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LSD2000: International Workshop on Limit State Design in Geotechnical Engineering

Melbourne, Australia. 18 November 2000

Partial factors: where to apply them?
Brian Simpson
Arup Geotechnics, London, UK

ABSTRACT: The application of partial factor design in geotechnics has been under debate for several
decades. Although the approach has some obvious, and generally accepted, benefits, it has proved
very difficult to reach agreement on where in the calculation process partial factors should be applied.
In this paper, it is argued that four issues should determine the point in calculations at which factors
are applied:
• the factors should directly cover the principal uncertainties involved in the calculation, whilst also
adequately covering secondary uncertainties
• the factors should lead to designs in which both geometry and strength are adequate and
• the factors should not be applied to quantities which may become negligible as a result of a
balance between loads (actions)
• the factors must improve the safety of the design, which will generally mean changing the design
from what it might otherwise have been.

These concepts are illustrated by examples.


The application of partial factor design in geotechnics has been under debate for several decades.
Although the approach has some obvious, and generally accepted, benefits, it has proved very difficult
to reach agreement on where in the calculation process partial factors should be applied. Although
some engineers would still argue for single global factors of safety, the main alternative views now
relate to applying factors either to primary variables – material properties and actions, or to some
variable obtained part way through the calculation – resistances and action effects. A related question
is the application of factors to models, both resistance and action effect models.
A partial resolution of these problems was proposed in the 1994 publication of Eurocode 7,
ENV1997-1 (eg BSI DD ENV1997 (1995)). This required that the designer considered three “cases”
A, B and C, which were sets of partial factors for both actions and materials (or alternatively
resistances in some cases). The factors of Case B were derived from normal structural design, and
those of Case C from geotechnical design; Case A related to situations where loads were in balance
with little involvement of material strength. The ENV required, in effect, that all designs should
comply with all three cases in all respects, both geotechnical and structural; that is, complete designs
of the geometry and structural strength were to be checked separately against all three sets of factors.
It was noted that in many situations the critical case might be obvious by inspection, in which case it
would not be necessary to produce formal calculations for all three cases.
More recently, because there was no overall agreement on the system to be adopted, further cases
have been added to be used as alternatives. The purposes of these have been:
a) to reduce the number of calculations required
b) to introduce factors on resistances and action effects rather than on material properties and actions
c) to introduce model factors.
Table 1 shows the values of partial factors proposed by ENV1997-1, with the action factors for
Case A modified as required by more recent thinking. In Case A, permanent actions for a single
source are split into their unfavourable or favourable components, whilst in Case B the same factor,
1.35 or 1.0, is applied to any permanent action from a single source. This scheme is identical with

that used in structural design. It is usually, but not invariably, found that Case C governs the
geometry of the design of a geotechnical structure. The structural strength required is often governed
by Case B, but sometimes by Case C. Case A governs rarely, but is none the less important.

Table 1. Partial factors Χ ultimate limit states in persistent and transient situations (ENV1997-1)
Actions Ground Properties

Case Permanent Variable
tan φ c' cu qu 1)
Unfavou- Favoura- Unfavou-
rable ble rable

Case A 1.1 0.90 1.50 1.1 1.3 1.2 1.2

Case B 1.35 1.00 1.50 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0

Case C 1.00 1.00 1.30 1.25 1.6 1.4 1.4

1) Compressive strength of soil or rock.

Table 2 shows a new nomenclature for three alternative “Design Approaches”, briefly summarised
from the latest draft of EN1997-1. Whilst the ENV required that all three cases be checked, the draft
EN offers the three design approaches as alternatives.

Table 2. Three design approaches in prEN1997-1.
Design approach Brief description
1 Generally, apply all three cases A, B and C, checking both geometry and strength,
(as ENV1997-1) geotechnical and structural.
For piles and anchors, apply resistance factors in place of the materials factors.
Where application of action factors is physically unreasonable, the factors may be
applied to action effects (particularly applies to water pressure effects on retaining
2 Check Case A for stability but not for strength.
Apply Case B action factors to action effects in the structure.
Simultaneously, apply factors to ground resistances such as passive pressure and
bearing resistance.
For slope stability problems, check Case C.
3 Check Case A for stability but not for strength.
Apply Case B action factors either to actions or to action effects (to be determined
nationally for particular situations), together with Case C materials factors
(possibly slightly reduced).


Before discussing where in the calculation process factors should be applied, it is first necessary to
consider their overall purpose. It is unlikely that any system will perfectly satisfy the requirements,
even if they are clearly understood, and there is a great danger that attempts to get a perfect system
lead to complexity and confusion, which could very easily cause designers to make dangerous errors.
Three main purposes for partial factors may be distinguished:
a) to allow for uncertainty in material properties, actions or calculation models;
b) to ensure that deformations are acceptable. Essentially this means using limit equilibrium
calculations to achieve serviceability limit state design;
c) to achieve compatibility with past practice which has been shown to be safe.
The first two of these represent fundamentally different approaches and lead to much heated
debate. However, in application they are often very similar, and when tempered by (c), it may be
difficult to determine whether (a) or (b) actually determines the selected values of factors. Both must
be achieved in an acceptable design, and it is often found that direct calculation of deformation or

working stresses, which would provide a more fundamental approach to serviceability design, is not
sufficiently reliable.
Item (b) tends to suggest that factors on the materials side should be applied directly to material
strength, since it is the gradual mobilisation of strength that causes deformation. However, an
alternative approach of applying factors to resistance can be developed in some cases.


Design calculations include many sources of uncertainty: actions (loads), derivation of action effects
by an action effect model, material strengths, and resistances of structural sections or zones of ground,
derived using a resistance model. The effect, later in a calculation, of an uncertainty at one point in a
calculation is not easily foreseen and may be highly disproportionate. Hence, factors should be
applied to the uncertainties themselves, where possible, so that their effects on derived quantities may
result from the calculation, rather than being assumed by code-drafters.

It is important, however, that the number of factors be kept as small as possible, in order to minimise
the risk of confusion, which could cause mistakes in calculation. Most schemes have therefore chosen
to factor only some of the uncertain parameters, with the intention of giving a sufficient margin to
cover those not factored. In this case it is important that the principal uncertainties are directly
factored, especially any which might have disproportionate, or non-linear effects elsewhere. In
geotechnical design, material strength is often the principal uncertainty, suggesting that the strength of
the ground should be factored at source.

3.1 Non-linear effects

The Eurocode on Basis of Design, EN1990, notes an important point in relation to actions, which is
relevant to item (a) above:

For non-linear analysis (i.e. when the relationship between actions and their effects is not
linear), the following simplified rules may be considered in the case of a single predominant
action :
a) When the action effect increases more than the action (as line A in Figure 1), the partial
factor γF should be applied to the representative value of the action.
b) When the action effect increases less than the action (as line B in Figure 1), the partial
factor γF should be applied to the action effect of the representative value of the action.

In other words, the factor should be applied to the basic variable, or to a quantity derived later in
the calculation, according to where its effect will be most severe. If the same approach is applied to
materials, particularly that of non-linear, frictional materials, it will generally require that factors are
applied to material strength, rather than to calculated material resistances. For example, bearing
capacity increases more, in proportion, than the angle of shearing resistance (or tan φ′) from which it
is calculated, so it is appropriate in this case to apply the factor to the material property, tan φ′, rather
than to bearing resistance itself.
Another example arises in the design of embedded retaining walls, where the magnitude of the
maximum bending moment increases more than linearly with the applied earth pressures, which
themselves change more than linearly with soil strength, expressed as tanφ′. The EN1990 rule would
here imply that factors should be applied directly to earth pressures, or better still to tanφ′, rather than
to the action effect, bending moment.

3.2 Geometric parameters and water pressure

Often ground water pressure is also an important uncertainty, and it is difficult to make any sensible
allowance for this except by modifying the design water pressure or water level itself. Similarly,

designs for embedded retaining walls are very sensitive to the ground level assumed in front of them.
This may be uncertain, either because of imperfect workmanship or because of natural or human
processes causing erosion in the long term. It is not possible to allow for these geometric
uncertainties in a rational way be applying factors to a derived variable later in the calculation, so it is
appropriate to make direct allowances in the design values of the geometric parameters, ground level
or ground water level.

Figure 1. Relationships between actions and action effects

3.3 Model factors

In some situations, significant uncertainty may lie in the calculation models for either resistances or
action effects. ENV1997-1 did not contain detailed calculation models, so could not give values for
partial factors on specific models. Instead, it required that all calculation models must either be
conservative or they must be modified (eg factored) to ensure that they would “either be accurate or
err on the side of safety”. In the specific cases of piles and anchors, a different approach was taken, as
discussed below.
In structural design, steel is generally a much more reliable material than concrete. However,
steel is used in thin sections and small imperfections in manufacture may have big effects. It is
therefore logical that in design of reinforced concrete partial factors are applied to the material
strength of concrete, but in steel design the factors are applied to steel sections and connections,
effectively a factor on the resistance model. This has led to different approaches in Eurocode 2, for
concrete and Eurocode 3, for steel structures.

3.4 Factors must improve safety

One consideration is obvious: the purpose of the partial factors is to improve safety, and for this they
must lead to a modification in the design. In particular, there will be no purpose in applying factors to
a derived quantity which, due to the balance of other variables, may turn out to be close to zero.
Some examples which help to indicate where factors should be applied will now be considered.
Most of these have been debated by people involved in Eurocode 7, but without overall agreement on
the outcomes.

3.5 Finite element analysis

The application of factors in finite element and other numerical analyses is discussed in this workshop
by Bauduin, M. De Vos and B. Simpson (2000), in relation to ultimate limit state design. The main

conclusion of this study is that partial factors should in most cases be applied to soil strength rather
than to resistances derived from the strength.

Figure 2. The “brick on table” problem


4.1 The “brick on table” problem

Figure 2 shows a very simple conceptual problem which illustrates the significance of “Case A”, and
also the fact that all features of a design must comply with a given set of partial factors. A brick is
balanced on the edge of a table. The “characteristic” design of the brick assumes that it is uniform,
each half of the brick having characteristic weight Wk. So with no allowances for uncertainties it is
balanced, without any external force applied at point A. However, any small deviation from this
uniform state, or any small extra load on its right hand side, would make it unstable.
Suppose it is decided to restrain the brick, allowing for uncertainties in loading, by a vertical
anchor at point A; this could be structural anchor bolt or a ground anchor. Then what should be the
required design resistance, Rd, for the anchor? Design approach 1, as in the ENV, would require that
the Case A factors be applied to the two halves of the brick. Taking moments about point O, this
gives a design anchor resistance of

Rd = (1.1Wk×0.5a – 0.9Wk×0.5a)/a = 0.2Wk

In Design Approach 2, the stability is first checked using Case A, but the anchor is designed to Case
B, and not to Case A. For Case B, the same factor is applied to all components of the permanent
action from a single source, so:

Rd = (1.35×Wk×0.5a – 1.35×Wk×0.5a)/a = 0

If, alternatively, the characteristic anchor force is first calculated, this would be

Rk = (Wk×0.5a – Wk×0.5a)/a = 0

Hence Rd = γF Rk = 0

It would clearly be incompatible to design the stability of the brick to Case A but the strength of the
anchor to Case B. Case A would require an anchor for stability, but Case B would lead to a design

with no strength for the anchor. Although Case A is intended to deal with situations, like this one, in
which forces are nearly in balance, it is clear that if it results in a requirement for structural or
geotechnical strength, then this strength must also be checked for Case A.
An alternative approach would be to find the anchor force to Case A, using ULS design values for the
weights of the half-bricks, then treat this as a characteristic force for design of the anchor, applying
Case B factors to the action effect, the anchor force. This would give a non-zero anchor force equal to
1.35×0.2W = 0.27W, which is 35% more severe than the 0.2W required by Approach 1. An objection
to this approach is that it takes design action effects, then treats them as characteristic values for the
next calculation, so increasing conservatism.

4.2 Tied retaining wall – derived quantities near zero

Figure 3a shows a situation in which a sheet pile retaining wall is required. Using unfactored soil
strengths, it could provide equilibrium, as a cantilever, with a length of 11.6m. However, any system
of factoring would indicate that it requires a longer length to work safely as a cantilever. For
example, Design Approach 1 above would give a length of 14m for a cantilever, as shown in
Figure 3b.

(a) Situation for which a retaining wall is required. (b) Cantilever: Design Approach 1.

(c) Tied retaining wall: Design Approach 1. (d) Tied retaining wall, characteristic state.

Figure 3. Tied cantilever wall

Now suppose that, for reasons external to the design calculations, it is decided that the length of
the wall will be 12m and further safety is to be provided by an anchor acting at 1m from the top of the
sheet pile as shown in Figure 3a. This could occur because sheet piles of 12m length are readily
available, or possibly because the sheet pile wall is already in place when the required depth of
excavation in front of it becomes known. The design requirements now are to check that the wall is
sufficiently stable with a tie at 1m depth, and to find the required design resistance for the tie. For
economy, the designer wants to adopt the minimum allowable design tie force.
Relevant calculations are summarised in Table 3. Calculations to Case C confirm that a length of
11.9m will be sufficient provided the tie has a design resistance of 75 kN/m, as shown in Figure 3c.
The calculation for Case B is less severe, so Case C determines the design in Design Approach 1.
Since a wall length of 11.6m was sufficient to give equilibrium as a cantilever using unfactored
characteristic soil properties, the minimum tie force calculated using characteristic properties is 0.0, as
shown in Figure 3d. Hence an approach which calculates this characteristic action effect, then applies
a factor to it, will require a minimum design tie force of 0. As with the “brick on table” example, it is
important to place the factors near the source of the uncertainty they represent; factors applied to the
action effects, such as the tie force in this case, come too late in the calculation.
An alternative approach could be considered in which both the ground effects and the structural
action effects are factored. For this purpose, factors could be applied either to the ground strengths
(tanφ′) or to the ground ‘resistance’ – available passive pressure. However, it has been found that
systems of this type which are sufficiently safe in all cases tend to be uneconomic in situations such as
the one described here.

Table 3. Summary of calculations for tied retaining wall.
Case C without Case C with anchor Characteristic state
γ kN/m3 17 17 17
φ′k ° 35 35 35
γφ 1.25 1.25 1.0
φ′d ° 29.3 29.3 35
δ/φ′ active 2
⁄3 2
⁄3 2
δ/φ′ passive -1 -1 -1
Kad 0.29 0.29 0.22
Kpd 5.4 5.4 8.35
Design anchor force kN/m - 75 0
Length m 13.93 11.86 11.56
Data B-2CC B-2CP B-1

4.3 Design of piles – importance of model uncertainty

In some situations, the properties of materials are well understood, but the design resistance offered
by a structural element or zone of ground is nevertheless uncertain. It was suggested above that steel
sections offer one example of this, the strength of the section being more uncertain than that of the
base material.
In the geotechnical field, the design resistances of piles also lie in this category. For these, it was
reckoned in drafting ENV1997-1 that the major uncertainty was not the strength of the in situ ground
but the way the construction would interact with it. The partial factor required is largely a factor on
the resistance model, rather than on the strength of material. In such cases, it is appropriate to factor
resistance rather than material strength.
It was therefore considered that factors should be applied to the overall resistance given by a pile
or anchor rather than the material strength of the ground; the resistance could, with advantage, be
divided into the base and shaft components, considered separately. This approach was adopted in
ENV1997 and is followed also in draft EN 1997-1.

4.4 Cantilever retaining wall – compatibility of length and strength

Figure 4 shows the characteristic situation for design of a cantilever retaining wall. Relevant
calculations are shown in Table 4, all based on simple active and passive pressures for this cantilever

Figure 4. Characteristic situation for an embedded cantilever retaining wall.

Table 4. Calculations for cantilever retaining wall
Fs=1.5 F=1 Case C F=1
overdig overdig
Column 1 2 3 4
γφ =Fs 1.5 1.0 1.25 1.0
φ′d 17.3 25 20.5 25
δ/φ′ active ⁄3 ⁄3 ⁄3 ⁄3
2 2 2 2

δ/φ′ passive ½ ½ ⁄3 ½

Ka 0.49 0.36 0.43 0.36
Kp 2.28 3.47 2.8 3.47
Overdig (m) 0 0 0.4 0.4
Surcharge (kPa) 0 0 0 0

Length (m) 15.2 (10.0) 14.42 11.95
BM (kNm/m) (822) 303 808 511
BM factor 1.5 1.0 1.5 ??
ULS BM (kNm/m) (822) 455 808 767 ??
Factor (Zel/Zpl) 1 0.8
ULS BM for Zel (822) 455 646

Present British design is represented by CIRIA Report 104 (Padfield & Mair (1984), in which this
is Example B2). This uses separate calculations of the geometry (length) and strength of the wall.

The length is first calculated using factors applied either to soil strength, as in Column 1 of Table 4, or
to passive resistance. Then a separate calculation is used to determine the bending moment, with no
factors on soil strength or resistance; a factor of 1.5 is applied to the derived bending moment to
obtain a ULS design value (Column 2).
The first two columns of Table 4 show that if the full length of the wall were ever needed, the
bending moment generated (822 kNm/m in column 1) is likely to far exceed the ULS bending
moment for which the wall is designed (455 kNm/m in column 2), but this feature is disregarded in
the British design. Perhaps as a result of this, comparisons have shown that British designs require
long walls, and for many retaining walls built in Britain the steel section is actually determined by
driving capacity rather than calculated bending moment.
Column 3 shows the design required by EC7 Approach 1, for which Case C is critical here. EC7
specifies that an allowance shall be made in the geometry of the problem, lowering the design level of
the supporting soil by 0.5m. As noted above, uncertainty in this level has a major effect on the
design, and the only way to make a rational allowance for it is to change the ground level used in the
calculation. Nevertheless, the EC7 design requires a shorter wall than the CIRIA design, though a
significantly bigger bending moment is calculated.
The EC7 Approach 1 design has compatible length and strength in the wall; that is, its length and
strength are both adequate for the most severe design situation to which it is subjected. This is not
achieved by methods in which characteristic bending moments are multiplied by factors to obtain
ULS values. The CIRIA Report 104 falls into this category, requiring insufficient strength to use the
design length. The same problem exists, in the writer’s opinion, with EC7 Design Approach 2
The bigger bending moment calculated for EC7 is largely a result of its requirement of lowering
the passive ground level by 0.5m. Column 4 of Table 4 shows that if the same allowance had been
applied in the CIRIA calculation, the bending moment would have increased by 70%. The latest draft
of EC7 qualifies its requirement for lower design ground level on the passive side. It is sanguine to
note, however, what a large effect on cantilever bending moment a comparatively small variation in
ground level can have.
Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, it is noted that the final choice of steel section for
this sheet pile wall will depend on the requirements of the structural code to which it is designed.
Simpson and Driscoll (1998) point out that Eurocode 3 Part 5 allows the full plastic moment
resistance to be used for sheet piles, whereas previous codes have used the elastic resistance. Hence
the calculation of a higher ultimate limit state bending moment to EC7 does not imply undue cost.
The trends shown by this example are typical of other situations, as illustrated by further examples
presented by Simpson and Driscoll.


This paper has argued that:

• partial factors should be applied as directly as possible to the principal uncertainties is in a design,
rather than to quantities derived later in the calculation;
• partial factors should not be applied to quantities which may become near zero due to the
balancing of various actions;
• the system adopted should lead to compatible length and strength in design of structural elements
• uncertainties in geometric parameters, such as ground levels and water levels, are best covered by
direct adjustment of these parameters, rather than by safety factors applied elsewhere in the

In most cases, this leads to the conclusion that partial factors should be applied to the strength of the
ground and to actions, rather than to geotechnical resistances and action effects. Some exceptions to
this have been noted. A similar conclusion is reported by Bauduin, M. De Vos and B. Simpson
(2000), in relation to the use of finite element analysis for ultimate limit state design in geotechnics.


Bauduin, C, De Vos, M & Simpson, B (2000). Some Considerations on the Use of Finite Element
Methods in Ultimate Limit State Design. LSD2000: Int. Workshop on Limit State Design in
Geotechnical Engineering, ISSMGE, TC23, Melbourne.

BSI DD ENV1997 (1995) Eurocode 7: Geotechnical Design (Part 1: General Rules; together with
United Kingdom National Application Document) British Standards Institution Draft for
Development. ENV 1997-1: 1995.

Padfield, C.J. & Mair, R.J. (1984) Design of retaining walls embedded in stiff clay. CIRIA Report

Simpson, B & Driscoll, R (1998) Eurocode 7 - a commentary. Construction Research
Communications Ltd, Watford, UK.