Soil Improvement – Liquefaction

The main goal of most soil improvement techniques used for reducing liquefaction hazards is to avoid large increases in pore water pressure during earthquake shaking. This can be achieved by densification of the soil and/or improvement of its drainage capacity.


Vibroflotation involves the use of a vibrating probe that can penetrate granular soil to depths of over 100 feet. The vibrations of the probe cause the grain structure to collapse thereby densifying the soil surrounding the probe. To treat an area of potentially liquefiable soil, the vibroflot is raised and lowered in a grid pattern. Vibro Replacement is a combination of vibroflotation with a gravel backfill resulting in stone columns, which not only increases the amount of densificton, but provides a degree of reinforcement and a potentially effective means of drainage.

Vibroflotation Steps

Dynamic Compaction

Densifiction by dynamic compaction is performed by dropping a heavy weight of steel or concrete in a grid pattern from heights of 30 to 100 ft. It provides an economical way of improving soil for mitigation of liquefaction hazards. Local liquefaction can be initiated beneath the drop point making it easier for the sand grains to densify. When the excess porewater pressure from the dynamic loading dissipates, additional densification occurs. As illustrated in the photograph, however, the process is somewhat invasive; the surface of the soil may require shallow compaction with possible addition of granular fill following dynamic compaction.

Dynamic Compaction
Dynamic Compaction

Stone Column

As described above, stone columns are columns of gravel constructed in the ground. Stone columns can be constructed by the vibroflotation method. They can also be installed in other ways, for example, with help of a steel casing and a drop hammer as in the Franki Method. In this approach the steel casing is driven in to the soil and gravel is filled in from the top and tamped with a drop hammer as the steel casing is successively withdrawn.

Stone Column
Stone Column

Compaction Piles

Installing compaction piles is a very effective way of improving soil. Compaction piles are usually made of prestressed concrete or timber. Installation of compaction piles both densifies and reinforces the soil. The piles are generally installed in a grid pattern and are generally driven to depth of up to 60 ft.

Compaction Grouting

Compaction grouting is a technique whereby a slow-flowing water/sand/cement mix is injected under pressure into a granular soil. The grout forms a bulb that displaces and hence densifies, the surrounding soil. Compaction grouting is a good option if the foundation of an existing building requires improvement, since it is possible to inject the grout from the side or at an inclined angle to reach beneath the building.

Compaction Grouting
Compaction Grouting

Drainage Techniques

Liquefaction hazards can be reduced by increasing the drainage ability of the soil. If the porewater within the soil can drain freely, the build-up of excess pore water pressure will be reduced. Drainage techniques include installation of drains of gravel, sand or synthetic materials. Synthetic wick drains can be installed at various angles, in contrast to gravel or sand drains that are usually installed vertically. Drainage techniques are often used in combination with other types of soil improvement techniques for more effective liquefaction hazard reduction.

Verification of Improvements

A number of methods can be used to verify the effectiveness of soil improvement. In-situ techniques are popular because of the limitations of many laboratory techniques. Usually, in-situ test are performed to evaluate the liquefaction potential of a soil deposit before the improvement was attempted. With the knowledge of the existing ground characteristics, one can then specify a necessary level of improvement in terms of insitu test parameters. Performing in-situ tests after improvement has been completed allows one to decide if the degree of improvement was satisfactory. In some cases, the extent of the improvement is not reflected in in-situ test results until some time after the improvement has been completed

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What is Liquefaction?

Liquefaction is a phenomenon in which the strength and stiffness of a soil is reduced by earthquake shaking or other rapid loading. Liquefaction and related phenomena have been responsible for tremendous amounts of damage in historical earthquakes around the world.

Liquefaction occurs in saturated soils, that is, soils in which the space between individual particles is completely filled with water. This water exerts a pressure on the soil particles that influences how tightly the particles themselves are pressed together. Prior to an earthquake, the water pressure is relatively low. However, earthquake shaking can cause the water pressure to increase to the point where the soil particles can readily move with respect to each other.

Earthquake shaking often triggers this increase in water pressure, but construction related activities such as blasting can also cause an increase in water pressure.

When liquefaction occurs, the strength of the soil decreases and, the ability of a soil deposit to support foundations for buildings and bridges is reduced as seen in the photo above of the overturned apartment complex buildings in Niigata in 1964.

Liquefied soil also exerts higher pressure on retaining walls,which can cause them to tilt or slide. This movement can cause settlement of the retained soil and destruction of structures on the ground surface as shown below.


Increased water pressure can also trigger landslides and cause the collapse of dams. Lower San Fernando dam (below) suffered an underwater slide during the San Fernando earthquake, 1971. Fortunately, the dam barely avoided collapse, thereby preventing a potential disaster of flooding of the heavily populated areas below the dam.



What is the Seismic Design Philosophy for Buildings?

The Earthquake Problem
Severity of ground shaking at a given location during an earthquake can be minor, moderate and strong. Relatively speaking, minor shaking occurs frequently, moderate shaking occasionally and strong shaking rarely. For instance, on average annually about 800 earthquakes of magnitude 5.0-5.9 occur in the world while the number is only about 18 for magnitude range 7.0-7.9. So, should we design and construct a building to resist that rare earthquake shaking that may come only once in 500 years or even once in 2000 years at the chosen project site, even though the life of the building itself may be only 50 or 100 years? Since it costs money to provide additional earthquake safety in buildings, a conflict arises: Should we do away with the design of buildings for earthquake effects? Or should we design the buildings to be “earthquake proof” wherein there is no damage during the strong but rare earthquake shaking? Clearly, the former approach can lead to a major disaster, and the second approach is too expensive. Hence, the design philosophy should lie somewhere in between these two extremes.

Earthquake-Resistant Buildings
The engineers do not attempt to make earthquake- proof buildings that will not get damaged even during the rare but strong earthquake; such buildings will be too robust and also too expensive. Instead, the engineering intention is to make buildings earthquake-resistant ; such buildings resist the effects of ground shaking, although they may get damaged severely but would not collapse during the strong earthquake. Thus, safety of people and contents is assured in earthquake-resistant buildings, and thereby a disaster is avoided. This is a major objective of seismic design codes throughout the world.

Earthquake Design Philosophy
The earthquake design philosophy may be summarized as follows (Figure 1.):
Picture1Figure 1.
  1. Under minor but frequent shaking, the main members of the building that carry vertical and horizontal forces should not be damaged; however building parts that do not carry load may sustain repairable damage.
  2. Under moderate but occasional shaking, the main members may sustain repairable damage, while the other parts of the building may be damaged such that they may even have to be replaced after the earthquake; and
  3. Under strong but rare shaking, the main members may sustain severe (even irreparable) damage, but the building should not collapse.

Thus, after minor shaking, the building will be fully operational within a short time and the repair costs will be small. And, after moderate shaking, the building will be operational once the repair and strengthening of the damaged main members is completed. But, after a strong earthquake, the building may become dysfunctional for further use, but will stand so that people can be evacuated and property recovered. The consequences of damage have to be kept in view in the design philosophy. For example, important buildings, like hospitals and fire stations, play a critical role in post-earthquake activities and must remain functional immediately after the earthquake. These structures must sustain very little damage and should be designed for a higher level of earthquake protection. Collapse of dams during earthquakes can cause flooding in the downstream reaches, which itself can be a secondary disaster. Therefore, dams (and similarly, nuclear power plants) should be designed for still higher level of earthquake motion.

Damage in Buildings: Unavoidable
Design of buildings to resist earthquakes involves controlling the damage to acceptable levels at a reasonable cost. Contrary to the common thinking that any crack in the building after an earthquake means the building is unsafe for habitation, engineers designing earthquake-resistant buildings recognize that some damage is unavoidable. Different types of damage (mainly visualized through cracks; especially so in concrete and masonry buildings) occur in buildings during earthquakes. Some of these cracks are acceptable (in terms of both their size and location), while others are not. For instance, in a reinforced concrete frame building with masonry filler walls between columns, the cracks between vertical columns and masonry filler walls are acceptable, but diagonal cracks running through the columns are not (Figure 2). In general, qualified technical professionals are knowledgeable of the causes and severity of damage in earthquake-resistant buildings.

 Picture2 Figure 2.

Earthquake-resistant design is therefore concerned about ensuring that the damages in buildings during earthquakes are of the acceptable variety, and also that they occur at the right places and in right amounts. This approach of earthquake-resistant design is much like the use of electrical fuses in houses: to protect the entire electrical wiring and appliances in the house, you sacrifice some small parts of the electrical circuit, called fuses; these fuses are easily replaced after the electrical overcurrent. Likewise, to save the building from collapsing, you need to allow some pre-determined parts to undergo the acceptable type and level of damage.

Acceptable Damage: Ductility
So, the task now is to identify acceptable forms of damage and desirable building behaviour during earthquakes. To do this, let us first understand how different materials behave. Consider white chalk used to write on blackboards and steel pins with solid heads used to hold sheets of paper together. Yes… a chalk breaks easily!! On the contrary, a steel pin allows it to be bent back-and-forth. Engineers define the property that allows steel pins to bend back-and-forth by large amounts, as ductility; chalk is a brittle material. Earthquake-resistant buildings, particularly their main elements, need to be built with ductility in them. Such buildings have the ability to sway back-and-forth during an earthquake, and to withstand earthquake effects with some damage, but without collapse (Figure 3). Ductility is one of the most important factors affecting the building performance. Thus, earthquake-resistant design strives to predetermine the locations where damage takes place and then to provide good detailing at these locations to ensure ductile behavior of the building.

 Picture4Figure 3.


Prof. C.V.R.Murty
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur
Kanpur, India