Beca, and in his personal life.

Engineering is fundamentally about finding solutions that improve our communities, which requires critical thinking, clear communications, and an understanding of people.  Not all engineers are well rounded enough to be able to work with a wide range of stakeholders and apply their technical skills in a way that is readily understood and accepted. Gavin was one of these rare few.


Gavin joined the NZGS National Management Committee in 2011, becoming Vice-Chair and Treasurer in the same year under the Chairmanship of David Burns.  This period immediately following the Canterbury earthquakes was a challenging time for everyone, including the NZGS Management Committee as it was a time of refreshed scrutiny on professional performance, and also of working together to rebuild a stronger Christchurch and more resilient New Zealand.  

With the publication of the Royal Commission in November 2012 came demands for improvements in regulations and increased professional guidance. Following his election to Chair in 2013 Gavin was the main driver behind NZGS efforts to respond to these demands.  In his endeavour to ensure that geotechnical perspectives were properly represented to government he put extensive effort in to responding to MBIE’s consultation requests, and devoted much time to liaising with counterparts in MBIE and sister technical societies such as SESOC and NZSEE. His representation of NZGS in this respect has been an inspiration to others.

Gavin receiving his life membership of NZGS at his home in Riverhead.

During Gavin’s tenure as Chair, the NZGS was awarded the Outstanding Member Society of the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering in recognition of the impact that the society was having under his stewardship. 

Gavin was an enthusiastic champion of the development of the NZGS/MBIE Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering Practice Modules which have played a critical role in establishing the importance of a consistent and rigorous approach to geotechnical earthquake engineering in New Zealand. He managed their delivery and was heavily involved in the strategic direction, resulting in a very significant improvement in performance across the geotechnical industry.

Gavin also spent a very significant amount of time organising professional events which brought international best practice to New Zealand. These included four very successful conferences:

  • 19th NZGS Symposium, Hanging by a thread. Lifelines, infrastructure and natural disasters (Queenstown, 2013)
  • 12th Australia New Zealand Conference on Geomechanics, Changing the face of the earth (Wellington, 2015)
  • 6th International Conference on Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering (Christchurch, 2015), and
  • 20th NZGS Symposium, What In Earth Is Going On. Balancing Risk, Reward, Regulation and Reality (Napier, 2017)

Gavin greeting sponsors at the 20th NZGS Symposium, where he led the technical programme.


Gavin mingling with guests at the 12th Australia New Zealand Conference on Geomechanics while he was chair of the NZGS.

In 2017 Gavin was appointed to the role of Australasian Vice-president of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (ISSMGE), representing the region in the world’s leading geotechnical professional society until his untimely illness. The role required his attendance at meetings around the world and he became a well-known figure in the international arena.

During his time on the NZGS management committee Gavin focussed on making sure that it was an active society that was sought out for and presents views on current events, provides industry guidance and supports the education and growth of its members. Through the period of Gavin’s governance the Society grew hugely in its status and contribution to society.

Education and early career

Gavin’s early start at engineering was as an architectural student and then a land surveyor, but his true calling of geotechnical engineering was already beckoning. As an ardent trailbike / motocross rider he was a founding member of the Dead Toad Racing Team, a regularly arranged high shear rate testing of loose sand and liquefaction trails at Woodhill.  It has been suggested that this became core training on how to assess and plan the geotechnical aspects of transport projects.

Forsaking a career in architecture he obtained a New Zealand Certificate in Land Surveying before expanding his interest in engineering materials as a surveyor for the New Zealand Forest Service in Rotorua in 1979. There he was lucky enough to meet Fiona, the love of his life, who just two months later, agreed to become his wife. His steady progression towards engineering saw them move to Tauranga where Gavin worked as a Technician Surveyor with Shrimpton and Lipinski before moving to Auckland to join Babbage in 1981 in a similar role and commence his New Zealand Certificate in Engineering (NZCE) studies. Working for Babbage he was co-located with their geotechnical engineering team and recognised his true calling. While studying to obtain his NZCE he worked fulltime as a field technician learning the practical difficulties of soil logging, testing and the communication of field observations in a readily digestible and demonstrably verifiable way. He was hooked on geotechnical engineering and completed his training at the University of Auckland School of Engineering .

Flying through the engineering course at Auckland with an excellent degree in 1985 he took on the role of Engineer’s Representative for Babbage based in Taumarunui to work on two sections of the North Island Main Trunk electrification scheme. More realignment than tunnelling was required but that was perhaps his first exposure to the interaction of water, pumiceous soil and repetitive loading – albeit largely due to rail transport rather than seismic.

The lure of overseas travel then saw him head to Australia and on to the UK in 1987 where he worked for Arup Geotechnics at Canary Wharf on the Canada Water project encountering the Thames gravels, the Woolwich and Reading Beds and Thanet Sands. He worked on large scale dewatering projects and deep base grouted piles while juggling excursions to Europe. During his time in Sydney with Arup he secured a Peter Dunican Scholarship (the first time that had been awarded outside the UK) to study for his Master’s Degree at Imperial College. There he pursued his interest in geotechnical earthquake engineering, staying on in the UK to work for Arup in London, Edinburgh and Newcastle before returning to New Zealand to join Beca in 1993 as a senior geotechnical engineer.


As a practice leader, Principal and Technical Fellow in Beca’s Geotechnical Engineering group for more than 20 years, Gavin led single and multi-discipline teams on many large-scale, high profile and complex projects, both across New Zealand and offshore (Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, New Caledonia and elsewhere in the Pacific).

Gavin was always ready for new and interesting challenges, and in 2003 he took up the Christchurch based role of Materials Team leader for Project Aqua, a hydroelectric power project proposal for the Waitaki valley. The project was not to proceed, and so in 2004 he returned to his role in Auckland, but not before he had become a popular member of the wider group of international engineers who had relocated to New Zealand for the project, and who now remember him from across the globe.

Gavin could not keep away from a technical challenge; he had the roles of designer, technical reviewer, peer reviewer, Board member, on a wide range of projects. Career highlights included his work for Kedah Cement in Malaysia, a number of projects for PT Vale Indonesia (he mobilised his family to Soroako for 3 years) including upgrade of the slag dump; wharf extensions for the 36th America’s Cup; Centre Port Wellington, Maungaharuru, Taihape, Waitahora and Awhitu windfarms, Kawerau and Te Mihi power stations, Britomart station reviews, North Shore Busway, Nicoll Highway Collapse, East West Link, Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway, SH1 McKays to PekaPeka expressway, Puhoi to Warkworth Motorway, SCIRT (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team), Victoria Park Tunnel, SH20 Waterview Connection – to name just a few!

Private life

Gavin has always been a keen motorcycle enthusiast and took part in the first New Zealand Enduros, described as a motocross “test of man and relatively unsophisticated machinery against terrain”. Gavin demonstrated his skill at the 1975 Maramarua Forest and Riverhead Virgin Swamps Enduros, finishing in the top ten in both on his Suzuki TS400.

Gavin was a keen trail bike rider

He was a kiwifruit farmer and loved to drive his ride-on between the rows and trim vines at the weekend.

He is survived by his beloved wife Fiona and his twin children, Jack (married to Rachel), and Harry (engaged to Cindy).

Gavin will be missed by many of us but he will also continue to be a role model both as a technical expert and a kind and gentle man who was thoroughly professional in everything he did. 


Tags : #obituaries

NZ Geomechanics News
Ann Williams, Marcus Gibson, Ross Roberts
NZ Geomechanics News>Issue 100 - December 2020
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