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Proceedings of the 8th U.S.

National Conference on Earthquake Engineering
April 18-22, 2006, San Francisco, California, USA
Paper No. 1072

CLARIFYING THE APPLICATION OF SUBGRADE MODULUS
IN STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS AND DESIGN
Jim French1, Darren Mack2, Ryan Shafer3, and Kevin Moore4

ABSTRACT
The use of subgrade modulus in structural analysis and design is often poorly
coordinated between geotechnical and structural engineers, leaving a possibility
for misuse and error. Ideally, foundation design should account for soil stiffness,
footing stiffness, and soil structure interaction through selection of the proper
modulus value. The subgrade modulus should vary with footing size, and for
large footings and mats the modulus should be softer near the center and stiffer
towards the edges. Furthermore, the modulus should be significantly stiffer under
rapid (i.e., earthquake) loading. These variations in modulus are often ignored,
but they can be important considerations for structural designers. This paper
identifies common methods for selection of subgrade modulus, their
implementation in commercial structural engineering software, and some
differences in foundation design when considering rapid load rates (seismic
demands). A companion paper encourages use of the Dynamic Footing Load Test
to evaluate actual short-term foundation stiffnesses.

Introduction
In the design of buildings, it is common to find structural engineers who are uncertain
about the form of subgrade modulus values provided by the geotechnical engineer and are
specifically unclear about how to apply these values to their structural design. By the same
token, it is common to find geotechnical engineers who are uncertain about how subgrade
modulus values are being applied by the structural designers. The most common uncertainties
are the distinction of, and relation between, the values Kv1 (the subgrade modulus for a vertical
load on a 1-square-foot plate), and the Kv value (the subgrade modulus for a vertical load on a
footing or mat). In addition, some engineers are unclear about the use of these values in the
development of foundation springs in most structural design methods, as implemented through
packaged structural engineering computer software.
1
2

3
4

Senior Engineer, Geomatrix Consultants, 2101 Webster Street, 12th Floor, Oakland, CA 94612
Senior Geotechnical Engineer, Sanders & Associates Geostructural Engineering, Inc., 4180 Douglas Blvd, Suite
100, Granite Bay, CA 95746
Senior Engineer, Nichols Consulting Engineers, 501 Canal Boulevard, Suite C, Point Richmond, CA 94804
th
Principal, Certus Consulting Inc., 405 14 Street, Suite 160, Oakland, CA 94612

we will provide recommendations to be considered when more sophisticated analyses are utilized by structural engineers. For these reasons. this paper will address points Terzaghi could not have addressed in his time. the manner in which their subgrade modulus value recommendations will be utilized in structural design methodologies as implemented in structural engineering design and analysis software.In the authors’ collective experience. for geotechnical engineers. it is clear that geotechnical engineers need to do a better job of clearly presenting their recommendations for subgrade modulus and explaining the application and limitations of these recommendations. the geotechnical subgrade modulus is perhaps the most widely misunderstood geotechnical element of design. On the positive side. Many reviews of projects have revealed errors that may lead to inadequate or reduced structural seismic performance. we hope to clarify. The purposes of this paper are twofold. For simple projects. This paper will not provide instructions regarding the selection of appropriate subgrade modulus values. based on the questions that geotechnical consultants receive from structural designers. high-speed computers have enabled sophisticated design and analysis of highly complex structures and support systems that was unimaginable in 1955. To this extent. gross errors related to foundation stiffness and subgrade modulus appear far too often. one very significant factor that is quite different now as compared to when Terzaghi wrote about subgrade modulus is the ubiquitous presence and use of high-speed personal computers with correspondingly powerful software. In light of this widespread lack of understanding. more sophisticated recommendations regarding subgrade modulus may be warranted. To this extent. I learned in kindergarten. where operators blithely throw numbers into a computer and trust that the numbers that come out of the computer will be meaningful and reliable. . was written by Karl Terzaghi. First. “Everything I needed to know in my practice. However. Terzaghi (1955) certainly did lay the groundwork for the current state of the practice. Simultaneously. we also hope to clarify for structural engineers the intent of subgrade modulus recommendations. Many have heard the saying. it is fortunate that most simple designs are relatively insensitive to the value of the subgrade modulus. However.” Historically. with respect to subgrade modulus. For more complex projects. a reduced structural seismic performance for a simple structural design may not concern a structural engineer because the design is based on simplified linear-elastic analyses that do not consider many “real” characteristics of structural element performance and soil-structure interaction. High-speed computers have unfortunately facilitated the use of the “black box” approach to design. Second. where structural engineers are using high-level analysis such as static linear push-over analyses or nonlinear time-history analyses. geotechnical engineers have said.” Indeed. However. the goal is to consolidate the standard of practice rather than to advance the state of the art. without necessarily understanding their meaning. “Everything I needed to know in life. that task is appropriately left to the geotechnical consultant on a project-specific basis. the goal is to encourage an advance of standard of practice toward the state of the art.

In sands. or spring value. this effect can usually be neglected for typical footing designs where the allowable bearing pressures are not exceeded. 2. Relationship of Kv1 to Kv Beneath a loaded footing. Kv is inversely proportional to the footing width. normally with an initial peak stiffness that decays with increasing deflection. Kv. is not a unique number for a site or even for a given soil type. the supporting soil feels a compressive stress increase due to the load the footing imposes on the soil. The value of Kv depends on: 1. within the range of normal loading for a footing. This stress increase spreads beneath the footing. and most published values are for a subgrade modulus on a 1-square-foot plate. However. If a subgrade modulus (in units of F/L3) is multiplied by a footing tributary area (in units of L2). becoming smaller with depth and lateral distance from the footing. As suggested by Terzaghi (1955). Contact pressure distribution. and y is in units of L. However. which has units of F/L. The subgrade modulus. A spring constant. as further discussed below. and softer toward the center. this pattern is generally reversed. we may arbitrarily assume that most of the settlement happens within a zone where the . In clays. The duration of the structural design loads.Overview of Subgrade Modulus Use in Typical Static Structural Design Introduction to Subgrade Modulus The vertical subgrade modulus (Kv) is simply defined as the ratio of vertical contact pressure (p) to vertical deflection (y): Kv = p y (1) Because p is in units of F/L2. the result is a standard spring constant in units of F/L. Kv is in units of F/L3. it is generally stiffer near the corners and edges. Kv is not constant across the width of a footing. is defined as the ratio of vertical load to vertical deflection (y). Kv is nonlinear. Initial stiffness of the soil. the value is close enough to linear that this effect can be neglected. commonly designated as Kv1. Kv will vary as a function of the duration of the loading. 4. Kv is stiffest for dynamic or short-term loading and generally softer for long-term loading. The footing width. This variation can be large and must be accounted for in design. 3. The subgrade modulus has historically been measured by loading a 1-square-foot plate.

settlement will result from compression of the soil under the footing. Because the depth of soil that will experience compression will be roughly proportional to the width of the footing. and beneath a footing of width nB1 (b).stress increase is at least 25 percent of the pressure on the footing. 5 One popular text (Bowles 1988). Thus. it can be shown that: If B = nB1 then y = n y1 (2) and (3) By definition: K v1 = p y1 (4) Substituting. This zone may be called the pressure bulb. and its typical shape is presented in Figure 1. incorrectly presents this equation (with slightly different subscripting) as ks = k1 B. the modulus of elasticity increases with increasing confining pressure. we get5: Kv = K v1 B (5) For sands. Schematic diagram of pressure bulb beneath a footing of width B1 (a). so the soil is stiffer with increasing depth. settlement can be considered as roughly proportional to the width of the footing. where the deformation characteristics are roughly independent of depth. . The resulting subgrade modulus is off by a factor of B2. After Terzaghi (1955). For a stiff clay. The depth of the pressure bulb is roughly proportional to the width of the footing. and the subgrade modulus can be approximated as: ⎛ B +1⎞ Kv =Kv1 ⎜ ⎟ ⎝ 2B ⎠ 2 (6) Figure 1.

5) or sands (Eq. as the limited plate size results in bias towards the near-surface soils.Selection of Subgrade Modulus Conventional Spread Footings It is common practice to recommend a Kv1 value from published charts as a function of soil type. 1 to provide an equivalent long-term subgrade modulus for use in structural analysis. edges. careful evaluation of Kv1 should be given to foundations bearing on rock as the common design charts do not pertain to rock. Considerations for Mats or Large Footings Where a mat foundation will be used. but this needs to be checked on a case-by-case basis and the appropriate multiplier may be greater than 14.. column or wall loads will cause a downward deflection of the mat in a dish (for columns) or trough shape (for walls). but it may fail to capture the full settlement associated with long-term consolidation. but rather should be reduced as a function of some equivalent width that is a function of the mat stiffness as well as the subgrade modulus. The subgrade modulus value may also be determined from a site-specific plate load test. With reliable consolidation data. soil layering.e. settlements for the corners. The values recommended for the subgrade modulus are generally selected to account for compressibility of sands and stiff clays under normal loading conditions. These predicted settlement values can be substituted into Eq. especially for clayey soils. As a result. and it may be appropriate to provide separate short-term and long-term subgrade modulus values to account for immediate and long-term (i. The geotechnical engineering community is also beginning to recognize that very rapid loading may produce a stiffer subgrade modulus. respectively. 6). Thus. 2006). The conventional subgrade modulus analysis should be used to evaluate local settlement and differential settlement. For example. the subgrade modulus does not need to be reduced as a function of the entire building width. Soft or compressible clays may need to be thoughtfully considered. and center of a mat slab foundation supporting a four-story building were determined using this . it is often advisable to perform a settlement analysis in addition to a subgrade modulus analysis. Although there are no broadly accepted values for subgrade modulus subjected to dynamic or rapid loading. Terzaghi (1955) suggests that the effective footing width may be on the order of 14 times the mat thickness for sands. the Dynamic Footing Load Test may hold distinct promise for relatively cost effective direct measurement of a dynamic or rapid subgrade modulus for a range of footing sizes (Shafer et al. caution should be used when determining Kv1 from a plate load test. For large footings or for mat slab foundations. especially for deeper clays. However. soil consistency or relative density. and soil thickness. the settlements can be better-estimated in this manner than by extrapolating Kv1 values to large footings or mat slab foundations. This Kv1 value should be reduced as described above for clays (Eq. consolidation) settlement. geotechnical engineers have typically provided values based on historical and/or presumptive values that were thought to be conservative. In addition.

To determine y for Eq (1).method for a recent project. a conventional consolidation-based settlement analysis predicted settlements that ranged from 0.g. If elastic theory is used. Another recent project. Had the project structural engineer assumed that the Kv value was in fact a Kv1 value and further reduced it. where the subgrade modulus increases by 60 percent as the depth of embedment goes from zero to a depth equal to the footing width. with corresponding subgrade moduli ranging from about 15 to 32 kip/ft3. B is the footing width. A typical relationship of subgrade modulus to footing depth is shown on Figure 2. (Note that this relationship also varies as a function of Poisson’s ratio and the L/B ratio. But note carefully that although Kv and Kv1 values are related to each other.) . as presented by Fox (1948). ν is Poisson’s ratio for the soil. Equations for the influence factors for shape are presented by Bowles (1982). When these Kv values were multiplied by the footing widths. the general equation is (e. p is contact pressure. the resulting Kv1 values were about 120 to 130 kip/ft3. Navy 1982): ⎛ 1 −ν 2 y = pB⎜⎜ ⎝ Eu ⎞ ⎟⎟ I ⎠ (7) where y is settlement. Eu is Young’s modulus of the soil. allowed the structural designer to evaluate the structural demand on the building. this approach offers the advantage that the geotechnical engineer can evaluate the effects of footing size (length and width) and of depth of influence for cases in which the compressible layer has a finite thickness. and I is the influence factor for footing shape and stiffness. This was slightly stiffer than would have been predicted based on published values of Kv1 for the medium stiff clays that underlay the site. and from this relationship an equivalent subgrade modulus can be determined for use in structural analysis.7 to 2 inches. an overly conservative structural design would have resulted. it is recommended by Bowles (1982) that the depth of footing embedment be accounted for. careful distinction between them is vital to proper understanding and implementation of the geotechnical recommendations. elastic theory can be used to develop estimates of settlement under a given load. Knowledge of the resulting “dishing”. Elastic Theory If soil properties are known in sufficient detail.. The Navy (1982) also presents tables with typical values of the influence factor I. or maximum settlement near the center of the building. This dishing effect would not have been recognized if a simple analysis of footing or mat slab settlements due to a single subgrade modulus was performed. When these equations are programmed into a spreadsheet. with numerous proposed isolated spread footings ranging from 4 to 9 feet wide.

. even if the spring spacing is one foot on-center each direction. Alternatively. by Research Engineers International. the resulting spring will be unrealistically stiff. each of these programs has the capability for the user to define soil springs beneath footings. The footing design cannot be treated as a “black box” by iterating on one set of values until a result is obtained. (Modulus of Elasticity =300 ksf. Based on our discussions with users of these programs and the technical support staff of the program suppliers. building design practice in the San Francisco Bay Area appears most often to use the following structural analysis and structural design software packages (listed in no particular order): RISA-3D by RISA Technologies.Average Subgrade Modulus (k/ft^3) 200 150 100 50 0 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Depth of Em bedment (ft) Figure 2. A user will typically specify the subgrade modulus that the software will use to develop the spring constants for soil springs placed beneath the footings. The Kv1 value should NOT be entered directly to these software programs.Pro 2004 and STAAD. because it means that the Kv value must be changed with almost every instance or iteration of footing size. If Kv1 is entered directly. This is an important distinction. Spring spacing can be developed by default rules within each program.Foundation. and STAAD. Sample of relationship of subgrade modulus to footing depth of embedment for a 4' x 4' square footing using elastic theory and the Fox (1948) procedure for depth of embedment. not the model’s spring spacing. Inc. users may input a spring constant directly. Poisson’s ratio = 0.35. which may result in a superstructure design that is not compatible with the foundation conditions (both in strength and stiffness). the correct Kv value is still based on the overall footing width. SAFE by Computers and Structures. Most of these programs do not explicitly identify whether the user should specify Kv1 or Kv [as reduced from Kv1 according to Eqs.. Kv1 should be reduced to Kv using the footing width. (5) or (6)]. or they can be userspecified. Spring constants are calculated by the program as a function of the subgrade modulus multiplied by the tributary area. For example.) Input for Structural Software Conventional Software Approach Based on an informal survey by the authors.

which called for a significantly greater amount of reinforcing steel.V. programs such as ADINA by ADINA R&D.. rather than the simplification implicit in the use of a subgrade modulus approach. ADINA allows users to select springs to be used as boundary conditions for simpler analyses. The impact of not performing these checks can be considerable. are sophisticated geotechnical finite element (PLAXIS and Sigma/W) or finite difference (FLAC) models. its approach is different from the previous programs in that it calculates pressure distribution on the bottom of footings but does not use a user-specified subgrade modulus. Inc. For more complex projects. which need to be manually developed in coordination between the geotechnical and structural engineers. If there is a discrepancy between the two values.. the structural engineer should verify that the footing settlement predicted by the model is consistent with the settlement estimated by the geotechnical engineer. the geotechnical and structural engineers should communicate to determine if there is an error. Any of these programs allow more-sophisticated. From the geotechnical side. and Sigma/W by Geoslope. For most conventional design. During the preparation of the . it is important to check the results of the analysis. In one recent project that utilized a below-grade mat slab foundation. use of these powerful software packages may be warranted. However. or other methodological problem. Rather. for highly complex or critical mission projects. more-rigorous and more-realistic modeling of complex geotechnical and soil-structure interaction behavior. this level of complexity is likely not necessary. However. ADINA is a high-end 3-D finite element structural analysis package that allows use of solid elements with fully-selectable linear or non-linear stress-strain soil models.Several programs use soil springs as input. FLAC by Itasca. Finite Element or Finite Difference Approach For more sophisticated analyses. RISAfoot. an iterative design process involving both the structural and geotechnical engineers is often required. Inc. including RAM Perform by Ram Technologies. PLAXIS by Plaxis B. with modest structural capabilities. . and SAP and ETABS by Computers and Structures. may be may be used. Design Review Phase As with any design computation. incompatible assumptions. To minimize construction schedule delays. For simple projects. This is particularly true for mat slab foundations used for complex buildings with variable loads at each column. a revised structural design had to be performed by the contractor. it was discovered (after award of the construction contract) that the structural engineer had used the unreduced Kv1 value in the structural design process. is also commonly used. from the structural side. One additional program. Alternatively. the geotechnical input only includes the allowable bearing pressure and assumes a perfectly rigid footing.

and settlements. In the experience of one of the authors. Subgrade Modulus in Seismic Design Most conventional designs of foundation elements are not likely to be highly sensitive to modest variations in the value of subgrade modulus. the modulus values should be adjusted until a compatible set of pressures and settlements is determined. Similarly. If the two values are not well correlated. One example where design was sensitive to foundation stiffness is the Davis Hall Replacement project at the University of California. this process can take several iterations to arrive at a satisfactory correlation. recommendations were revised to take advantage of the recent nearby Dynamic Footing Load Test results where the dynamic subgrade modulus was directly measured (Shafer et al. Later in the design phase. it is necessary to break the mat slab foundation into multiple zones. Sophisticated analyses are more likely to be warranted if non-uniform loading occurs along the bottom of the footings. The process of performing these design iterations can therefore be considerable. which is rarely envisioned by the structural engineer. particularly if the loading might cause rocking of the foundation. These stiffer values resulted in significant reductions in design shears and moments on interior grade beams. However. or owner. . but detailed exploration of these effects is beyond the scope of this paper. Berkeley. geotechnical engineer. Recommendations were initially provided for a conservative dynamic subgrade modulus based on historical and presumptive values for rock. a microfabrication facility sensitive to structural stiffness and building vibrations. Upon completion of the structural analysis. 2006). and the consequent reduction in steel reinforcement resulted in a significant material cost savings. Foundation stiffness may also contribute to damping (due to hysteretic cycles of loading and unloading of the subsoil) and period shift. conventional “code based” seismic design of low-rise structures are not typically sensitive to the value of subgrade modulus. Often. The geotechnical engineer should ensure that the final design values are consistent with the original assumptions. These more sophisticated projects may also warrant use of one of the finite element or finite difference programs mentioned above. the geotechnical engineer often must estimate settlements based on assumed bearing pressures. This is likely to be particularly true for structures with high aspect ratios that use braced frames or shear walls. and areas of influence (the area over which with a mat slab foundation applies load to the soil like an equivalent independent spread footing). architect. the results should be provided to the geotechnical engineer for verification of bearing pressures.geotechnical report. where building drift is highly sensitive to foundation stiffness. more-sophisticated seismic analyses may warrant more careful consideration and selection of the subgrade modulus. loaded areas. This enabled a more accurate and realistic assessment of dynamic foundation behavior with a substantially stiffer dynamic subgrade modulus. with each zone assigned a different modulus value. column spacing.

Conclusions The application of subgrade modulus values to structural design. 1988. Foundation Analysis and Design. Structural engineers must realize the important distinction between these values. NAVFAC DM-7. EERI. Dom Campi of Rutherford & Chekene. Rotterdam. California. particularly Mr. is actually a complex process that is vulnerable to misuse and misunderstanding. December. “Evaluation of Coefficients of Subgrade Reaction. Terzahi. Shafer. England. Finally. while often relatively simplified in design literature. Navy.S. V. E. and D. Alexandria.S. Karl. Quigley. 1948. particularly for large mat slab foundations and complex or sensitive structures. Number 4. 2006. Fox. References th Bowles. London.Ryan. California. San Francisco. San Francisco. C. the structural engineer must also realize this isn’t a “file and forget” number. Soil Mechanics. Muller. .E.W. U. 1955. “The Mean Elastic Settlement of a Uniformly Loaded Area at a Depth Below the Ground Surface. Navy: See U. such as bearing pressure and footing size. Sufficient time and budget should be allotted not only to determine appropriate design values but also to check that the values used have been properly implemented and that the results are reasonable. When a Kv value is provided.1.1.” in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering. and the thoughtful comments provided by several respondents. J. Virginia. “Dynamic Footing Load Tests (FLT): A New Approach To Improving Dynamic Foundation Design. 1982. Design Manual 7.. The Institution of Civil Engineers.” in 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference. and understand which type of value is required by their analysis program and how it is implemented. Geotechnical engineers must clearly communicate the types of values they are providing (Kv1 or Kv). McGraw-Hill.. they should be accompanied by the assumptions used in determining these values. both geotechnical and structural engineers should realize that selection and use of the correct modulus value(s) may have important impacts on a project design. Acknowledgments We appreciate the input of the friends and associates who responded to our questionnaire developed to research for this paper.” in Geotechnique. Vol. If Kv values are provided.P. J. Navy. as it is intrinsically tied to the assumed footing width. 4 Edition.N.