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How close is close enough?

Reasonable tolerances for cast-in-place concrete


he reinforced concrete frame of a new resort hotel was several stories in the air when the plumbing contractor arrived on the job. His piping had been preassembled to fit the standarized floor layouts. When he couldn’t install the pre f a b ri c a ted waste lines because the openings left for them failed to align, he complained. The architect came to measure and check alignment of the completed concrete members. In addition to misaligned plumbing sleeves he found columns out of plumb, some of them twisted, beam-column joints misplaced by 11⁄2 inches and slabs too thin. He accused the contractor of gross failure to meet the specified construction tolerances. The contractor charged that the tolerances were unreasonable and all parties seemed to be well on the way to costly litigation. It is rare, howe ve r, for out-of-tolerance work to be rejected and replaced solely because it is out of tole ra n c e. In the building described the frame would eventually be concealed behind a variety of surface finishes. If the structural safety and building function were not impaired by dimensional deviations, there might be little reason to reject the inaccurate construction. Whether anyone would ever be fully satisfied is doubtful.

and specifications. No structure is ever exactly level, plumb, straight and true. Fortunately such perfection is not necessary. Wide dimensional variations may occur in practice and pass unnoticed by constructors, designers, and owners alike. Inherent in traditional on-site construction practices are many design and workmanship skills that conceal and correct for dimensional variations as they occur. Craftsmen have customarily fitted their own work into a building as they find it. Howe ve r, problems and hardships develop when pre f a b ri c a t e d components won’t fit the spaces left for them or errors are so gross as to make the building unsafe or unsightly. Then the question must be answered: How far can the structure vary from planned line and dimension and still be considered to accord sufficiently with the plans? How much variation is consistent with full performance of the contract? This is a matter of tolerance, whether stated or implied.

The first definition, which appears to be more widely accepted in building construction, is the one used in this discussion. In the interest of economy the standard of accuracy or tolerance specified should be based on what is really necessary rather than what one feels is ideally desirable. A fully satisfactory job may often be less precise than what is attainable. The required accuracy depends on an interrelationship of several factors: • St ru c t u ral strength and other functional requirements. A building must be safe and strong, and near enough to size and shape to do the job for which it was built. • Esthetics. The structure must satisfy the appearance needs or wishes of the owner and designer. • Economic feasibility. Can the owner afford to pay what it costs to attain a specified degree of accuracy? • Fitting of parts. Required precision of the concrete members depends on tolerances of accessories and tolerances of adjacent units, joint and connection design, and the possibility of accumulative errors in critical dimensions. • Construction techniques available. The degree of precision possible depends on the level of local craftsmanship and technology as well as the materials available.

A common ground for discussion
To establish a common ground in discussing tolerances it must be acknowledged that the dictionary provides two valid definitions which are applicable: • permissible deviation from a specified value of a structural dimension • the range or difference between limits within which a size, dimension or position must lie

How tolerant?
Tolerances may be thought of as a recognition of the fact that a structure cannot be built exactly to nominal dimensions given in the plans

stated emphatically that “a construction tolerance is some part of an inch. and these modified standards are carried forward to the current ACI 347-68.* A rc h i t e c t u ral concrete may require closer tolerances and the upper stories of high rise stru c t u re s may also require special tolerances for variations from plumb and linear building lines. He should plan joints and other details which will absorb or conceal the inevitable variations. and culverts. mass concrete. with only minor changes. suggested that the American Concrete Institute set up some standard tolerances.One builder compensated for excessive tolerances on the vertical by adjusting the building lines when foundation problems caused the building to tilt during construction.” His reply reflects the lack of knowledge as to standards of accuracy that are being achieved as a matter of course by competent builders in their day-to-day work.3 In the absence of a tolerance specification by the designer. and for openers he proposed a scheme of limiting values based on his own judgment and experience. Although the ACI values are admittedly based on judgment and experience rather than on quantitative field measurements they appear to be the most widely accepted standard available in the United States for ordinary structural concrete. ACI 347 suggests the tolerances given in the table for completed construction of o rd i n a ry structural concrete in buildings. Early in 1940 John Nichols. This is because of shrinkage of concrete during curing and deflection after the forms are removed. Even those critics who have intimated that the tolerances were compiled in some equivalent of the smoke-filled room have provided field measurements that make the ACI values appear reasonable. The concrete industry has been groping for practical tolerance guidelines for some time. and that * Refer to ACI 347-68 for suggested tolerances for other structures including bridges. were included as part of the official ACI recommendation. In 1963 when the American Co n c re t e When specifying tolerances. “Recommended Practice for Concrete Fo rm w o rk .1 In the ensuing years these proposals were accepted in varying degree by many designers and contractors as a measure of adequate performance that could be applied to any contract for which the designer had not specifically stated tolerance standards. Specifying unnecessarily close dimensional tolerances for hardened concrete can lead to considerable expense. thus placing responsibility for structural deflection with the designer. The foundation problems continued to cause tilting after the building was completed. Nichols’ values. the designer must consider all of these items and decide what the client really needs and whether he can and will pay for that level of precision. A — Straight line B — Line parallel to A maintained for one or two stories C — Line adjusted to the vertical during construction of top story (lines of intervening stories progressively adjusted) D — True vertical concepts which will accommodate tolerances that are realistically attainable. tunnel and canal linings. Because of the deflection and yielding of forms and shoring that occurs during concrete placement.” and the ACI 347 values are referenced by the Construction Specifications Institute’s “Guide Specification for Wood Fo rm s” (03110. . a prominent consulting engineer. Since 1963 there has been considerable acceptance of these standards with only a few changes proposed. The designer can save money by selecting design Institute adopted its first formwork standard. formwork must be built to even closer tolerances than required in the concrete. ACI 347 recommends that the designer anticipate occasions where the project may have features sensitive to the cumulative effects of these general tolerances. March 1973). Tolerance standards One prominent concrete cons t ru c t o r. when asked what tolerances were attainable in concrete. Slab and beam soffits should be measured before removal of supporting shores. Even higher precision forms do not guarantee the same as-constructed tolerance on the concrete member. who is best qualified to make the allowances needed for it.” 2 Almost identical values are found in “Specifications for St ru c t u ral Concrete for Buildings (ACI 301-72).

Unfortunately the oft-ignored tolerances can be used as a weapon against the contractor. Importance of a good tolerance specification Some specifications include detailed provisions for tolerances while others are silent on the subject. some as little as half the values given by ACI 347. not to reinforcing bars or dowels. will prevent problems of fit for elevators. no limit on increased thickness 2 percent of ooting width in direction of misplacement but not more than 2 inches* Misplacement or eccentricity ± 1⁄4 inch ± 1⁄2 inch Variation of linear building lines from plan position. curtain walls and ceilings. If things go well. horizontal grooves and other conspicuous lines In any bay 20 feet maximum In 40 feet or more -5 percent of specified thickness. walls and partitions In any bay or 20 feet maximum ± 1⁄2 inch In 40 feet or more ± 1 inch Variation in size and location of sleeves. parapets.he set an added limit or cumulative tolerance. walls and arrises ± 1⁄4 inch per 10 feet but not much more than 1 inch Variation in cross-sectional dimensions of columns and beams and in thickness of slabs and walls ± 1⁄4 inch + 1⁄2 inch Variation in footing size and location Plan dimensions ± 1⁄4 inch ± 1⁄2 inch For exposed corner columns. partitions. variation in related position of columns. Their present activities. piers. s e ve ral classes of tolerances. which has some merit. This approach is used by seve ra l European standards-writing bodies and may point the way for future development in the United States. no thought is given to checking An alternative approach A more complicated approach. if followed. the designer should anticipate this too by specifying special tolerances or indicating which one must control. control-joint grooves and other conspicuous lines In any bay or 20 feet maximum In 40 feet or more ⁄2 inch + 2 inches* -1 Thickness Variation from level or indicated grade In slab soffits. something like the following: • O rd i n a ry tolerances—to provide the structure with basic serviceability. is to set up TOLERANCES RECOMMENDED BY ACI COMMITTEE 347 Variation from plumb In the lines and surfaces of columns. floor openings and wall openings ± 1⁄4 inch Variation in steps In a flight of stairs Riser Tread In consecutive steps Riser Tread ± 1⁄8 inch ± 1⁄4 inch ± 1⁄16 inch ± 1⁄8 inch * Applies to concrete only. • Special tolerances—to provide a structure with consistently close fit for auxiliary structural steel or pre cast floor and wall units. are being directed toward gathering data on field performance as a necessary first step toward making new tolerance recommendations. anyone working on a Federal contract should carefully check his specifications. . Since some Government agencies may still be following these recommendations. The American Concrete Institute has a special committee assigned to development of a system of tolerances for concrete construction. beam soffits and in arrises In 10 feet ± 1⁄4 inch In any bay or 20 feet maximum ± 3⁄8 inch In 40 feet or more ± 3⁄4 inch For exposed lintels. These. ceilings. howe ve r. Some years ago the Building Research Advisory Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommended considerably more restrictive tolerances. sills. The ACI tolerances would probably fit into this class. Either course can have its pitfalls. • Unique high-precision requirements—such as for tool or turbine installation. fabrication of reinforcement and setting of reinforcement) which may be in conflict. • Appearance tolerances—to set a standard for exterior columns. beams and walls where the applied finish cannot mask errors. If there are several applicable tolerances (for example on f o rm s.

A good tolerance specification should include definitions of special terms and state the tolerances as nearly as possible in the same order as the construction sequence. such as distances between column faces rather than center line to center line. It is also important to provide that in the event of conflict a variation permitted in one section of the specification for concrete work is not to be construed as permitting violation of more stringent requirements in another section. No tolerance specified for building lines or footings should be interpreted to permit encroachment beyond legal site boundaries. The ideal situation would be to have a clear-cut specification with frequent enough checking to see that reasonable compliance is being achieved.tolerances but if bickering and bad feeling develop for whatever reason. the designer should indicate how measurements will be taken and suggest possible means of obtaining acceptable work. strict enforcement of tolerance requirements may be used to penalize the builder. One of the basic hazards in specifying tolerances is the possibility of more than one interpretation. This is why the ACI 347 re- . The contractor should not be held responsible for deflections which occur after forms and shores are removed (assuming that the shoring remains in place the correct length of time). permanent shores and the like may be needed he will be able to allow for these items and avoid negotiating for extras later on. The designer can avoid arguments by showing dimensions that can be directly measured. someone dissatisfied with the work tries to invoke “reasonable” tolerances. extra bracing. steel forms. If the bidder is aware that special screeds. Camber and deflection problems Special problems of deflection and shortening are inherent in every structure and these should be dealt with by the correct selection of a design concept rather than by inclusion in a tolerance specification. Similar things happen even though tolerances are not specified. There should also be an explicit statement of whether a permitted variation for any element is unidirectional or multidirectional. Where other than ordinary tolerances are required. Wording of the specification is as important as the numerical values that are given.

PUBLICATION#C740210 Copyright © 1974. Birkeland. pages 600-607. Philip W. 1968. Tolerances for reinforcing steel ACI 318-71 “Building Code Requirements for Reinforced Conc re t e” establishes cover requirements for rebars and defines tolerances in the cover as well as tolerances for bar placement. If the builder knows in advance what tolerances are required and how they will be enforced he has a better chance to deliver on both price and promises—to fulfill the contract to the satisfaction of all concerned. ACI Committee 347. Nichols. Today. Allowable tolerance on d and on clear cover: d of 8 inches or less: ± 1⁄4 inch d between 8 and 24 inches: ± 3⁄8 inch d of 24 inches or more: ± 1⁄2 inch Howe ve r. Even more important is to have sufficient open communication before the job begins so that painful disagreement is avoided. Since accurate deflection calculations are difficult and beyond the normal expertise of the builder. “Tolerances in Building Construction. “Recommended Practice for Concrete Formwork (ACI 347-68). They vary with the effective stru c t u ra l depth d to the centroid of the reinforcement. Since the effective depth and clear concrete cover are parts of the total depth. and Westhoff. He should also decide how much added camber is needed to overcome “optical sag” in long-span horizontal members. Bar placing tolerances must not be allowed to become additive with tolerances for formwork. the designer should specify the amount and shape of camber desired to compensate for structural deflection.quirements indicate that slab soffit elevations should be measured before shore removal. pages 493-496. the Code limits reduction in cover to one-third of the specified amount.. the deflection of the finished structure is a bigger problem.” ACI Journal.” ACI Journal. Leonard. the tolerances on these dimensions are directly related to tolerances on overall depth of member which must be considered by the form builder. April 1940. 3. A carefully prepared design that allows for reasonable deviations without sacrificing utility or appearance should help reduce building costs.” American Concrete Institute. and strength design methods that lead to members with larger span-depth ratios than formerly. the interests and objectives of all three must be considered simultaneously. their efforts. John R. “Dimensional Tolerances in Tall Concrete Building. This is a case where the designer may have to provide special tolerances as noted above. with increasing use of flat plates. 34 pages. leaving the steel with insufficient cover or depth. Toward a better understanding It should be the responsibility of the designer to decide what tolerances are required and the responsibility of the builder to produce the s t ru c t u re to these tolerances. thin shells. deflections of concrete structures were rarely a problem and the builder used a rule of thumb for form camber to compensate for deflection and optical sag of the finished structure. The Aberdeen Group All rights reserved . In the past. 2. The owner must pay both of them for REFERENCES 1.. Practically speaking. August 1971.