You are on page 1of 10

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

Numerical modelling of tension piles

S. van Baars
Ministry of Public Works, Utrecht, Netherlands
W.J. van Niekerk
Ballast Nedam Engineering, Amstelveen, Netherlands

Keywords: tension piles, shaft friction, installation effect, bearing capacity, case study, CPT

ABSTRACT: For determinations of the ultimate tension capacity of a piled foundation, often use is
made of empirical relations between soil strength and skin friction. The disadvantage of these
(analytical) methods is that they are in general not very accurate for most soil conditions. Therefore
a numerical method for determination of the ultimate bearing capacity is presented here. Results
were successively compared with actual test results which were measured during pile tests. It was
found that the numerical model assessed the actual pile bearing capacity more closely than analyti-
cal models based on empirical calculation rules. Therefore lower factors of safety can be accepted.
The behaviour of the (virtual) interface between pile and soil significantly influences the behaviour
of the pile.


Foundations of large civil constructions are often loaded in tension. For determination of the ulti-
mate tension capacity of a piled foundation, often use is made of empirical relations between soil
strength and skin friction. In these methods the actual circumference of the pile is multiplied by the
skin friction that can be generated from the soil as measured in the laboratory or in situ, e.g.
through the results of unconsolidated undrained tests or torvane tests, which form the basis for su
(undrained shear strength) based methods. Other methods take the in-situ shear strength and stress
into account through in-situ measurement of the soil resistance based on the qc (cone resistance)
following from the Dutch CPT tests. It can be shown that from a substantial amount of pile tests,
satisfying relations between qc and su based methods exist for cohesive soils (Van Niekerk et al.
These convenient and simple to use methods are considered as analytical. The disadvantage of
the analytical methods is that they are in general not very accurate for most soil conditions. This is
for instant caused by changing soil stresses due to installation effects. Other inaccuracies can fol-
low from relaxation of soil stresses due to excavations of normally and over-consolidated soils. Es-
pecially granular soils are susceptible to this phenomenon. During loading of a tension pile, the sur-
rounding soil stress is reduced due to uplift of the soil mass surrounding the piles. This yields
changes in the ultimate bearing capacity which is often based on empirical values for compression
loading. Finally during construction of cast in situ piles, soil stresses are governed by the concrete
pressure during curing of the concrete. The soil stresses generated from the cast in situ piles are
subject to phenomena related to execution of the piling works, such as the maintained hydraulic
head during and after casting of the concrete.
The accuracy of analytical methods is reduced by not taking into account all these soil stress
related items. Therefore in contrast to the analytical methods a numerical method for determination
of the ultimate bearing capacity is presented here. The presented method here was used by Van
Niekerk (1996 a, b) and Van Baars (1997) for research purposes to determine the suitability of a fi-
nite element model to implement the in-situ stresses after installation of a pile. Results were suc-
cessively compared with actual test results which were measured during pile tests on the De Gaag

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

aqueduct project as a test case for the Second Beneluxtunnel project. Both projects are situated in
the Netherlands.


In this paper pile shaft capacity is assessed by subsequently modelling in-situ soil conditions and
soil conditions after driving of the pile. Here it is initially assumed that for the in-situ soil condi-
tions prior to installation, the soil was considered to be normally consolidated. This allows for a
simple calculation to generate the horizontal and vertical stresses before installation, according
equation 1:
σ h = K0 ⋅ σ v (1)
in which K0 is determined by Poisson’s ratio ν according equation 2:
Ko = (2)
1− ν
For overconsolidated soil other value’s of K0 apply. With these equations the soil stress can be de-
termined at every point of the FEM mesh, as well on every boundary of the model. The study of a
single, axially loaded pile typically allows for the use of an axi-symmetric mesh. Since internal
stress states of the pile and effects of diameter changes due to loading (Poisson effect) are ne-
glected, the pile could be modelled by modelling the skin only. It is proposed here to model the
skin by a beam element. This procedure has two advantages compared to modelling of the pile with
elastic soil elements.
Firstly, the number of elements reduces, which allows for faster calculation in especially ver-
sions of PLAXIS prior to release 7.0 and secondly, this allows for applying a random traction load
on the boundary where the beam element is put. The possibility to do so, enables one to use any
stress distribution measured on the pile, as for instance proposed by Lehane and Jardine (1994). In
their proposal the radial effective stress on the shaft is determined by the cone resistance, vertical
effective stress and relative penetration depth. Thus, not only the soil resistance but also the effect
of on-going penetration of the pile tip, and its effect on in-situ stress is modelled.
The in-situ stress acting on the pile can be modelled by applying a traction load on the mesh
boundary as presented in Figure 2. In the (simplified) mesh of Figure 1. interface elements are situ-
ated along the pile shaft. By applying the following steps the stresses after installation can be gen-
1. Perform an elastic calculation with traction loads on the 'free' boundaries to generate a stress
condition with equal K0 for the entire mesh. The pile is not present yet. Radial displacements are
2. Apply additional traction loads along the future pile shaft location to model pile installation ef-
3. Activate the beam element and lock its position by prohibiting displacements of the nodes in ra-
dial direction (See Figure 4-5.)
The radial stress increase caused by installation has now been introduced in the FEM mesh cor-
rectly. The interface elements next to the pile are subject to a stress greater or at least different than
the original stress and are subject to shear. By applying a pile head displacement the pile can be


Shaft capacity of the basic model was compared with the shaft capacity of a modified model, which
differed from the original, by varying the length/diameter ratio, the reference shear modulus, the

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

internal friction angle, the interface friction angle, the stress state before and after installation, the
presence of a compressible layer, the load direction, the distance of a reaction force on the soil sur-
face and last but certainly not least, the interface thickness.
The load displacement curves for all different scenarios have been compared in the study. As
was to be expected from field experience, the general load displacement curve is initially virtually
linear, after which the load needed for additional displacements decreases. The ultimate shaft ca-
pacity is determined as the point were displacements continue without load increase. The results of
varying input parameters that particularly involve PLAXIS modelling are highlighted below.
It was found that the load direction had little effect on the ultimate shaft capacity; the shaft ca-
pacity in tension loading is some 10% lower than it is in compressive loading. It is considered that
this (minor) difference is caused by the difference in principal stress rotation. The load displace-
ment behaviour of the pile is mainly determined by the dimensions of the pile and the soil shear
modulus. The shaft capacity is mainly determined by the dimensions of the pile, the radial stress on
the shaft, the shaft friction angle, the degree of consolidation and the interface thickness.
The importance of the interface thickness is caused by the dilatant behaviour of the interface,
which can cause additional radial stress increase. Increase of the interface thickness led to a signifi-
cant higher shaft capacity of the pile. Additional information on dilatancy and the importance of a
correct thickness of the dilatant zone can be found in Houlsby (1991). The influence of the inter-
face is also discussed below in the explanatory calculation presented.


For economical reasons, in the Netherlands and some surrounding countries, the most common
method of calculation of the ultimate bearing resistance of a pile is the qc method. In this method
the maximum shear force that can be generated along a pile shaft is determined by the integral of
the cone resistance multiplied by a shear factor over the full height of all relevant layers. The shear
resistance factor is dependent on the soil type and the pile type. The main merit of this method is its
simplicity. Based on a CPT test, only an easy assessment can be made of the total bearing capacity.
Its main drawback however is its large inaccuracy because of its highly empirical basis for shaft re-
sistance factors. Also no direct relation between the diameter of the CPT cone and the diameter of a
pile is appropriately taking into account the soil displacement and subsequent stressing of the sur-
rounding soil. Furthermore the effect of stress reduction during retrieval of a tube or other equip-
ment during installation of cast in situ piles is not considered.
In addition to this, the method does not consider the effect of variation of the concrete level
when not at ground level during installation of a pile, see Lings et al (1994). For instance, at The
De Gaag aqueduct casting of concrete was terminated at 11.5 m below ground level. In numerical
calculations these effects can be considered accurately.


5.1 Choice of Pile

For the tension pile research near De Gaag 3 Vibro piles, 3 Vibrocom piles, 2 HP piles and a single
steel tubular pile were test loaded. In this paper, cast in situ piles (i.e. Vibro or Vibrocom piles) are
considered, mainly because the in-situ stresses for those piles are better known than for steel piles.
Furthermore it was found later that the w/c ratio of the concrete used for the Vibro piles was lower
than usual, which yielded less stress increase in the soil than usual. Also air and water intrusions
were formed during installation, as appeared after excavation of the pile. It was therefore consid-
ered most interesting to model the Vibrocom piles.

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

Table 1. Geotechnical model De Gaag - Vibro piling.

No. Stratum γ wet G50 cu φ' ψ' ytop
[kN/m3] [kN/m2] [kN/m2] [deg] [deg] [m to NAP]
6 Clay (+peat) 15 1000 30 - - -1.6
5 Clay (+sand) 16 2000 50 - - -7.6
4 Sand B 19 10,000 1 25 - -11.6
3 Peat 14 1500 80 - - -18.1
2 Clay 18 3000 120 - - -19.1
1 Sand A 20 25,000 1 35 2 -20.1

5.2 Geotechnical profile of De Gaag

Below the used model of the geotechnical conditions are given. Ground level is situated at
NAP -1.6 m. In Sand layer A the ground water table is found at NAP - 4.6 m, whereas in the higher
Holocene layers the ground water table is found at NAP - 3.6 m.
Measured bearing capacities were compared with manual calculations, the latter based on CPT
results (qc method). CPT results were available in sufficient amounts in contrast to the amount of
direct soil tests to determine strength and stiffness of various layers. Table 1. therefore contains
best estimates that should however be assessed carefully.

5.3 Pile installation

Prior to installation of the Vibrocom piles a casing Ø 1.1 m was driven to NAP - 13.1 m, during
which the casing was cleared. Subsequently Vibro tubes with lost tip (Ø 557/508 mm) were driven
to NAP - 28.0 m. Successively an instrumented prefab core (Ø 320 mm) was installed in the tube
and the annular space was filled with concrete mortar. By using the casing, the pile was not in-
stalled in the upper two clay layers. It was considered in design that these layers would not contrib-
ute to the ultimate bearing capacity before the deeper sand layers has failed (loads in excess of the
maximum shear stress in the sand).
For Pile B problems with the piling hammer occurred, which have led to interruptions and once
a maximum delay of 15 minutes. Although no clear indication is found that this pile has been influ-
enced by these interruptions, the bearing capacity is significantly more than for Piles A and C.


6.1 Soil
For numerical calculations the entire geometry needs to be modelled. In this case the lower bound-
ary is put at NAP - 36.6 m, whereas the outer boundary of the axi-symmetric mesh is put at 10 m
from the centre line of the pile axis. Calculations are made using 15-noded triangular elements in
between 6 verticals and 15 horizontal mesh lines. Positions of the mesh nodes are mainly deter-
mined by the pile wall (w), pile length (l), boundaries (b), soil layers (s), additional nodes for weak
layers (xw) and additional nodes for the thick soil layers (xt). In Table 2 the positions are given for
the horizontal mesh lines.
For the position of the vertical mesh lines the results of Table 3 apply.
Two PLAXIS mesh blocks are used, one supporting the pile tip and the other along the first up to
the pile top. In Figures 1-3 the mesh is shown.

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

Figure 1. Connectivity plot. Figure 2. Boundary A (soil). Figure 3. Boundary B (mortar).

Figure 4. Boundary conditions. Figure 5. Displacement at one node.

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

Table 2. Horizontals.
-36.6 -31.6 -28.0 -26.6 -24.5 -22.6 -20.1 -19.6 -19.1 -18.6 -18.1 -13.1 -11.6 -7.6 -1.6
b xt l xt xt xt s xw s xw s l s s b

Table 3. Verticals.
0 0.258 0.5 1.5 5 10
b w b

6.2 Interface
Much of the pile strength depends on its interaction with the subsoil through the interface layer.
The roughness of this interface is found to be 0.8 to 1.0 times the in situ shear strength of the soil.
In this paper the strength of the interface is taken at 0.9 times the soil strength.
At NAP -13.1 m a change in the effective soil stresses occurs at the boundary of the casing and
the pile. Since the interface contains only one integration node at this point, there is only one strain
and one stress. Only by applying an additional node this singularity problem can be avoided. Here
this is achieved by applying an extra interface perpendicular to the previous interface. The new in-
terface needs not to be extended in the mesh. Since the pore pressure P changes at NAP -20.1 m,
also here an additional interface is required.

6.3 Pile
In simple situations the pile can be modelled using one beam element, however here two beams
should be used, i.e. one for the pile shaft (NAP - 13.1 to - 28.0 m) and one for the casing (NAP -
1.6 to - 13.1 m). These beam elements can be activated during calculations. In the calculations the
casing is put on the same vertical as the tubular pile for convenience, although the radius in non-
To avoid numerical problems, pile stiffness parameters EA and EI shall not be taken to big in
relations to the soil stiffness. However piles should be stiff enough to model actual soil behaviour.

6.4 Boundary condition A (soil)

Initially the boundary stresses are kept equivalent to the in-situ horizontal effective stress. To avoid
changes in the soil stresses at every change of soil type, it was chosen to apply an equivalent soil
pressures coefficient at rest of K0 = 0.5. Introduction of the stress in the mesh was done numeri-
cally by applying first a load step considering gravity [Mweight = 1]. The soil stresses introduced
to the mesh were derived from equations 1 and 2. The horizontal effective stresses are calculated
σ A ' = ( − z γ wet − p) K 0 (3)
where z = depth and p = water pressure.
At pile tip level (NAP -28.0 m) we thus find a maximum horizontal effective stress of 111.75
kN/m2 and a vertical effective stress of 223.5 kN/m2.
To model stress increase from driving of the piles, the horizontal effective stress is temporarily
increased, which is a simplification of complex matter. It can be assumed that during driving the
soil will never react completely passive, which denotes K<Kp. If chosen to adopt K = 2 then the ef-
fective horizontal stress needs to be increased temporarily by a factor f = K/Ko = 2/0.5 = 4 to model
pile driving effects.

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

6.5 Boundary condition B (mortar)

For the final stage of the installation, it is assumed that the effective stress at the pile shaft is de-
pendent on the mortar pressures during curing [Load B]. The weight of the mortar is taken at
γmortar = 22 kN/m3. Concrete mortar has been installed to level NAP -13.1 m. Since the ground wa-
ter table at this level is 1 m lower than at ground level, while this is not the case for the fluid mor-
tar, an additional pressure of 10 kN/m2 is accounted for in the deeper layers starting at NAP - 20.1
m. Thus we find that the support pressure B is dependent on the depth z:
σ B ' = − ( z + 131
. )( 22 − 10) {+10} (4)
Near the pile tip (z = NAP -28.0 m) we find a maximum horizontal and vertical effective stress of
188.8 kN/m2. When the pile would be installed to ground level, the pressure would be significantly
σ B ' = − ( −28.0 + 16
. ) × (22 − 10) + 3 × 10 = 346.8 kN / m 2 (5)
Effects of higher support pressure are considered later.


Below is given in detail the procedure for all stages of the numerical test loading of the pile:
A. Boundary condition A (soil) is activated, while the inner boundary is resisted to move hori-
zontally. Thus boundary condition A acts only vertically on mesh block no. 1. Also the weight
of the soil elements is activated.
[load A = 1, boundary_x = fixed , Mweight = 1]
B. Casing (Beam II) is activated.
[staged construction, beam II = + ]
C. Inner boundary is released. The upper three nodes resist the casing (Beam II). Below the cas-
ing (place of futur tension pile), boundary condition A satisfies equilibrium.
[below casing: boundary_x = loose]
D. To model stressing of the soil from pile driving, boundary condition A (soil) is increased by a
factor 4.
[load A = 4]
E. By pulling the Vibro tube the soil is unloaded, but also reload by the fluid mortar. The in-
creased boundary pressure A is replaced at the same time by boundary pressure B (mortar).
[load A = 0, load B = 1]
F. During curing of the pile, de inner boundary of the mesh is resisted from deforming horizon-
tally. Beam I ( = tension pile) is activated and Beam II ( = casing) is deactivated to prevent the
latter from being pulled up.
[boundary_x = fixed, staged construction, beam I = +, beam II = -]
The tension pile is now ready to be pulled.
G. All displacements from previous can now be reset (to zero). By applying a forced displace-
ment to a single node on Beam II (Figure 4 and 5) the pile is pulled out.
[reset displacements, Σ_Mdispl = 0.1]

By multiplying the vertical force (Force y = normal force in Beam I) by 2 π and plotting this force
against the total displacements [Sum-Mdisp], a load displacement curve is generated, as given in
Figure 6.
Failure of the soil appears rather locally, i.e. directly next to the pile shaft (Figure 7). Plastic
points are only found next to the shaft and the pile tip.

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

Force [kN]

0 0.02 0.04 0.06 0.08 0.1

Displacement [m]
Figure 6. Force versus displacement of the tension pile.



D τ max
A = 0.1
B B = 0.3
C = 0.5
D = 0.7
E = 0.9

Figure 7. Ratio of shear stress to maximum shear stress.


The measured pile bearing capacities as measured at De Gaag strongly deviated from the empirical
calculation results as based on the qc method (pre-calculated), even if qc results are considered

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

Table 4. Measured and analytical calculated bearing capacities.

Pile Measured Pre-calculated Post-calculated
[kN] [kN] [kN]
A 1800 3260 2960
B 2580 3200 2950
C 1850 3190 2830

which are taken after installation of the pile (post-calculated), see Table 4.
According the numerical simulation the ultimate bearing capacity is 1740 kN, which is only
16% less than the average capacity of the three piles, and only 5% less than the average capacity of
Piles A and C. This means that the numerical results are almost equal to the measured results.
From additional numerical simulations followed that by increasing the hydraulic mortar head
level to ground level, a bearing capacity of 4200 kN could be achieved, which is an increase in
bearing capacity of 140 %.

8.1 Dynamic pile driving versus static calculation

Computer programs like PLAXIS and most others are based on static equilibrium. However this
condition is not to be found during pile driving, from which it can be concluded that the process it-
self of pile driving, in principle, can not be modelled accurately. It can however be considered that
pile driving gives more irregular stress distribution after driving than casting piles in situ. In nu-
merical simulations, only temporarily soil is stresses additionally to model the pile driving. The as-
sumed stressing of the soil is however introduced in the mesh.
In the presented simulation here, was found that if the temporary stressing of the soil was aban-
doned at all, the ultimate resistance was only 6% lower, which yields that in this case less accurate
modelling of the soil stressing has no significant effects on the results of cast in situ pile calcula-

8.2 Interface behaviour

In the numerical calculation of the tension pile, an interface is modelled. It can be questioned
whether or not this is justifiable (does this interface exist in reality ?) and furthermore one can
wonder how to model an interface. It was found earlier however (Van Niekerk 1996a) that the in-
terface strength can increase the ultimate significantly by either increasing the dilatancy or the vir-
tual thickness, if an Advanced Mohr Coulomb model is used.
From research performed by, among others, Tejchman and Wu (1995) follows that a rough steel
surface is remarkably well capable of transferring shear stresses from a solid body to the soil. It
follows that rough surfaces need hardly or no shear strength reduction at all.

8.3 Time dependent behaviour

For geotechnical calculations time is usually a major issue, especially for cohesive soils. In the pre-
sented calculation an undrained strength is used rather than a drained strength. For actual construc-
tions however it might be considered using drained parameters to model longer time spans of
loading, or continuous loading in one direction. It suggested here to study creep phenomena on the
bearing capacity of a tension pile in a similar study as presented in this paper.

8.4 Differences in stiffness

In the De Gaag case we find mainly cohesive top layers and at greater depth mainly non-cohesive
layers, which is typical for Dutch soils. The deeper layers are stiffer and therefore considered to fail

Beyond 2000 in Computational Geotechnics – 10 Years of PLAXIS International © 1999 Balkema, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5809 040 X

prior to the upper layers, from which yields that the upper and lower layers can not resist the ten-
sion load at the same time. Therefore the total resistance of the pile should not be equivalent to the
sum of the maximum individual contribution of the soil layers. However, simulations of the tension
pile with a hydraulic mortar head level up to ground level (with a bearing capacity of 4200 kN)
showed that the sum of the individual contribution was only 1% higher than the total resistance. So
the philosophy for pile constructions with bearing only in deeper layers, contains two mistakes.
Firstly, the contribution of the upper layers hardly need any reduction. Secondly, the higher mortar
head creates a much higher mortar pressure [load B].


In general numerical modelling of test loading of a tension pile proves to be a convenient research
tool. Effects of changes in soil stress, soil stiffness and interface behaviour in particular can be
studied in detail. In relation to this, determination of correct soil parameters remains an issue of
great importance.
From the explanatory case was found that the numerical model assessed the actual pile bearing
capacity more closely than analytical models based on empirical calculation rules. Therefore lower
factors of safety can be accepted, which will reduce the number or size of the tension piles.
Installation effects and their modelling in numerical models remains an issue of concern. Dy-
namics during installation, as well as poor execution of piling works can change soil parameters
beyond the conventional models for assessing pile bearing capacities. Time dependent effects are
generally neglected in empirical models but can be taken into account in numerical models.
The behaviour of the (virtual) interface between pile and soil influences mostly the behaviour of
the pile. Its presence and properties should be studied more in detail to determine the actual be-
haviour of the soil, as should the effects of differences of stiffness of various subsequent layers.
Ultimately the best way to compare shaft resistance in numerical models and prototypes is
probably comparing load displacement curves. By closely modelling the loading-unloading from
prototypes in computers, soil and pile models can be calibrated, yielding more information of ac-
tual soil conditions and pile bearing capacities.


Baars, S. van. 1997. Case Study: Numerical Modelling of Tension Piles. Report BSW-R-97.48, Dutch Min-
istry of Public Works.
Houlsby, G.T. 1991 How the dilatancy of soils affects their behaviour. Proc. 10th European Conference on
Soil Mechanics , Balkema Rotterdam, pp. 1189-1202.
Lehane, B.M. and Jardine, R.J., 1994 Shaft Capacity of Driven Piles in Sand: A New Design Approach.
Proc. Boss, July 1994, pp. 23-36.
Lings, M.L., Ng, C.W.W. and Nash, D.F.T. 1994, The Lateral Pressure of Wet Concrete in Diaphragm Wall
Panels Cast under Bentonite, Proc. Institution Civil Engineers; Geotechnical Engineering, July 1994, pp.
Niekerk, W.J. van. 1996a Modelling of a single tension pile in sand. PLAXIS Bulletin, no. 15.
Niekerk, W.J. van. 1996b Calculation of a tension pile, Handout Annual PLAXIS Users Meeting (24 April
1996), Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Niekerk, W.J. van, Rösingh, J.W. and Tonnisen, J.Y. 1998. Performance of bored piles in Lignite, Proc. of
3th International Conference on Bored and Auger Piles, Balkema, Rotterdam.
Tejchman and Wu 1995 Int. Journ. Num. and Anal. Meth. In Geomechanics, vol 19, pp 513-536.
Tomlinson, M.J. 1981. Pile design and foundation analysis. London: Viewpoint Publications.