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Foundations on collapsible soils: A review

Article · May 2013

DOI: 10.1680/feng.12.00016


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Behzad Kalantari
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Forensic Engineering Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers
Forensic Engineering 166 May 2013 Issue FE2
Volume 166 Issue FE2 Pages 57–63
Foundations on collapsible soils: a review Paper 1200016
Received 04/07/2012 Accepted 09/11/2012
Kalantari Keywords: geotechnical engineering/reviews

ice | proceedings ICE Publishing: All rights reserved

Foundations on collapsible soils:

a review
Behzad Kalantari PhD
Assistant Professor, Civil Engineering Department, University of Hormozgan,
Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan, Iran

This paper describes studies done by various researchers on one form of problematic soils that are not suitable to be
used as foundation subsoil. Methods to identify these soils are provided, and various methods suggested for the
design of proper foundations to combat their detrimental effects. These types of soils are commonly termed
‘collapsible’. Collapsible soils are moisture sensitive in that an increase in moisture content is the primary triggering
mechanism for their volume reduction (compression). These weak soils usually have low dry densities and can be
identified with various types of laboratory and field tests. Because of their very low bearing capacity (when wetted)
they are not considered for any types of foundations or pavements in their original or natural conditions. Their load-
bearing capacity can be improved by various measures, such as the use of sufficiently strong footings that will remain
undamaged in spite of possible differential settlements, or by transmitting the structural loads to a deeper and
stronger soil layer by means of various types of piles. Also, whenever feasible, the weak soil should be treated with
cementing agents such as Portland cement, or preloading techniques should be used to strengthen the collapsing soils
and carry the actual loads further.

1. Introduction 2001). The amount of collapse or settlement is usually a

Collapsible soils are considered to be one of the problematic function of different parameters, including soil particles,
soils, alongside other problematic foundation materials such as permeability, degree of saturation, initial void ratio, over-
expansive soils or peat. There are several types of soils that can consolidation ratio (OCR) and thickness of the collapsible
experience collapse under moisture intrusions. Wind-blown layer.
sand, loess or alluvial deposits are examples of collapsible soils,
which are usually deposited in arid or semi-arid environments, Collapsing soils of the loessial type are reported to exist in
where evaporation of soil moisture takes place at such a rapid several parts of the world, such as the USA, Central and South
rate that the deposits do not have time to consolidate under America, China, Africa, Russia, India and the Middle East
their self-weight, or where the deposits are cemented by (Murthy, 2010).
precipitated salts (Pye and Tsoar, 1990). Typically, the
structure of collapsible soils is flocculated and the soil particles In practice, when working with collapsible soils geotechnical
are held together by ‘clay bridges’ or some other cementing engineers are faced with several considerable challenges. These
agent such as calcium carbonate (US Department of include (Houston et al., 2001)
Transportation, 2006).
(a) identification and characterisation of collapsible soil sites
In general, collapsible soils undergo sudden changes in volume (b) estimation of the extent and degree of wetting
and collapse when their moisture contents increase with or (c) estimation of collapse strains and collapse settlements
without loading; this occurs as soon as their saturation degree (d) selection of design and mitigation alternatives.
reaches above 50% and full saturation may not be required for
them to collapse (Abbeche et al., 2010). Almost all naturally The following sections describe and discuss these challenges in
occurring collapsible soil deposits are either debris flow more detail.
deposits or wind deposits (loess). Debris flows are at low
density, but are relatively stiff and strong in their natural dry 2. Causes of collapse
state. Cementation consists of dried clay and other chemical Collapsible soils such as loess sands consist primarily of silt-
precipitates that may have been added after deposition. sized particles loosely arranged in a cemented honeycombed
Wetting under load weakens the cementation, reduces the soil structure (Figure 1). The loose structure is held together by
suction and causes desiccation or collapse (Houston et al., small amounts of water-softening or water-soluble cementing

Forensic Engineering Foundations on collapsible
Volume 166 Issue FE2 soils: a review

the water wets the contacts between soil particles and allows
them to slip past each other to become more tightly packed.
Other terms for collapsible soils are ‘hydro-compactive soils’,
‘hydro-collapse soils’, or ‘hydro-consolidation soils’ because
their volumes are reduced after water is added (Lawton et al.,
1992; Love, 2008).

3. Prediction of collapse and settlement

(a) Dry soil with honeycombed (b) Soil structure after inundation In general, collapsible soils are loose but stable, with contact
structure before inundation
points well cemented, but with a water-soluble bonding agent,
so that certain conditions of load plus wetting produce a
Figure 1. Loaded hydro-collapsible soil before (a) and after (b)
collapse of the soil structure with a resulting large settlement.
inundation with water

Houston et al. (2001) define collapsible soils as moisture

sensitive. Based on their reported research, as moisture content
agents such as clay minerals and calcium carbonate. The of collapsible soils is increased, their deformations or settle-
introduction of water dissolves or softens the bonds between ments increase. Also, because these types of soils have free
the silt particles and allows them to take a denser packing access water sources they undergo collapse settlements.
under any type of compressive loading (Lawton et al., 1992).
Houston et al. (2001) investigated settlement amounts for
Noutash et al. (2010) presents some of the most common partial to full wettings of three types of collapsible soils (1, 2
features that collapsible soils share. These features are helpful and 3) by measuring their collapse strains. Their findings are
to understand the causes of collapsing soils and include the shown in Figure 2 and indicate that vertical deformations for
following characteristics all three samples depend directly on the saturation degree for
each sample (more moisture content causes greater settlement).
& loose, cemented deposits Also, Figure 2 shows that when all three collapsible soil
& naturally quite dry samples are close to their full saturation degree (100%), their
& open structure maximum collapse strain (partial wetting collapse/full collapse)
& high void ratio or failure conditions are reached.
& low dry density
& high porosity Murthy (2010) indicates that the amount of collapse for
& geologically younger, recently altered deposit collapsible soils is a function of the relative proportions of each
& high sensitivity component, including degree of saturation, initial void ratio,
& low inter-particle bond strength stress history of the materials, thickness of the collapsible
strata and the amount of added load.
Based on research done by Barden et al. (1973), four factors
are needed to produce collapse in a soil structure 100

(a) an open, partially unstable, unsaturated fabric 80

Partial wetting collapse

(b) a sufficiently high net total stress that stabilises the soil in 70
Sample 1
the unsaturated condition 60
Full collapse

Sample 2
(c) a bonding or cementing agent that stabilises the soil in the Sample 3
unsaturated condition
(d) the addition of water to the soil, which causes the
bounding or cementing agent to be reduced and the 10
intergranular contacts to fail in shear, resulting in a 0
reduction in total volume of the soil mass. 0 20 40 60 80 100
Degree of saturation: %
Collapsible soils are soils that compact and collapse after they
get wet. The soil particles are originally loosely packed and Figure 2. Partial collapse owing to partial wetting – curves for
barely touch each other before moisture soaks into the ground. three types of collapsible soils (Houston et al., 2001)
As water is added to the soil in quantity and moves downward,

Forensic Engineering Foundations on collapsible
Volume 166 Issue FE2 soils: a review

Holtz and Hilf (1961) suggest that the density of collapsible

soils together with their liquid limits (LL) may be used to
estimate collapse potential. They provide a chart to evaluate
collapsibility of various types of soils (Figure 3). The chart
indicates that soils which plot above the line shown in the
figure are susceptible to collapse upon wetting, and as their dry

Void ratio, e
densities decrease, the severity of collapsibility increases. This
is also confirmed by Basma and Kallas (2004). ∆ec

Another procedure consisting of a laboratory method to

estimate the magnitude of collapse potential of a soil was
suggested by Jennings and Knight (1975). In this method, a
sample of an undisturbed soil is cut and fit into a consolidometer
ring and loads are applied progressively until about 200 kPa is
reached. At this pressure the specimen is flooded with water for
Pressure p log p
complete saturation and left for 24 h. The consolidation test is
carried on to its maximum loading. The resulting e–log p curve
plotted from the data obtained is shown in Figure 4. The
Figure 4. Typical collapse potential test result (Murthy, 2010)
collapse potential or Cp is then expressed as

1. Cp ~Dec =ð1ze0 Þ
in void ratio or Dec in Equation 1 is not only caused by collapse
where Dec is the change in void ratio upon wetting and e0 is the but also by creep effect. Basically, it is somehow complicated to
initial or natural void ratio of the soil. The amount of change separate collapse effect from creep since both could occur
almost simultaneously, with soil collapsing under the imposed
7.9 load causing the creep effect to occur at the same time. Table 1
provides a relative indication of the degree of severity for
various values of collapse potential.
Soils have been
observed to collapse
Moghadam et al. (2006) present a chart showing relations
between dry unit weight and percentage finer than 0?075 mm
(sieve no. 200) to evaluate the collapse potential of various
types of soils, as shown in Figure 5.
Dry unit weight: kN/m3

Also, Yuanqing and Zhenghan (2009) used a laboratory

12.3 triaxial collapsible testing procedure on various undisturbed,
collapsible soil (loess) samples using a newly developed triaxial
Gs = 2.7
Dry unit weight: kN/m3

18 Low to
no collapse potential
Gs = 2.6 Soils have not 16
generally been Moderate to
observed to 15 high collapse potential
collapse 14
17.3 12
0 20 40 60 80 100
10 20 30 40 50
Passing sieve no. 200: %
Liquid limit: %

Figure 5. Dry unit weight plotted against percentage passing sieve

Figure 3. Identifying collapsible and non-collapsible soils (Holts and no. 200 to characterise collapse potential of soils (Moghadam
Hilf, 1961), Gs, specific gravity of soil material et al., 2006)

Forensic Engineering Foundations on collapsible
Volume 166 Issue FE2 soils: a review

Cp Severity of problem Al-amoudi et al. (1991), Farawan and Majidzadeh (1988) and
Moosavi and Kalantari (2011) provide a list of associated
0 None problems with pavements where collapsing soils exist; these
0?1–2% Slight include
2?1–6% Moderate
6?1–10% Moderately severe & the formation of depressions and settlements
. 10% Severe & the higher collapse potential of collapsible soils owing to
the high salt content
Table 1. Qualitative assessment of soil collapse potential or Cp & variability in strength and compressibility leading to
(US Department of Transportation, 2006) differential settlement
& sand movement causing abrasion to existing structures
and blockage of some streets and highways.
apparatus with controlled suction. They successfully used this
test to measure and analyse the collapse behaviour (deviations The mechanism of wetting from downward infiltration is more
in axial and volumetric strain) of loess sand. likely to result in a shallow depth of wetting than wetting to
great depth. The probability of relatively shallow partial
Field testing may frequently also be used to characterise and wetting from sources such as landscape irrigation and broken
identify soil collapse potential, in addition to those laboratory pipelines is very high. Also, increased infiltration due to
tests already mentioned. Field tests normally consist of some urbanisation can effectively change an arid or semi-arid climate
type of plate load test, wherein water is introduced to load the into a humid climate.
soil. Typically, the load and displacement relationship is
obtained for analysis in these types of test (Houston et al., In an actual field example and in connection with a forensic
2001; Noutash et al., 2010). investigation in San Diego, California, the annual precipitation
was about 30 cm before a residential subdivision was built, but
A report by Rezaei et al. (2012) states that identification of about 170 cm (counting landscape irrigation) after it was built.
collapsible soil is best accomplished by testing soil specimens. This change in the effective precipitation level resulted in
However, geological and geomorphological information can be substantial settlements of the underlying compacted fill.
useful in anticipating collapsible soil deposits, and it is Although this subdivision was set in a generally semi-arid
suggested that a soil’s dry density as well as liquid limit should region, the lawns were spongy to walk on and the street side
be checked to indicate collapse potential. They also believe that curbs had moss growing on them as a result of heavy landscape
geotechnical and geological engineers know from experience watering. In another example, in semi-arid New Mexico, a
that alluvial and wind-blown deposits in arid regions are likely commercial building won an award from the city for the year’s
to exhibit some collapse potential. most beautiful lawn and landscaping. However, they also
suffered about US$0?5 million dollars in foundation damage
4. Problems associated with collapsible soils owing to differential settlement, having wetted the collapsible
Foundations for different structures or pavements constructed foundation soils to a depth of 15 m in some locations (Houston
on collapsible soils may experience sudden and large amounts et al., 2001).
of settlement. These deformations are caused when the
foundation subsoil is saturated from various types of water Also, a report from Noutash et al. (2010), with respect to the
intrusions, such as leakage from broken pipe lines, sewer lines, impounding of Khoda Afarin canal located in northern Iran to
pools and basins, as well as water from runoff or irrigations. mitigate existing collapse potential in the area, indicates that
Settlements of foundations cause varying degrees of damage to large cracks occurred on both sides of the canal’s berms after
structures founded on collapsing soils – from negligible to very the mentioned pretreatment technique was completed
severe. Table 2 classifies these damages based in part on the (Figure 6).
ease of repair of the damage, and also provides a refined
framework for the evaluation of damage. 5. Types of foundations on collapsible soils
In general, with regard to collapse potential and type of
Collapsible soils do not only cause buildings founded on them to structural loading, the design engineer may consider various
be damaged through settlement, but in many cases these types of types of foundations in order to carry loads safely. Carrying
problematic soil cause pavements constructed on them to be loads safely for a foundation means that no shear failure or
damaged because of unexpected settlements as well. Related excessive settlement (more than permissible) occurs during and
research studies carried out by Aiban (1994), Aiban et al. (1995), after construction, or during the service life of the project.
Al-abdul wahhab and Rahmadhan (1990), Al-amoudi (1994), Sometimes, to design a proper foundation on collapsible soils

Forensic Engineering Foundations on collapsible
Volume 166 Issue FE2 soils: a review

Class of
damage Description of damage Approximate width of cracks: mm

Negligible Hairline cracks , 0?1

Very slight Fine cracks easily treated during normal redecoration. Perhaps isolated ,1
slight fracture in building. Cracks in exterior brickwork visible upon close
Slight Cracks easily filled. Redecoration probably required. Several slight ,5
fractures inside building. Exterior cracks visible, some repainting may
be required for weather tightness. Doors and windows may stick slightly
Moderate Cracks may require cutting out and patching. Recurrent cracks can be 5–15 or several cracks . 3 mm
masked by suitable lining. Tuck pointing and possible replacement of a
small amount of exterior brick work may be required. Doors and windows
sticking. Weather tightness often impaired
Severe Extensive repair involving removal and replacement of sections of wall, 15–25
especially over doors and windows. Windows and door frames distorted,
floor slopes noticeably, some loss of bearing in beams. Utilities service
Very severe Major repair required involving partial or complete reconstruction. Beams . 25
lose bearing, walls lean badly and require shoring. Windows broken by
distortion. Danger of instability

Table 2. Classification of visible structural damages on foundations

(Boscardin and Cording, 1989)

may be a difficult task. This is because the foundation subsoil one of the most effective means to reduce deformations of
is subjected to sudden settlement without any prior indication collapsing soils. Saturation of the soil, in combination with
of failure. In many cases, when the subsoil foundation is found dynamic compaction, offers the potential to increase compac-
to be collapsible, deep foundations such as piles or piers may tion efficiency and uniformity. Also, preloading the collapsible
be used to transmit foundation loads to deeper bearing strata soil while saturating it prior to project construction causes the
below the collapsible soil deposit (Figure 7). Also, in cases weak soil to experience its maximum settlements under
where it is feasible to support the structure’s shallow preloading conditions, and thus it is capable of carrying the
foundation in or above the collapsible soils, a continuous strip imposed loads safely according to designed loads after removal
footing may provide a more economical and safer foundation of the preloads.
than isolated footings. Differential settlement between columns
can be minimised and a more equitable distribution of stresses Bowles (1988) provides three general and practical methods to
may be achieved with the use of strip footing design as shown combat the collapsing potential of soil. These are
in Figure 8 (Clemence and Finbarr, 1981).
(a) compaction (excavation and replacement) of the soil to
On some sites, it may be feasible to apply a pretreatment cdry > about 15?5 kN/m3
technique either to stabilise the collapsible soil or cause collapse (b) use of different types of admixture such as Portland
of the soil deposit prior to construction of a specific structure. A cement during compaction
great variety of treatment methods have been used in the past. (c) use of piles through the collapsible soils to a more
Moistening and compaction techniques, with either conven- competent underlying stratum.
tional impact or vibratory rollers, may be used for shallow
depths up to about 1?5 m. For greater depths, vibroflotation, The first and second methods are usually considered when
stone columns may be tried. Chemical stabilisation using construction of pavements is the main concern, whereas the
sodium silicate and injection of carbon dioxide is also considered third method is recommended for various types of civil
to be an alternative to treat collapsible soil (Murthy, 2010). engineering structural construction projects.

Based on studies reported by Murthy (2010), deep dynamic Partoo and Kalantari (2011) used Portland cement (method 2)
compaction (DDC) of the collapsible soil in the field provides along with polypropylene fibres to stabilise collapsible soil

Forensic Engineering Foundations on collapsible
Volume 166 Issue FE2 soils: a review


Figure 8. Continuous footing design with load-bearing beams for

collapsible soil (Clemence and Finbarr, 1981)

Figure 6. Examples of cracks attributable to pretreatment

(impounding) of the Khoda Afarin canal to mitigate existing
semi-arid regions. Foundations as well as pavements con-
collapse potential (Noutash et al., 2001)
structed on collapsing soils may cause any structures founded
on them to incur severe damage, and as a result their safety
becomes uncertain. These types of soils are easily identifiable
(windblown sand) and improved the original strength of this
from non-collapsible soils using simple field and laboratory
collapsible soil significantly. Their research showed that the use
tests, such as natural dry density, oedometer, sieve analysis,
of polypropylene fibres in the mixture enabled a considerable
and liquid limit.
amount of cementing agent to be saved in the process. The
treatment of weak soil in the field with various types of
After a subsoil foundation has been identified as having
admixtures should always be examined in the laboratory first.
collapse potential, a proper foundation must be designed that
can either withstand (using sufficiently strong strip footings),
6. Conclusion or not be effected by (using deep foundations), soil collapse or
Collapsible soils are those that appear to be strong and stable excessive settlement. Also, where road construction involves
in their natural (dry) state, but which rapidly consolidate under subgrade soil that may be collapsible, weak soil can be
wetting, generating large and often unexpected settlements. improved by various types of admixtures such as Portland
Collapsible soils exist worldwide, and particularly in arid and cements or it can be replaced or mixed with a better quality
soil. Another method to improve load-bearing capacity of
collapsible soils is to preload them with a total load of more
than the expected actual imposed loads, while saturating the
weak soil during the preloading process. Overall, to achieve
safe and economically feasible foundation types on collapsible
soils, the most influential factors to be considered include field
Collapsible soil
observation and laboratory tests to determine the soil’s actual
collapse potential, the load intensity of the civil engineering
project – which determines whether shallow or deep founda-
tions (or a combination of both) should be used – and also the
cost–benefit ratio (C/B) of the alternative design.
Stable strata

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