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Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods
Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods
Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods
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Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods

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Written by an author with more than 25 years of field and academic experience, Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods explains ground improvement technologies for converting marginal soil into soil that will support all types of structures. Soil improvement is the alteration of any property of a soil to improve its engineering performance. Some sort of soil improvement must happen on every construction site. This combined with rapid urbanization and the industrial growth presents a huge dilemma to providing a solid structure at a competitive price.

The perfect guide for new or practicing engineers, this reference covers projects involving soil stabilization and soil admixtures, including utilization of industrial waste and by-products, commercially available soil admixtures, conventional soil improvement techniques, and state-of-the-art testing methods.

  • Conventional soil improvement techniques and state-of-the-art testing methods
  • Methods for mitigating or removing the risk of liquefaction in the event of major vibrations
  • Structural elements for stabilization of new or existing construction industrial waste/by-products, commercially available soil
  • Innovative techniques for drainage, filtration, dewatering, stabilization of waste, and contaminant control and removal
Release dateAug 29, 2014
Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods

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    Soil Improvement and Ground Modification Methods - Peter G. Nicholson


    Section I

    Introduction to Ground Improvement and Soil Stabilization

    Chapter 1

    What is Ground Improvement?


    Ground improvement

    Soil stabilization

    Ground modification

    In this chapter, the subject of ground improvement is introduced along with a discussion of the engineering parameters that can be addressed and a brief history of ancient practices. An overview of the objectives of designing a ground improvement plan is provided with a description of how ground improvement methods may be implemented into a project. The general categories and objectives of ground improvement techniques are also described.

    1.1 Introduction

    While one of the most important criterion for establishing the value of a parcel of land has often been expressed as location, location, location, the practical and economic feasibility of developing and building upon the land must be at least of equal (or greater) importance. When one considers developing a site either for construction, rehabilitation, preservation/protection, or other use, there needs to be consideration given to the effects of loads imposed and the behavior or response of the ground and soil to those loads. In some cases, the loads may be man-made, while in others forces of nature may be the driving mechanism. Either way, there are some fundamental engineering parameters that generally fall under the expertise of geotechnical engineers that can be evaluated and analyzed to predict what effects a variety of possible loading conditions may have on the ground. These engineers spend much of their careers devising solutions to prevent deleterious effects (or worse, failures) from occurring. Most commonly, these effects can be related to a limited number of soil behaviors or responses now reasonably well understood by geotechnical engineers. These include: shear strength of soils, responsible for sustaining loads (static and dynamic) without excessive deformation or failure; compressibility of soils, which manifests in settlement, slumping, and volume change of soil masses; permeability of soils, which is the rate at which a fluid may flow through the void (open) spaces in a soil mass; and shrink/swell potential in soils, which is a phenomenon whereby a soil mass may substantially change volume typically associated with intake or loss of moisture. Other properties, such as stiffness, durability, erodibility, and creep, are also of relative importance depending on the specifics of the application.

    1.2 Alternatives to Poor Soil Conditions

    A soil or site may be considered poor if it fails to have minimum required engineering properties and/or has been evaluated to provide inadequate performance for the design requirements. A soil may be considered marginal if it possesses near the minimal requirements. When poor or inadequate soil and/or site conditions prevail, one must consider the available alternatives for the situation. These alternatives may include:

    (1) Abandon the project. This might be considered a practical solution only when another suitable site can be found and no compelling commitments require the project to remain at the location in question, or when the cost estimates are considered to be impractical.

    (2) Excavate and replace the existing poor soil. This method was common practice for many years, but has declined in use due to cost restraints for materials and hauling, availability and cost of select materials, and environmental issues.

    (3) Redesign the project or design (often including structural members) to accommodate the soil and site conditions. A common example is the use of driven piles and drilled shafts to bypass soft, weak, and compressible soils by transferring substantial applied loads to a suitable bearing strata.

    (4) Modify the soil (or rock) to improve its properties and/or behavior through the use of available ground improvement technologies.

    Ground improvement methods have been used to address and solve many ground condition problems and improve desired engineering properties of existing or available soils. In addition, they have often provided economical and environmentally responsible alternatives to more traditional approaches.

    There are a number of terms that have been used to describe making changes to the ground and/or soil to improve them for engineering purposes. These include: soil improvement, ground improvement, ground modification, soil stabilization, and so forth. Various authors have attempted to define these terms to differentiate between them, but, generally, there is such overlap between the applications that the terms are often used interchangeably. In general, ground/soil improvement is a process carried out to achieve improved geotechnical properties (and engineering response) of a soil (or earth material) at a site. The processes can be achieved by methods that can be considered to fall into one of three categories:

    (1) modification without the addition of any other material,

    (2) modification including adding certain materials to the soil/ground, or

    (3) modification by providing reinforcement or inclusions into the soil/ground.

    The purpose of soil and ground Improvement is essentially to alter the natural properties of soil (and/or rock) and/or control the behavior of a geotechnical feature or earthwork in order to improve the behavior and performance of a project. Among the properties that are usually targeted for improvement are:

    • Reducing compressibility to avoid settlement

    • Increasing strength to improve stability, bearing capacity, or durability

    • Reducing permeability to restrict groundwater flow

    • Increasing permeability to allow drainage

    • Mitigating the potential for (earthquake-induced) liquefaction

    Each of these fundamental improvements may be achieved by a variety of methods that will be described in this text. Improvements will be done during one of three phases of a project:

    Preconstruction improvements are often the most desirable and cost-effective. These types of improvements would be done to prepare a site for construction and would generally be a part of the planning and design to ensure the success of a project. Examples of preconstruction improvements are ground densification, preconsolidation, drainage, dewatering and modification of hydraulic flows, planned underpinning, and various grouting techniques.

    Part-of-construction improvements are those improvement techniques that are done during the construction of the project and could become permanent components of a project. Examples of part-of-construction improvements are compacted gravel columns, shallow soil treatment (including gradation control, shallow compaction, and treatment with admixtures), ground freezing, construction with geosynthetics, soil nails, tie-backs and anchors for cuts, excavation, lightweight fills (including geofoam), and so on. Earthwork construction may involve a number of different methodologies and improvement processes for achieving one or more improvement objectives. These would include engineered fills such as constructed slopes and embankments, retaining wall backfill, and roadways. These would also be encompassed under the category of part-of-construction improvements.

    Postconstruction improvements are done after completion of the construction phase of a project and are often remedial processes. These applications can be very costly, but are used as last choice alternatives to rectify problems encountered after (or long after) the completion of a project or to stabilize natural features that have failed or become hazardous. Examples include methods to stabilize settlement problems, failed or near-failure slopes, seepage problems, and so forth. Processes used for postconstruction improvements include grouting, soil nails, drainage, dewatering and modification of hydraulic flows, and so on.

    1.3 Historical Soil and Ground Improvement

    The fundamental idea of improving the engineering properties of soils or modifying earth materials to perform a desired function is not new. Some of the basic principles of ground improvement, such as densification, dewatering, and use of admixtures, have existed for thousands of years. The use of wood and straw inclusions mixed with mud for Adobe construction has been reported for civil works in ancient times of Mesopotamia (the productive fertile triangle formed between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, now Iraq) and ancient Egypt (bce). Written works from Chinese civilizations (3000-2000 bce) described use of stone and timber inclusions (ASCE, 1978). Lime mixed with soil was used in construction with Rome’s famous Appian Way, built around 600 ad during the height of the Roman Empire. That roadway has endured the test of time and is still fully functional today. An early application soil improvement by addition of infilling material was reportedly used for seepage control in construction of gravelly/rockfill dams in Egypt around 1900, where fine-grained soil was sluiced into the coarse aggregate to lower permeability.

    As many of the soil and ground improvement techniques fall in a relatively new area of geotechnical specialization with only a limited database of case histories, some would argue that some methods are the interaction of engineering science and experience-based technologies (Charles, 2002). Burland et al. (1976) described the implementation of ground treatment in a rational context with the basic stages:

    (1) Define the required ground behavior for a particular use of the ground.

    (2) Identify any deficiencies in the ground behavior.

    (3) Design and implement appropriate ground treatment to remedy any deficiencies.

    While these steps may seem very simple and obvious, they are the essential basics to follow when addressing a site for new construction. But in the current field, we must also consider treatment techniques that can be used to remediate existing construction and/or to rehabilitate sites for rebuilding or new types of construction not considered feasible previously.


    ASCE. Soil improvement: history, capabilities and outlook. Report by the Committee on Placement and Improvement of Soils, Geotechnical Engineering Division. ASCE; 1978 182 pp.

    Burland JB, McKenna JM, Thomlinson MJ. Preface: ground treatment by deep compaction. Geotechnique. 1976;25(1):1–2.

    Charles JA. Ground improvement: the interaction of engineering science and experience-based technology. Geotechnique. 2002;52(7):527–532.

    http://www.astm.org/Standards (accessed 02.11.14.).

    Chapter 2

    Ground Improvement Techniques and Applications


    Mechanical modification


    Hydraulic modification



    Physical and chemical modification

    Soil mixing




    This chapter introduces the general categories of ground improvement along with descriptions of the main application techniques for each. An overview is provided of the most common and typical objectives to using improvement methods and what types of results may be reasonably expected. A discussion of the various factors and variables that an engineer needs to consider when selecting and ultimately making the choice of possible improvement method(s) is also included. This is followed by descriptions of common applications used. This chapter concludes with a brief discussion of a number of emerging trends and promising technologies that continue to be developed. These include sustainable reuse of waste materials and other green approaches that can be integrated with improvement techniques.

    2.1 Categories of Ground Improvement

    The approaches incorporating ground improvement processes can generally be divided into four categories grouped by the techniques or methods by which improvements are achieved (Hausmann, 1990).

    Mechanical modification—Includes physical manipulation of earth materials, which most commonly refers to controlled densification either by placement and compaction of soils as designed engineered fills, or in situ (in place) methods of improvement for deeper applications. Many engineering properties and behaviors can be improved by controlled densification of soils by compaction methods. Other in situ methods of improvement may involve adding material to the ground as is the case for strengthening and reinforcing the ground with nonstructural members.

    Hydraulic modification—Where flow, seepage, and drainage characteristics in the ground are altered. This includes lowering of the water table by drainage or dewatering wells, increasing or decreasing permeability of soils, forcing consolidation and preconsolidation to minimize future settlements, reducing compressibility and increasing strength, filtering groundwater flow, controlling seepage gradients, and creating hydraulic barriers. Control or alteration of hydraulic characteristics may be attained through a variety of techniques, which may well incorporate improvement methods associated with other ground improvement categories.

    Physical and chemical modificationStabilization of soils caused by a variety of physiochemical changes in the structure and/or chemical makeup of the soil materials or ground. Soil properties and/or behavior are modified with the addition of materials that alter basic soil properties through physical mixing processes or injection of materials (grouting), or by thermal treatments involving temperature extremes. The changes tend to be permanent (with the exception of ground freezing), resulting in a material that can have significantly improved characteristics. Recent work with biostabilization, which would include adding/introducing microbial methods, may also be placed in this category.

    Modification by inclusions, confinement, and reinforcement—Includes use of structural members or other manufactured materials integrated with the ground. These may consist of reinforcement with tensile elements; soil anchors and nails; reinforcing geosynthetics; confinement of (usually granular) materials with cribs, gabions, and webs; and use of lightweight materials such as polystyrene foam or other lightweight fills. In general, this type of ground improvement is purely physical through the use of structural components. Reinforcing soil by vegetating the ground surface could also fall into this category.

    In fact, the division of ground improvement techniques may not always be so easily categorized as to fall completely within one category or another. Oftentimes an improvement method may have attributes or benefits that can arguably fall into more than one category by achieving a number of different engineering goals. Because of this, there will necessarily be some overlap between categories of techniques and applications. In fact, in looking at defining improvement methodologies, it very quickly becomes apparent that there are a broad array of cross-applications of technologies, methods, and processes. As will be described, the best approach is often to first address a particular geotechnical problem and identify the specific engineering needs of the application. Then a variety of improvement approaches may be considered along with applicability and economics.

    2.2 Typical/Common Ground Improvement Objectives

    The most common (historically) traditional objectives include improvement of the soil and ground for use as a foundation and/or construction material. The typical engineering objectives have been (1) increasing shear strength, durability, stiffness, and stability; (2) mitigating undesirable properties (e.g., shrink/swell potential, compressibility, liquefiability); (3) modifying permeability, the rate of fluid to flow through a medium; and (4) improving efficiency and productivity by using methods that save time and expense. Each of these broad engineering objectives are integrally embedded in the basic, everyday designs within the realm of the geotechnical engineer. The engineer must make a determination on how best to achieve the desired goal(s) required by providing a workable solution for each project encountered. Ground improvement methods provide a diverse choice of approaches to solving these challenges.

    In many cases, the use of soil improvement techniques has provided economical alternatives to more conventional engineering solutions or has made feasible some projects that would have previously been abandoned due to excessive costs or lack of any physically viable solutions.

    Some newer challenges and solutions have added to the list of applications and objectives where ground improvement may be applicable. This is in part a result of technological advancements in equipment, understanding of processes, new or renewed materials, and so forth. Some newer issues include environmental impacts, contaminant control (and clean up), dirty runoff water, dust and erosion control, sustainability, reuse of waste materials, and so on.

    2.3 Factors Affecting Choice of Improvement Method

    When approaching a difficult or challenging geotechnical problem, the engineer must consider a number of variables in determining the type of solution(s) that will best achieve the desired results. Both physical attributes of the soil and site conditions, as well as social, political, and economic factors, are important in determining a proposed course of action. These include:

    (1) Soil type—This is one of the most important parameters that will control what approach or materials will be applicable. As will be described throughout this text, certain ground improvement methods are applicable to only certain soil types and/or grain sizes. A classic figure was presented by Mitchell (1981) to graphically represent various ground improvement methods suitable for ranges of soil grain sizes. While somewhat outdated, this simple figure exemplified the fundamental dependence of soil improvement applicability to soil type and grain size. An updated version of that figure is provided in Figure 2.1.

    Figure 2.1 Soil improvement methods applicable to different ranges of soil sizes.

    (2) Area, depth, and location of treatment required—Many ground improvement methods have depth limitations that render them unsuitable for application to deeper soil horizons. Depending on the areal extent of the project, economic and equipment capabilities may also play an important role in the decision as to what process is best suited for the project. Location may play a significant role in the choice of method, particularly if there are adjacent structures, concerns of noise and vibrations, or if temperature and/or availability of water is a factor.

    (3) Desired/required soil properties—Obviously, different methods are used to achieve different engineering properties, and certain methods will provide various levels of improvement and uniformity to improved sites.

    (4) Availability of materials—Depending on the location of the project and materials required for each feasible ground improvement approach, some materials may not be readily available or cost and logistics of transportation may rule out certain methods.

    (5) Availability of skills, local experience, and local preferences—While the engineer may possess the knowledge and understanding of a preferred method, some localities and project owners may resist trying something that is unfamiliar and locally unproven. This is primarily a social issue, but should not be underestimated or dismissed, especially in more remote and less developed locations.

    (6) Environmental concerns—With a better understanding and greater awareness of effects on the natural environment, more attention has been placed on methods that assure less environmental impact. This concern has greatly changed the way that construction projects are undertaken and has had a significant effect on methods, equipment, and particularly materials used for ground

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