Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 25

Search this Publication

Table of Contents

  • Previous
  •    Table of Contents
  • Next
  • ROBERT M. KOERNER 1933-2019


    ROBERT MICHAEL KOERNER, a guiding force and preeminent leader in civil engineering, died December 1, 2019, at the age of 85.

    He was born December 2, 1933, in Philadelphia, the son of Michael H. and Cecilia (née Grahammer) Koerner. The family moved to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, when Bob was 3 years old; the neighborhood was full of families and children, and Bob was very active in a variety of improvised outdoor games.

    He attended West Catholic High School for Boys and chose the science curriculum. Upon graduation in 1951, he enrolled in the Drexel Institute of Technology (renamed Drexel University in 1970) and selected engineering as his major. The school’s co-op program, where students studied for 6 months and worked for 6 months, was appealing to Bob. His first job in the co-op program was with a local water company where he conducted surveys to install underground water pipes. This introduced him to civil engineering, which would become his life’s work. Subsequent assignments provided experience in the heavy construction industry and foundation engineering.

    Bob graduated from Drexel in 1956 with a BS in civil engineering and went to work for 4 years at the James J. Skelly Company in New York City, rising quickly from assistant superintendent to the responsibility of construction superintendent of a 1½-mile-long section of the Cross Bronx Expressway.

    He attended Columbia University for graduate work in the evenings. There he became acquainted with Prof. Donald Burmeister, who was well known in the field of soil mechanics and foundation engineering.

    A series of construction-related jobs subsequently took Bob back to Philadelphia, where he met the love of his life, Pauline (Paula) W. Feuerer, at a Christmas party on December 25, 1958. They began dating, were married November 15, 1959, in Narberth, and started a family: Michael (1960), George (1962), and Pauline (1964).

    The heavy construction work Bob was involved with at the time was dangerous, and he was badly injured on more than one occasion. The combination of a young family, the dangers of the construction industry, and Bob’s own technical interests led him to contemplate a career shift, first to consulting with Dames & Moore and then to academics.

    He took graduate courses at Drexel, where he earned his MSCE degree in 1963, and became keenly interested in foundations.1 He decided to pursue a PhD in geotechnical engineering at Duke University beginning in 1965, conducting research under the guidance of Alexander S. Vesic. He obtained his degree in 1968 and returned to Philadelphia to teach soil mechanics and foundation engineering at Drexel beginning that September.

    His first research grant, from the National Science Foundation, was related to deep foundations, but, working with colleagues at Drexel and especially with physicist Art Lord, Bob’s interests shifted to emerging fields, including use of acoustic emission sensing techniques. Interest in acoustic emissions to detect phenomena such as cracking in soils, rocks, and concrete was intensifying among entities such as the US Bureau of Reclamation and US Army Corps of Engineers. The Environmental Protection Agency also became interested in acoustic emissions and other nondestructive testing methods to locate buried drums containing waste. Bob was promoted to associate professor at Drexel in 1971 and to professor in 1975. By 1978 his and Lord’s research on acoustic emissions had advanced to a point that they were recognized as Researchers of the Year at Drexel.

    Bob was appointed H.L. Bowman Professor of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering from 1984 until his retirement in 2003, at which time he was designated the Harry L. Bowman Professor of Engineering Emeritus.

    Notwithstanding his significant research contributions related to acoustic emissions and other topics, Dr. Koerner is best known for his research, contributions, and leadership in the field of geosynthetics engineering. By 1978 he had become interested in synthetic fabrics that might be used in geotechnical engineering applications, an interest piqued by several consulting jobs that involved subsurface filtration and drainage problems. He invited several speakers from industry to come to Drexel to talk about use of this new engineering material, then called “filter fabrics,” in the subsurface.

    At about the same time a friend, Joe Welsh of Intrusion Prepakt Co. (later Hayward-Baker Co.), told Bob that a publisher was interested in developing a book on the use of synthetic fabrics in civil engineering projects, and asked if Bob would be interested in writing such a book with him. Bob agreed, and the resulting book, Construction and Geotechnical Engineering Using Synthetic Fabrics (John Wiley and Sons, 1980), literally changed Bob’s life. He was inundated with inquiries about this new engineering material.

    He became immersed in researching and understanding the material that would soon be called “geosynthetics” and the new engineering discipline of “geosynthetics engineering.” He taught six American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) courses on these subjects (1979–82), engaged in numerous industry-sponsored projects to test the new materials and develop design methods for them, taught the world’s first formalized course on the subject in 1982, and authored or coauthored 15 papers on the topic in a 3-year period. In fact, Bob was a prolific writer. During his career he authored or coauthored 13 books, 20 book chapters, 186 refereed journal papers, 205 conference proceedings papers, and 120 other papers. He was also the editor of 27 conference proceedings.

    His geosynthetics-related research accelerated quickly, as did research around the United States and worldwide. In the early 1980s much of the research was driven by new environmental regulations requiring that waste containment landfills and impoundments be underlain by geomembrane liners. As the engineering of these waste containment facilities became much more sophisticated and detailed, Bob pioneered the use of geosynthetic materials in them for liquid conveyance and drainage, filtration, and structural strengthening.

    The geosynthetics field continued to evolve rapidly, with the development of new and better materials, testing and design methods, and the accumulation of lessons learned from constructed projects and sometimes field failures. When the Koerner-Welsh book became outdated, Bob pressed ahead with a more comprehensive volume: Designing with Geosynthetics (Prentice-Hall Publishing Co., 1986). This book exceeded all expectations and became the engineers’ standard reference for information about geosynthetic materials, applications, and testing, analysis, and design methods.

    Bob rigorously applied an essential principle in his writing: provide engineers with credible, theoretically sound, and fact-based methods for testing, designing, and constructing with geosynthetics. He fought against the propensity by some to view geosynthetics as a commodity, and insisted on a rigorous engineering approach in the selection of materials and design applications. The right way, he advocated, was to embrace and apply sound engineering principles. His leadership raised the standard of the profession and is one of his enduring contribu- tions to it. Designing with Geosynthetics, now in its sixth edition, remains the seminal publication in geosynthetic engineering.

    To better organize the rapidly evolving and growing discipline, Dr. Koerner decided to form a research institute in 1986, which by 1989 had become the Geosynthetic Research Institute (GRI). To accommodate a tremendous appetite among engineering designers for up-to-date information about designing with geosynthetics, he launched a series of short courses that took him, armed with multiple carousels of 35 mm slides, to locations across the country and around the world.

    One of Bob’s short courses took place October 29–30, 1986, in San Francisco, and was attended by Henry Haxo of Matrecon and Bob Landreth of EPA. At the time, EPA was beginning to require the use of geomembrane liners for hazardous waste landfills and impoundments, and Landreth, working out of the agency’s Cincinnati Lab, was responsible for oversight of its research program. Haxo was the leading independent researcher investigating the chemical compatibility of geo-membrane liners with the types of chemicals found in hazard- ous waste landfills and impoundments.

    EPA realized the importance of sound engineering of the type advocated by Dr. Koerner. Thus began about 3 decades of steady research collaboration between GRI and EPA. This research formed the basis for development of new materials, new testing and design methods, and improved regulations for use of geosynthetics in EPA-regulated facilities. Some of this EPA-sponsored research was conducted in partnership with the authors of this tribute and led to publication of several EPA technical guidance and research documents as well as the book Waste Containment Facilities: Guidance for Construction, Quality Assurance and Quality Control of Liner and Cover Systems (ASCE Press, 1995).

    What was unique about GRI was both the breadth of companies and institutions that supported it financially through annual commitments and the many years this support was maintained. At universities, the difficulty of sustaining industry support is well known—universities tend to be best at longterm, basic research; industry, on the other hand, usually needs immediate answers to pressing challenges. Bob managed to earn the support of nearly all the major geo synthetic manufacturers, despite the fact that he was sometimes researching problems with their materials. But he always approached a problem looking for a practical solution. If there was a prob- lem with a certain type of geosynthetic material, he would study it and find a way to improve the material or find an alternative approach to resolve the problem. He would never ignore a significant problem—rather, he would apply the full force of his formidable team and research facilities to solve it.

    His annual conferences became “must attend” events for anyone who wanted to keep abreast of the latest developments in the rapidly maturing field of geosynthetic engineering. The impact of GRI became so broad that Bob decided in 1998 that it was time to take the institute off the Drexel campus. He renamed GRI the Geosynthetic Institute (GSI) and moved it to a location near the Philadelphia airport where it could better serve the industry’s changing needs, which had grown well beyond research alone.

    GSI maintained a robust research capability with in-house equipment and through its ongoing connection to Drexel University, principally through Dr. Grace Hsuan, who was deeply involved in many of GRI’s and GSI’s most important projects. Over several years, GSI expanded its range of services to include accreditation of commercial geosynthetic testing laboratories, development of materials and specifications, training, and other services. By 2019, more than 73 organizations supported GSI, representing a broad range of geosynthetic manufacturers, installers, engineering consultants, and government agencies that use, design, test, or specify geosynthetics.

    The geosynthetics industry was in its infancy when Dr. Koerner first became engaged in 1986; today it generates revenues for the materials alone in excess of $2 billion per year. The primary application areas of geosynthetics include highways, retaining walls, soil slope reinforcement, landfill and impoundment linings and cover systems, subsurface contaminated groundwater barrier walls, canal linings, erosion control systems, and waterproofing for dams and tunnels. The engi- neering functions provided are separation, reinforcement, filtration, drainage, and containment.

    Bob had a special passion for education, engineering, and Drexel University. He was a teacher at heart, gifted with not only clarity of thought but also a unique ability to draw and illustrate in ways that made complex issues understandable. The Koerner Family Foundation is a permanent reflection of his commitment to education; it provides generous fellow- ships to students pursing advanced degrees in engineering.

    Dr. Koerner received many honors for his work. In addition to his election as a member of the National Academy of Engineering and as an ASCE distinguished member, he was recognized as Philadelphia Civil Engineer of the Year (1989), designated an honorary member of the International Geosynthetics Society (2008), and selected for no fewer than 19 invited lectureships around the country and the world. He was also elected president of the Philadelphia Section ASCE (1975–76) and North American Geosynthetics Society (1989–91).

    Bob’s personal life revolved around two activities: running and time with family. His passion for running did not take root until he was 40 years old, when he began running with his sons Michael and George. This carried on for years and came to include daughter Pauline’s husband, Doug, and innumerable marathons. At technical conferences, Bob would invite anyone within earshot to join him for a run before break-fast. That a man so full of energy would choose running as a pastime comes as no surprise—in a sense, he was always run- ning, at everything he did.

    Bob was a very engaging, friendly, and caring person. It has been said that he could get a group of strangers conversing with one another faster than anyone else. This characteristic was one of his most wonderful attributes for which so many will remember him. At countless conferences and meetings, a small group of people would assemble around Bob. He would start a conversation on a topic and a very lively discussion would take off from there. He had a way of bringing out the best in those around him, whether students or professional colleagues. He also was a very caring person. He and Paula hosted many visitors in their home and always made sure that social events were rich in conversation and laughter.

    Paula, who also died December 1, 2019, was as remarkable as Bob. She not only took the lead in raising their children while Bob worked and attended school, but also played a very active role in the GRI and GSI. She helped to manage finances, communications, and events, often traveling with Bob. It is impossible to imagine Bob without Paula at his side. The two were an inseparable team, equally beloved by all who came to know them.

    Bob and Paula are survived by Michael (Mary), George (Jamie), and Pauline Limberg (Douglas), and six grandchildren.

    1 He also studied law at Temple University (1963–64). 

    • Previous
    •    Table of Contents
    • Next