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Shallow Foundations
Bearing Capacity, Settlement, Frost Action, Swelling/Collapsing Soils
Bearing Capacity
The term bearing capacity refers to the maximum load, or pressure, that the soil
supporting the foundation can withstand. As such, it is considered to be a function of
the shear strength of the soil. In clays, the ultimate bearing capacity may be well
defined, resulting in sudden, catastrophic failure of the foundation. However, in
granular or mixed soils, sudden failure usually does not occur and the “bearing
capacity” is defined in terms of some arbitrary, large (say 6 inches or so) settlement.
For a relatively simple description of failure modes for shallow foundations, see (Hunt,
1986) or (Coduto, 2001). A more comprehensive discussion of this topic may be
found in (Vesic, 1975).
The conventional bearing capacity theory is based on the assumption that the
supporting soil behaves as a rigid-plastic material. Karl Terzaghi came up with this idea
in the 1920’s and it has been used, with several refinements, ever since.
Figure 4.1 Terzaghi model for bearing capacity of soils.
The Terzaghi model is shown in Figure 4.1. The failure mechanism contains three
zones: 1) An inert zone that, in essence, becomes part of the footing (ACD), 2) A
“radial” zone assumed to be bounded by a log spiral segment (ADF) and a “passive”
Chapter
4
27
zone (AFH). Terzaghi obtained the critical surface by trial and error and presented the
results in the following equation (in terms of effective stress).
0.5
where, effective cohesion of supporting soil
, , = Bearing capacity factors which depend on ,
the effective friction angle of the soil
Effecti
ult c D q
c q
D
q c N N BN
c
N N N
  
 

' ' ' = + +
' =
'
' = ve vertical stress at the base of the footing
Effective unit of the supporting soil
Footing width B
 ' =
=
(4.1)
The three terms on the right hand side of equation (4.1) represent the contributions
due to cohesion, overburden pressure and soil weight.
In my experience, equation (4.1) is rarely applied in its complete form. The more
commonly used forms are:
0.5 {for granular soil}
ult D q
q N BN    ' ' = + (4.2)
{for cohesive soils}
ult c
q cN = (4.3)
Note that the equation for granular soils is in terms of effective stress; whereas, the
equation for cohesive soils is based on undrained conditions; i.e., total stresses.
Because granular soils are relatively free draining, undrained conditions do not apply
under typical (non-dynamic) foundation loading. In the case of cohesive soils, the
drained condition is almost never analyzed because the bearing capacity increases with
time.
The Terzaghi bearing capacity equations was derived for plane-strain conditions; i.e.,
strip footings. Terzaghi recommended the following shape (correction) factors for
square and circular footings:
1.2, for square and circular footings
c
s = (4.4)
0.4, for square footings
0.6, for circular footings
s

=
=
(4.5)
The shape factors are applied to the cohesion and weight terms respectively.
A general shear failure surface, as shown in Figure 4.1 normally occurs only in dense
and relatively incompressible soils. By contrast, loose or relatively compressible soils
typically fail in punching or local shear in which the failure surface is only partially
Terzaghi Bearing
Capacity Equation
28
developed. Terzaghi recommended the following adjustments to the values of
cohesion and friction angle to be used in the bearing capacity equation:
2
for soft to firm clays and
3
2
tan tan for loose sands
3
local
local
c c
 
| |
=
|
\ .
| |
=
|
\ .
(4.6)
The Terzaghi bearing capacity factors are available in charts or tables in most
foundation engineering texts and handbooks. [Terzaghi’s factors are not presented
herein because they have been largely superseded by those given below.] Many
researchers have attempted to improve on Terzaghi’s bearing capacity theory and there
is no general agreement as to which should be used. Among the more conservative are
those recommended by (Vesic, 1975):
tan 2
tan (45 / 2)
1
tan
2( 1) tan
q
q
c
q
N e
N
N
N N
 




'
' = +
÷
=
'
' = +
(4.7)
Vesic also provided correction factors for shape, depth, load inclination, base
inclination and ground inclination. Discussion of these factors may be found in most
texts on foundation engineering [see, for example, (Coduto, 2001)]. However, except
for shape and depth, the need for these factors rarely occurs in practice. Further, the
depth factors are often ignored in the interest of conservatism. Vesic’s shape factors
are presented in Table 4.1
Table 4.1
Shape Factors for Shallow Foundations
(After (Vesic, 1975)
Shape
c
s
q
s s

Strip 1.0 1.0 1.0
Rectangular
1 ( / )( / )
q c
B L N N + 1 ( / ) tan B L  + 1 0.4( / ) B L ÷
Circle or Square
1 ( / )
q c
N N + 1 tan + 0.6
Foundations on granular soils virtually never fail in bearing capacity. Before the
ultimate bearing capacity is reached, the allowable settlement would have long since
been exceeded. Therefore, nearly all design of foundations on granular soils is based
on settlement analysis. [As of 2003, I have become aware of Load and Resistance
Factor Design being applied to foundation analysis and design. In the framework of
LRFD, the ultimate bearing capacity is required, no matter how irrelevant it may be.]
A Little Perspective on
Bearing Capacity of
Foundations
Vesic shape factors
for bearing capacity
analysis
Vesic Bearing
Capacity factors
29
In the case of cohesive soils, the ultimate bearing capacity is approximately:
6 6 3
where cohesion
undrained shear strength
unconfined compressive strength
ult u u
u
u
q c S q
c
S
q
= = =
=
=
=
(4.8)
Taking a typical safety factor = 3, the allowable bearing pressure is given by:
3
ult
a u
q
q q = = (4.9)
In other words, the allowable bearing pressure for a foundation on cohesive soils is
approximately equal to the unconfined compressive strength.
Special Cases
Some special cases that may arise with respect to bearing capacity include:
- Shallow groundwater
- Eccentric loading
- Foundations on or near slopes
- Foundations bearing on layered soils
(NAVFAC DM - 7.2, 1982) treats all these cases (see pp 7.2-132 – 138). Shallow
groundwater has no effect on undrained analysis of cohesive soils. In the case of
granular soils, correction factors are applied to account for the buoyant effect of
groundwater. Groundwater deeper than the footing width has no effect.
Eccentric loading is accounted for by reducing the foundation dimensions such that
the resultant acts at the center of the reduced-area footing. Thus, for a rectangular
footing with dimensions of L by B and eccentricities and
L B
e e in the length and
breadth directions, the reduced dimensions would be:
' 2
L
L L e = ÷ (4.10)
' 2
B
B B e = ÷ (4.11)
For foundations on or near slopes, the bearing capacity formula is recast in the form:
0.5 '
ult cq q
q cN B N

 = + · (4.12)
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Appropriate values, as a function of the footing location relative to the slope may be
found on p. 7.2-136 in DM 7. The case of a two layer cohesive soil is covered on pp.
7.2-137,138 in DM 7.2.
Settlement
For purposes of this discussion, we will consider foundations on granular soils and
cohesive soils separately.
Granular Soils
Most structures founded on granular soils have settlement tolerance limits that come
into play well before potential bearing capacity failure becomes an issue. Therefore, the
design of foundations on granular soils is focused primarily on settlement.
In order to evaluate the settlement potential of granular soils, we need to give some
thought to what type of data we can obtain from the field and laboratory
investigations. The first thing to realize, in this regard, is that it is extremely difficult
(and expensive) to obtain anything approaching an undisturbed sample of granular soil.
This means that meaningful laboratory tests to evaluate settlement parameters are
usually out of the question. Consequently, the evaluation of settlement of foundations
on granular soil is typically based on field data. What type of field data? By far the
most common field test for this purpose is the SPT. Since the SPT does not directly
measure settlement parameters, correlations are used to relate the SPT N-values to
settlement potential. One way this is accomplished is as follows. SPT tests are
performed during the field investigation, settlements are measured and, knowing the
loads applied to the foundations, a correlation can be found, between N-value, bearing
pressure and settlement. Another approach is to correlate SPT N-values with a
fundamental soil property such as “elastic” modulus and compute settlements based
on Theory of Elasticity.
The first approach was first proposed by Terzaghi and Peck, in the 1940’s. They
presented charts relating bearing pressure for one inch of settlement to N-value,
footing size and depth. [Note: As mentioned in Chapter 3, 1-inch settlement has long
been accepted as the allowable total settlement for spread footings. If the allowable
settlement is less than 1 inch, the bearing pressures are reduced in direct proportion.]
A more recent, revised version of their chart is given in Figure 4.2.

3) qult  c {for cohesive soils} cN Note that the equation for granular soils is in terms of effective stress. N = Bearing capacity factors which depend on . By contrast. s  0. overburden pressure and soil weight.zone (AFH). A general shear failure surface.  qult  c  D N q  BN  cN  0. strip footings.2. the equation for cohesive soils is based on undrained conditions.2) (4. as shown in Figure 4..4) (4. whereas.1 normally occurs only in dense and relatively incompressible soils. In the case of cohesive soils. The Terzaghi bearing capacity equations was derived for plane-strain conditions. the effective friction angle of the soil    Effective vertical stress at the base of the footing D    Effective unit of the supporting soil B  Footing width The three terms on the right hand side of equation (4. undrained conditions do not apply under typical (non-dynamic) foundation loading.6. i. Terzaghi obtained the critical surface by trial and error and presented the results in the following equation (in terms of effective stress). equation (4.e..1) (4.5  (4. loose or relatively compressible soils typically fail in punching or local shear in which the failure surface is only partially (4.5  Terzaghi Bearing Capacity Equation where.1) is rarely applied in its complete form. The more commonly used forms are:  qult  D N q  BN {for granular soil}  0.5) 27 . total stresses. Because granular soils are relatively free draining. N q .1) represent the contributions due to cohesion. Terzaghi recommended the following shape (correction) factors for square and circular footings: sc  for square and circular footings 1.4. for square footings  0. for circular footings The shape factors are applied to the cohesion and weight terms respectively. the drained condition is almost never analyzed because the bearing capacity increases with time. c effective cohesion of supporting soil   N c . i.e. In my experience.

Before the ultimate bearing capacity is reached.developed. Among the more conservative are those recommended by (Vesic. Vesic’shape factors s are presented in Table 4.0 1. Discussion of these factors may be found in most texts on foundation engineering [see. no matter how irrelevant it may be.6 A Little Perspective on Bearing Capacity of Foundations Foundations on granular soils virtually never fail in bearing capacity.0 ( 0. 2001)].] 28 . depth. However.1 Shape Factors for Shallow Foundations (After (Vesic. the need for these factors rarely occurs in practice. Further. except for shape and depth. In the framework of LRFD. the allowable settlement would have long since been exceeded. the ultimate bearing capacity is required. Therefore.6) The Terzaghi bearing capacity factors are available in charts or tables in most foundation engineering texts and handbooks.0 1. [As of 2003. nearly all design of foundations on granular soils is based on settlement analysis. 1975) sc sq s 1. [Terzaghi’factors are not presented s herein because they have been largely superseded by those given below.7) Vesic also provided correction factors for shape. 1975): Vesic Bearing Capacity factors  N q  tan  tan 2 (45  2) e / N  1 Nc  q  tan   N   N q  tan  2( 1) (4. Terzaghi recommended the following adjustments to the values of cohesion and friction angle to be used in the bearing capacity equation: 2  clocal   for soft to firm clays and  c 3  2  tan    for loose sands local  tan 3  (4.4( 1  B / L)( N q / N c ) 1  B / L) tan  1  B / L) ( 1  Nq / Nc ) ( Vesic shape factors for bearing capacity analysis Shape Strip Rectangular Circle or Square 1  tan 0.1 Table 4. I have become aware of Load and Resistance Factor Design being applied to foundation analysis and design. for example. load inclination. (Coduto. base inclination and ground inclination.] Many researchers have attempted to improve on Terzaghi’ s bearing capacity theory and there is no general agreement as to which should be used. the depth factors are often ignored in the interest of conservatism.

10) (4. Groundwater deeper than the footing width has no effect. the reduced dimensions would be: L ' L  eL 2 B ' B  eB 2 (4. In the case of granular soils. the allowable bearing pressure is given by: q qa  ult  u q 3 (4. Special Cases Some special cases that may arise with respect to bearing capacity include:  Shallow groundwater  Eccentric loading  Foundations on or near slopes  Foundations bearing on layered soils (NAVFAC DM .12) 29 . correction factors are applied to account for the buoyant effect of groundwater.2-132 –138).5 ' N q (4. the allowable bearing pressure for a foundation on cohesive soils is approximately equal to the unconfined compressive strength. the bearing capacity formula is recast in the form: qult  cq  B   cN 0. 1982) treats all these cases (see pp 7. Thus.7. the ultimate bearing capacity is approximately: qult  c  Su  qu 6 6 3 where c  cohesion Su  undrained shear strength qu  unconfined compressive strength Taking a typical safety factor = 3. Eccentric loading is accounted for by reducing the foundation dimensions such that the resultant acts at the center of the reduced-area footing.9) In other words.8) (4. for a rectangular footing with dimensions of L by B and eccentricities eL and eB in the length and breadth directions.11) For foundations on or near slopes.In the case of cohesive soils.2. Shallow groundwater has no effect on undrained analysis of cohesive soils.

Appropriate values. as a function of the footing location relative to the slope may be found on p. Consequently. correlations are used to relate the SPT N-values to settlement potential. The first thing to realize. The first approach was first proposed by Terzaghi and Peck. knowing the loads applied to the foundations. between N-value. is that it is extremely difficult (and expensive) to obtain anything approaching an undisturbed sample of granular soil. bearing pressure and settlement.138 in DM 7. footing size and depth. This means that meaningful laboratory tests to evaluate settlement parameters are usually out of the question. 30 . in the 1940’ They s. Since the SPT does not directly measure settlement parameters. One way this is accomplished is as follows. Settlement For purposes of this discussion. revised version of their chart is given in Figure 4. SPT tests are performed during the field investigation. Therefore. In order to evaluate the settlement potential of granular soils. the bearing pressures are reduced in direct proportion. [Note: As mentioned in Chapter 3. we need to give some thought to what type of data we can obtain from the field and laboratory investigations. Another approach is to correlate SPT N-values with a fundamental soil property such as “ elastic” modulus and compute settlements based on Theory of Elasticity.] A more recent. a correlation can be found. settlements are measured and. presented charts relating bearing pressure for one inch of settlement to N-value. The case of a two layer cohesive soil is covered on pp. If the allowable settlement is less than 1 inch.2. we will consider foundations on granular soils and cohesive soils separately.2-137. the design of foundations on granular soils is focused primarily on settlement. the evaluation of settlement of foundations on granular soil is typically based on field data. 7. 1-inch settlement has long been accepted as the allowable total settlement for spread footings.2-136 in DM 7. 7.2. Granular Soils Most structures founded on granular soils have settlement tolerance limits that come into play well before potential bearing capacity failure becomes an issue. What type of field data? By far the most common field test for this purpose is the SPT. in this regard.