Luis Avila

Geotechnical/Tunnel Engineer II

What do you do in the underground construction industry, and how long have you been in the industry?

I have been a member of the underground construction industry for about four and a half years. I was previously involved with the Underground Construction Association (UCA) Younger Members Executive Committee from 2018 to 2020 and am now currently part of the UCA Working Group 2 – Research.

How did you get into the industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

When I was very young, I naturally gravitated toward the STEM field and had immense help and support from my mother. I recall when I was nine years old, I had to recreate a model of one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World; specifically, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. My mother and I went to Home Depot to get pieces of balsa wood along with glue, and during the trip back home I recall being ecstatic to create the model. We looked up dimensions of the actual temple, scaled it, and started putting everything together. From that moment, I knew doing something in engineering was where I wanted to go and where my career was waiting for me. After a few years, once I was an undergraduate, I continued on the engineering path and went into civil engineering. It wasn’t until I took my first Soil Mechanics course with Dr. Ana Paula Mohseni that I knew I wanted to be involved in tunneling. Eventually, this intrigue and newfound passion for tunneling led to me pursuing a Master’s degree with my advisor, Dr. Richard Finno. Dr. Finno really introduced me to the underground industry through his courses and examples working in the industry. We looked at some case histories of well-known tunnels and went through the process of what goes behind design, planning and procurement. Before graduating, I told Dr. Finno I wanted to go into the tunneling industry to work as a tunnel engineer, and he got me in contact with a colleague, Sotirios Vardakos, who introduced me to Elizabeth Dwyre, Mike Flanagan, Everett Litton and Mark Stephani, all great mentors that led me to join WSP!

What is it like to work as an engineer on underground projects?

It’s invigorating! I think one of the most exciting things is being able to design structures, be it tunnels, storage facilities or others, in challenging ground conditions at great depths. The inherent variability of ground conditions is something we always have to keep in mind when designing underground structures, and it’s one of the most challenging things we will always encounter!


What professional achievements have defined you and made you proud?

Seeing every project that I had a hand in designing come to fruition is one of the professional achievements that I’m most proud of. Knowing that these projects will help improve the quality of life of people and the water quality of natural rivers for years to come is incredibly rewarding.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced, and how have they been meaningful?

Personally, I think nothing beats the thrill or challenge of working on your first tunnel project. The first tunnel project I got involved with was the Lower Meramec River System Improvements – Baumgartner to Fenton Wastewater Treatment Facility Tunnel. When I first joined WSP, I was put on this project and started off by coauthoring a technical memorandum on statistical analyses of all the data obtained from the Geotechnical Data Report. From there, the opportunities expanded and I was able to work on evaluating TBM performance, tunnel lining design, shaft design, and eventually helped with the composition of the Geotechnical Baseline Report.


What do you hope the future holds for yourself and for the industry?

Personally, I hope the future continues to be full of challenging and intriguing tunnel projects that I can work on that require innovative solutions and continue to improve society. I would like to continue growing in my technical expertise and eventually teach the next generation of tunnel engineers. One thing that I always keep in mind for my future goals is to focus on knowledge transfer.

For the industry, I hope it continues to grow with the great people I’ve been fortunate enough to work and interact with. The underground community is a small one, but in the near future I hope to see it grow even more with all the project opportunities present.

What is your advice to a student looking to enter the underground field?

To any student interested in entering the underground field, I say do not hesitate to reach out to your professor or anyone mentioned on this website with questions or inquiries on how to get involved. Never be afraid to ask questions and never be afraid to seek mentors. I can say from personal experience if it wasn’t for my inquisitive nature and the mentors I’ve had throughout my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The underground community is full of people who are willing to help, teach and grow emerging professionals.

Additionally, we have a group specifically for Younger Members that can easily connect you to a network of younger professionals who would be happy to get you integrated as well.