NZ Geomechanics News

Obituary – David Burns

David Andrew Burns BSc MSc CMEng(PEngGeol) Life member NZGS (1953-2018)

 width=David Burns, a life member of the New Zealand Geotechnical Society, died in Auckland on 27 January 2018 at the age of 64. David was chair of the society from 2011 to 2013 and immediate past-chair from 2013 to 2015. Earlier he was an elected committee member, treasurer, and vice-chair from 2008 to 2011, serving eight years in all. One thing that stands out in his work for the society is his role in championing and formulating the registration system for engineering geologists which put engineering geologists on a par with Chartered Professional Engineers. Our Australian colleagues drool when they talk about what NZ has achieved. Professional Engineering Geologists are now Chartered Members of Engineering New Zealand. He was part of the first group to be registered as PEngGeol became a practice area assessor for subsequent applications. He also helped to revise the society’s rules in 2014, was a reviewer on numerous occasions for NZGS symposia and ANZ conference papers, and was a regular participant in Auckland Branch activities. He helped revise a core document for the society, the Guidelines for field description of rocks and soils for engineering purposes (Williams et al. 2005).

David was a graduate of Waikato University’s Department of Earth Sciences, beginning in 1972, and finishing in 1980 when he completed an MSc with Cam Nelson on carbon and oxygen stable isotope geochemistry of Cenozoic calcareous sedimentary rocks (Burns and Nelson 1981; Nelson and Burns 1982; Nelson et al. 1983). David was a foundation member of the Waikato Branch of the Geological (now Geoscience) Society of New Zealand that was formed in 1975, and a member of the local organising committee for the society’s annual conference held in Hamilton in 1976.

David embarked on his career in engineering geology, initially in Tauranga (Fig. 1) and then in Auckland, finishing as a highly-respected, experienced Technical Director in Ground Engineering at AECOM (Auckland), despite having no formal training in the discipline other than his Waikato degrees in earth sciences. David started a job as a soil technician with a forerunner company of AECOM. He only ever worked for one company. He was an example of a geologist with core geological skills who learned engineering geology on the job. David spent considerable time overseas including in Belize, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Lao PDR and Vietnam as well as throughout New Zealand, working on a wide range of projects in engineering geology.

David wasn’t always conventional in his personal life and he railed against certain conventions. In contrast, in his professional life he was more conventional. He set the benchmark and exhibited best practice. David’s standing in the profession was attested to by the attendees at his funeral and messages received about David’s standing in the engineering community. He was also well known in the Australian engineering geological community.

David and geology were inseparable. He was the nightmare driver, constantly looking at cut batters, especially where new construction work was occurring or where the earth was bare. He could see geological strata. David would focus on these through the windscreen, then swivel his head sideways while passing the batter and intensely view it in the rear view mirror.

When it came to writing reports David was a perfectionist. For David a report that was 99.5% there, was not good enough. He just kept writing and editing, and striving for 100%. While writing was his forte his ability to interpret geology and solve problems was more important. David had a rigorous way of working, getting data, interpreting it and making a judgement. To say he was thorough is an understatement. There was no quick conversation with David – he would want to chew it over and discuss the problem from every angle. The outcome was always well considered judgement which his colleagues and clients relied on.

Towards the end of his career, as ill-health slowed him down, David undertook a lot of editing, helping colleagues with less experience to knock their reports into shape.

David’s professional legacy is seen not so much in his excellent project work, but rather in those whom he worked with, those whose careers he influenced and those whom he taught how to approach technical problems. He was a valued teacher and mentor.

It was fitting that David’s funeral service was officiated by two close friends, geotechnical engineers and former chairs of the society. His coffin was adorned with his well-worn geological hammer, sticks of core and rocks from various parts of the North Island. David is survived by his wife Carmen, and two children Kathryn and Vincent.

Obituary prepared by:
Geoffrey Farquhar and Stephen Crawford


Above: David Burns alongside an exposure of Te Ranga Ignimbrite near Tauranga in April, 1980. Photo: David Lowe.


Burns DA and Nelson CS (1981). Oxygen isotopic paleotemperatures across the Runangan-Whaingaroan (Eocene-Oligocene) boundary in a New Zealand shelf sequence. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 24, 529-538.
Nelson CS, Burns DA (1982). Effect of sampling interval on the reliability of oxygen isotopic paleotemperatures − an example from the New Zealand Early Miocene. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 25, 77-81.
Nelson CS, Burns DA, Rodgers KA (1983). The taxonomic status, and isotopic evidence for paleoenvironments, of giant oysters from the Oligocene Te Kuiti Group, South Auckland, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 26, 289-299.
Williams A, Burns DA, Farquhar GB, Mills M (2005). Field description of soil and rock. Guideline for the field classification and description of soil and rock for engineering purposes. New Zealand Geotechnical Society, Wellington, 39 pp.
Farquhar GB and Burns DA (2012). Managing a ground stability hazard in a residential area. Proc 11th Australia New Zealand Conf on Geomechanics, Melbourne, Australia, pp 925-930.
Farquhar GB, Burns DA, Davidson DC and Mills R (2007). Risk Approach to instability during lake filling of Weavers Opencast Coalmine. Proc 10th Australia New Zealand Conf on Geomechanics, Brisbane, Australia, pp 386-391.
Farquhar GB, Kelsey P, Marsh J and Fellows D (editors) (2004). Proceedings of the 9th Australia New Zealand Conf on Geomechanics, Auckland.
Burns DA, Davidson DC and Farquhar GB (2003). Engineering Geological Influences on SH20 Mt Roskill Extension. Proc NZ Geotech Society Symp, Geotechnics on the Volcanic Edge, Tauranga, pp 351-358.
Burns DA and Cowbourne AJ (2003). Engineering Geological Aspects of the Ruahihi Power Scheme, Tauranga. Proc NZ Geotech Society Symp, Geotechnics on the Volcanic Edge, Tauranga, pp 71-80.
Farquhar GB and Burns DA (1999). Assessment of Geotechnical Hazards at Lake Coleridge Power Station. Proc 8th Australia New Zealand Conf on Geomechanics, Hobart, Australia, pp 99 -104.
Burns DA and Farquhar GB (1999). Hydrogeology of Lake Coleridge Power Station. Proc 8th Australia New Zealand Conf on Geomechanics, Hobart, Australia, pp 63-68.
Burns DA, Underhill JP and Farquhar GB (1998). Aspects of Earthworks Design in Pumice Breccia SH5 Upgrading, Rotorua. Proc Symp on Roading Geotechnics ’98, Auckland.
Burns DA and Farquhar GB (1996). Land Assessment for Development Suitability. Proc Symp on Geotechnical Issues in Land Development, NZ Geotech Soc, Hamilton, pp 137-141.
Farquhar GB and Burns DA (1996). Building Development on Marginal Slopes. Proc Symp on Geotechnical Issues in Land Development, NZ Geotech Soc, Hamilton, NZ, pp 101-102.

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NZ Geomechanics News>Issue 95 - June 2018
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