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Module 6 Earth Pressure

We have already encountered the concept of Earth Pressure in Module 4. The next four
modules will deal with the issue of Earth Pressure (also known as lateral or horizontal
pressure). We will be investigating three different scenarios that involve earth pressure:
1. Rock anchoring and tied-earth structures [Module 6]
2. Gravity retaining walls [Module 7]
3. Structural retaining walls [Module 8]
To begin, we will investigate the most common use of lateral pressure; to resist horizontal
pressure from earth movements.
Without some form of resistance, unstable cliffs and embankments can collapse, as you can
see in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Holbeck Hall Landslip, UK


Figure 2 demonstrates the basic processes involved in a landslip event. The earth slides
sideways. The slip surfaces are roughly circular.

Figure 2

Landslip process


Landslips can be very destructive. On 30 July, 1997, a landslip in Thredbo ski village
destroyed two ski lodges and killed 18 people.

Figure 3

Thredbo landslide


We will now explore why landslips are so destructive and why the design and construction of
retaining walls is so important.


Vertical Earth Pressure

It is best to start with a simple model of the soil behind the retaining wall. From the basic
properties of the soil, such as the density, we can determine the vertical earth pressure. We
can think of the soil as composed of blocks that are one cubic metre.

1.1 Unit Weight of the Soil

For simplicity, we will assume that the block has a density of 2000 kg/m3. The density of a soil
can be determined on site by a simple density test (refer to AS 1289 Soil Investigation Code).
Using basic Physics that you learned in 300050 Physics 1, Newtons Third Law,
Force F



Mass m

x Acceleration due to Gravity g

[ms -2]

In the same way, the density of the soil can be converted in a Unit Force quantity, known as
the Unit Weight.
In our example,
Unit Weight
20,000 N/m


2,000 kg/m

x Acceleration due to Gravity g


10 ms-2


The Unit Weight is usually represented in kiloNewtons per cubic metre. Hence, the
answer in our example would be: = 20 kN/m3.


A more accurate estimate for the Acceleration due to Gravity would be 9.8 ms-2.
However, geotechnics is very uncertain. It is not possible to know with any great
accuracy, the ground conditions that you will encounter. Hence, geotechnical
engineers tend to use very large safety factors, of 3 to 4. It matters little if the
acceleration is taken as 9.8 or 10 ms-2.

The unit weight depends on the mineralogy of the soil and the degree of saturation.
Iron-rich soils (known as mafic) are much heavier than aluminium- or silicon-rich soils (known
as felsic). Similarly, if the soil is inundated with groundwater, the unit weight will increase.

1.2 Vertical Pressure

The vertical earth pressure, which also known as overburden pressure or surcharge,
can be determined from the density (kg/m3) or the unit weight (kN/m3).

If we take the Unit Weight of a block of soil as 20 kN/m3, then a cubic metre block of soil
would weigh:
Weight of soil

Unit Weight s x Volume of the block

20 kN/m3 x 1 m3

20 kN (or approximately 2 tonnes)

We can calculate the pressure that the block would place on a surface below. Its plan
dimensions are 1 metre by 1 metre.
From basic physics,
Pressure v


20 kN
1 m2

20 kN/m2 or 20 kPa.

Figure 4 First block

If another block were placed on top of the first, then the vertical pressure below would double
to 40 kPa;

Figure 5 Second block

After three blocks the vertical pressure would be 60 kPa.

Figure 6 Third block

The vertical pressure is proportional to the depth below the surface. As more overburden is
placed on the base, the pressure will increase.
The overburden pressure can be determined from the following equation:
The overburden (or vertical) pressure, v, is given by the equation:
v = s z
where z is the depth of the soil under investigation


Horizontal Pressure

If we return to our example of stacked blocks of soil, we can illustrate how horizontal pressure
develops in a soil.
As the second block is placed on the first, the lower block will begin to sag. After the third
block, the sag of the lowest block will increase. If the column of soil blocks were placed
adjacent to a retaining wall, the retaining wall would experience lateral (or horizontal)
The bulging of the soil is minimal at the top, hence the lateral earth pressure is small at the
top of the wall. In fact for a granular backfill, the lateral earth pressure will always be zero at
the top of the wall. Since the soil will try to bulge most at the bottom of the wall, the earth
pressure will be greatest at the bottom.

2.1 Analogy of Hydrostatic Pressure

Any material that can flow, like water, (wheat)grain or even soil, exerts a lateral
The size of the lateral pressure depends on the shearing characteristics of the material.
Lateral pressure is magnified when the material has little shear strength, such as a perfect
fluid like water or air. Water has no resistance to shear. It will flow away from applied
As you saw in Module 2, shearing is a way for soil to transfer superstructure loads, sideways
and downwards. A retaining wall only experiences the sideways effect. Some of the
overburden pressure is transferred downwards into the ground.
If we return to the analogy of blocks of soil, as you add more blocks to the stack, the lowest
block of soil will sag further and further. A strong soil (with high shear strength) will only sag a
little with each load; a weak soil (with low shear strength) will sag a lot. The weakest soil, a
slurry, will sag dramatically as the load is applied. Slurries, and indeed water, are easily
In slurries and water, the vertical loads are transferred to horizontal pressure (as shown in
Figure 7). The horizontal pressure increases down the tank because of the weight of the water
above. The lateral pressures, H, are actually as large as the vertical pressures, V. Using an
example from our industry, soil slurry cannot be held by a retaining wall. Under the action of
its self-weight, it will flow under the wall.
ie. for water or slurry, H = V

Figure 7 Hydrostatic pressure

2.2 Earth Pressure

The lateral pressure H is usually expressed as a proportion of the vertical pressure, V.
H = K V
Stiffer (high shear strength) materials have small K values. For instance, sand has K values of
0.33 while gravel has K values of 0.22. Water has a K value of 1.
The way the retaining wall reacts to lateral pressure is also important. The retaining wall can
be forced against the soil, increasing the K value and the lateral pressure (Passive) or it can
move away from the soil, reducing the K value and the lateral pressure (Active) [refer to
Section 3.1 for more detail].

Figure 8 Earth pressure

(from Spangler & Handy:p. 530)

For soils, the magnitude of K depends on movement of the retaining wall.

There are three types of earth pressures;
Active Earth Pressure; the retaining wall moves away from the earth.
If the retaining wall is able to give a little, then the retained soil will move enough for the soil
particles to interlock, increasing their own resistance to shear. The retaining wall has to take
less of the lateral load.
The amount of movement is relatively minor. It is usually about 0.25 % to 1 % of the height of
the wall. A 5 metre wall must rotate 50 mm at the top to reduce the earth pressure to the
active case.
Active earth pressure is actually less than the Earth-at-rest pressure.
Earth Pressure-at-Rest; the retaining wall is restrained from moving
Sometimes, the retaining wall is prevented from rotating by the superstructure. In this case,
the retaining wall must carry all the lateral pressure from the retained soil. The At-rest
pressure can be double the Active earth pressure.

A builder can also induce the same conditions if he does not provide sufficient construction
joints in the face of the retaining wall. Similarly, if reinforcing bars in the retaining wall are
carried across a construction joint, the wall can become too rigid to flex with the earth
Passive Earth Pressure; the wall moves forward into the soil
You can actually fail a retaining wall by jacking it. Its the reverse of active pressure. The soil
isnt pushing the wall; the wall, through rock anchors, is actually pushing on the soil. There is
a limit to the amount of force you can put on a soil before it starts to move in the opposite
direction. Thankfully, the force is much larger than the active earth pressure, because you
have push all the retained soil up and out of the way. As well as overcoming the shearing
resistance of the soil, you have to impart a pressure large enough to shift the dead weight of
the soil.
The strain needed to mobilise the passive earth pressure is far more than active pressure.
2% to 4% for dense sands
10% to 15% for loose sands
In the case of a 5 metre anchored wall, soil must be pushed backwards 500mm to 750 mm.
There is not much danger of failing a retaining wall, even with loose packing behind it.

Figure 9 Lateral coefficients Ka and Kp

(from Bowles, Foundation Analysis & Design, p. 382.)


Calculation of Active Earth Pressure

We can use the concept of a stress trajectory to determine the Active Earth Pressure
coefficient, Ka, as shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10

Transformation of vertical to horizontal pressure

As the overburden pressure is placed on the backfill, the squashing process produces two
A. A horizontal pressure is generated on the retaining wall
B. At the same time, some of the overburden pressure is transferred into the foundation
below. The process involves shearing; the maximum shear stresses occur at 45o to
the overburden pressure.
We can show these effects on a Normal Stress versus Shear Stress diagram. Point A
represents the overburden pressure (vertical) while Point C represents the earth pressure
(horizontal) on the retaining wall. In between, the vertical pressure is turned into a shear
stress (maximum at 45o to the horizontal and vertical pressures) and then finally back to a
normal stress on the retaining wall.

Figure 11 Stress state behind a retaining wall


We can combine the stress trajectory diagram with the Mohr-Coulomb diagram to determine
how much shearing a backfill soil can take before it fails.
The active earth pressure is derived from the Mohr - Coulomb failure envelope. The
active earth pressure represents the load imposed by the soil on the wall at failure.

Figure 12 Change in active earth pressures

The Mohr-Coulomb diagram, that we encountered in Module 1, can be used to explain what
happens in the soil, as Earth pressure is applied to the wall. We will only investigate the case
of a granular backfill (ie. c = 0). The diagram applies to a point in the soil so A, B and C do
not correspond to physical positions in the soil, but rather stress states on different planes at
the point. The radii, ABC, can be considered as stress trajectories. Vertical pressure from the
self-weight (soil) or overburden (buildings, etc) is transformed to horizontal pressure on the
retaining wall; just as we saw with water or slurry in the Section 2.1. For water, A = C, since
water cannot resist shear [the Mohr-Coulomb failure envelope would be flat on the x-axis].
The Mohr-Coulomb diagram is used to calculate the lateral pressure, C3, at failure (using
Point C1. corresponds to the earth pressure-at-rest. It is the lateral earth pressure on the
retaining wall, before the backfill has been able to interlock completely.
As the retaining wall gives, the lateral pressure on the retaining wall decreases; firstly to C2
and finally C3. When the pressure trajectory reaches the Mohr-Coulomb failure envelope (the
black line on Figure 12), the soil fails. A soil particle cannot experience conditions of normal
and shear stress beyond the Mohr-Coulomb failure envelope without failing.
Notice that the shearing pressure also increases (from B1 to B2 and finally B3), as the lateral
pressure on the wall reduces. The soil backfill has to work harder, as the retaining wall gives.


The limiting values of Normal and Shear pressure are given by the Mohr-Coulomb failure
envelope. This envelope is derived from the Shear Box test (see Module 1). When a retaining
wall is allowed to give, the value of H will diminish until part of the stress path reaches the
Failure Envelope.
By geometry (See Das, p. 385-388 for the more general case), we can calculate the limiting
value of the lateral earth pressure (C3):
H = Ka v
where Ka = tan2 (45 - /2)
v = z
The value of the horizontal pressure decreases until we get to a limiting value Ka.
The failure plane is inclined to the vertical at a slope of = 45o -
The highest values of the horizontal pressure, H, are at the base of the retaining wall, where
the overburden pressure (or vertical pressure) v is highest.


Worked Example
Find the equivalent horizontal force that is applied to the retaining wall, using the data
provided in Figure 13.

Figure 13 Earth pressure data

The vertical overburden pressure is given by the equation:
= z
The vertical overburden pressure is zero at the top of the wall. At the bottom, the pressure is:
max = 20 * 10 = 200 kN/m2
Any superimposed loads (from construction materials, buildings, etc) must be added to the
overburden pressure.
At the top of the wall, the vertical pressure produced by the superimposed load is given by:
V min = 10 kN/m2
The maximum vertical pressure is given by:
V max = 200 + 10 = 210 kN/m2
The pressure (or stress) distribution is shown in Figure 14.


Figure 14 Vertical pressure in backfill

The horizontal pressure is determined as the equation:
H = Ka
The horizontal pressure is a simple fraction of the vertical pressure. The horizontal pressure,
H, is zero at the top of the wall and a maximum at the base.
Ka = tan2(45 - /2) = tan2(45 25/2) = (tan 32.5o)2 = 0.406
The minimum horizontal pressure is given by:
H min = 0.406 * 10 kN/m2 = 4.06 kN/m2
The maximum horizontal pressure is given by:
V max = 0.406 * 210 kN/m2 = 85 kN/m2
The horizontal stress (or pressure) distribution is shown in Figure 15.


Figure 15 Horizontal pressure

The average horizontal pressure on the wall is (4 + 85)/2 = 44.5 kN/m2.
Taking just a one metre length of retaining wall, its surface area would be:
A = 10 m * 1 m = 10 m2.
Since pressure (or stress) can calculated from a force, F, as:
= F / A
If we rearrange the equation, the equivalent force on the retaining wall can be determined:
F = * A = 44.5 kN/m2 * 10 m2 = 445 kN
To find the mass of the earth force, we divide by g, the acceleration due to gravity [10 m/s2].
M = F / 10 = 445 * 103 / 10 = 44,500 kilograms
or 44.5 tonnes.
In other words, a 10 metre retaining wall has the equivalent mass of a D8 bulldozer locked
up in every metre length of wall [10 metre long wall10 bulldozers]
...waiting to crush an unsuspecting builder!



Earth Reinforcement

The simplest form of retaining wall works directly against the lateral earth pressure.
Strips of polypropylene, galvanised or stainless steel are embedded in the backfill. The strips
are structurally connected to facing panels. While the facing panels must be designed to
withstand earth pressures between the ties (reinforcing strips), the system is much simpler
than a cantilever retaining wall [Module 8].
The reinforcing strips resist the movement of the backfill under load. Horizontal forces
are transferred to the strips by friction. Since the strips are tied back into the backfill, the
reinforcement must be torn before the retaining wall can fail. The system has been used on
walls that are 15 metres high.
The fill behind the facing panels must be carefully placed so that earth pressures are
transferred efficiently beyond the slip zone.
The system is marvellously simple. As you can see from Figure 16, the greatest embedment
of the strips (beyond the slip zone) occurs at the base of the wall (where the slip plane is
closest to the facing panels). In other words, the greatest frictional resistance is developed
precisely where the greatest earth pressures are!

Figure 16

Reinforced earth walls

Groundwater drainage can be simple; a geotextile on the inner face to stop fines from
bleeding through the joints in the facing panels. However, some engineers design elaborate
piped collection systems on the inside of the facing panels of free-draining aggregate and


drainage pipes to collect and dispose of groundwater. We will look at groundwater drainage
systems in the next module.
Reinforced earth walls are characteristically used on highway projects. The strips must be
embedded beyond the slip zone to resist the horizontal movement of the retaining wall.
Building projects usually do not have the clearance behind the retaining wall to embed the
earth ties.



Calculation of Passive Earth Pressure

In the passive case, the earth (or lateral) pressures increase beyond the vertical
In the passive case, the lateral or earth pressure begins at the pressure-at-rest, C1. Wall
jacking can cause the horizontal earth pressure to increase beyond the vertical pressure, A, to
C4 and finally C5. The earth will passively shear at C5. By comparison, the Passive Earth
pressure at failure is much larger than the Active Earth pressure at failure; sometimes, four
times (4x) larger than the Active Earth pressure.

Figure 17 Changes in passive earth pressure

The passive earth pressure at failure can also be determined by geometry.
The pressure, which must be imparted to the soil by a structure to cause it to fail, can
also be determined from the Mohr-Coulomb failure criteria.
H = Kp v
where Kp = tan2 (45 + /2)
In this case, the horizontal pressure must be increased beyond the vertical pressure. Hence,
the soil fails at very large shear pressures. The failure surface is also inclined at a shallower
angle to the top of the retaining wall.
The failure planes are inclined to the vertical at a slope of = 45o +
Since the soil in front of a retaining wall, may be clayey, we have to add in an additional factor
to account for the cohesion factor in the soil:
H = Kp v + 2 c Kp



Slope stabilisation

At first glance, you might think that there isnt any practical application for passive earth
pressure on a building project. However, we will be using the concept of passive earth
pressure for a very conventional sub-structure, sheet piling in Module 7.
In this module, we will investigate the role of passive earth pressure in slope stabilisation. We
will start with a simplified model, that is somewhat practical (indeed, the author has used this
set-up on one occasion).
If we start with an reinforced earth retaining wall AND we add a Deadman (concrete weight or
similar) to the end of the tie, then we dramatically increase the shear resistance of the set-up.

Figure 18

Reinforced earth wall with deadman

Only one tendon shown for simplicity; more than one deadman is possible to reduce the bending stresses in the
facing panels

The backfill close to the retaining wall fails actively while the backfill adjacent to the deadman
fails passively. As we demonstrated in the previous section, passive earth pressures can be
up to four times larger than the active earth pressures. Earth in front of the deadman must be
pushed out of the way in order for the deadman to move forward. The passive slip zone can
be much smaller than the active slip zone and still balance the forces on the retaining wall.
A similar principle is used in rock stabilisation. Holes are bored into the rock face. The end of
the hole has an anchor block. High tensile bolts are installed in the holes and grouted in place.
The block at the end of the hole acts like an anchor or deadman. It has to pull the grout out of
the hole before the rock anchor can fail. The grout is held in place by side-wall friction against
the bored hole.


Figure 19 Rock anchor


An expanding nut grips the periphery at the back of the bore hole when the bolt is tightened
with a torque wrench. A special bolt with a forged in-dented end to be used with a chemical
anchorage, is especially suited to soft rocks.
The head of the bolt is fitted with plate washers or lengths of channel to spread the load over
the surface of soft rock.

Figure 20 Rock anchoring machine



Bowles, Joseph E. (1982), Foundation Analysis and Design, Third edition, McGraw-Hill
International Book Company.
Das, Braja M. (1994), Principles of Geotechnical Engineering, Third edition, PWS
Publishing Company, Boston.
Spangler, Merlin G. & Handy, Richard L. (1982), Soil Engineering, Fourth edition, Harper &
Row, New York.
Boral Masonry (2008), Masonry Design Guide: Segmental Block Retaining walls, New South
Wales Book 4,, July.

Created 2004
Modified 2013