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Phear, A. G. & Harris, S. J. (2008). Geotechnique 58, No. 5, 399404 [doi: 10.1680/geot.2008.58.5.

399]

Contributions to Geotechnique 19482008: Ground improvement


A . G . P H E A R * a n d S . J. H A R R I S
Lamelioration du sol comprend une trentaine de methodes de traitement du sol, y compris la modification, le
traitement chimique, le renforcement par lacier, le
raidissement geosynthetique par le drainage, la densification par la vibration ou la consolidation, lutilisation
de lelectro-osmose, ou encore lemploi de la technique
dobservation. Dans la presente communication, on
sefforce de mettre en lumie`re des communications qui
font autorite, publiees dans Geotechnique depuis 1947, et
nous conseillons vivement au lecteur de consulter; on y
trouve egalement des descriptions de communications
jugees particulie`rement importantes, de la densification
des sols a` Cape Kennedy, aux Etats-Unis, jusqua` la
construction dun mur de sol renforce, de 41 m de haut,
en Afrique du Sud. Lutilisation de techniques de compactage et de remplacement par vibration occupe une
place de choix, de meme que la consolidation au moyen
de drains verticaux. De meme, limportance des techniques dobservation et leur rapport avec le renforcement
du sol est evoquee tre`s souvent dans Geotechnique. Enfin,
un recapitulatif de communications est presente sous
forme de tableau, afin de faciliter les recherches.

Ground improvement comprises approximately 30 different methods of ground treatment, including modification,
chemical alteration, reinforcement with steel or geosynthetic, strengthening by drainage, densification by vibration or consolidation, the use of electro-osmosis, and the
use of the observational technique. This paper attempts
to highlight influential papers published in Geotechnique
since 1947, and urges the reader to seek these out.
Descriptions are given of those papers considered to be
most influential, ranging from the densification of soils at
Cape Kennedy in the USA to the construction of a 41 m
high reinforced soil wall in South Africa. The use of
vibro-compaction and vibro-replacement techniques has
featured significantly, as has consolidation using vertical
drains. The importance of observational techniques and
their relationship to ground improvement has also received great attention in Geotechnique. A summary of
papers is also presented in a table to provide a quick
reference tool.
KEYWORDS: consolidation; ground improvement; historical
review; observational method; reinforced soil; vertical drains;
vibro-compaction

INTRODUCTION
Ground improvement techniques have developed greatly over
the 60 years for which Geotechnique has been in existence.
There are now over 30 ground improvement techniques. For
most of these, there are variations that extend the versatility
of the basic technique. Also, many are used in combination,
and the scope for innovation is huge. Ground improvement
is used both for temporary works, and for short-term and
long-term applications.
Mitchell & Jardine (2002) observed that

Less obviously, the ninth SiP, published in 1994, on the


Observational method in geotechnical engineering, also
contained several papers on ground improvement. Its complementary use is discussed later in this paper.
The aim of this paper is to highlight papers published in
Geotechnique in the last 60 years that have been the most
influential in the development of the practice of ground improvement techniques, and to urge readers to seek them out.
This is inevitably subjective, as the authors started with papers
that they use regularly, or which are well known. However,
this was benchmarked by a review of the references quoted in
the main British enabling documents on ground improvement:
the Construction Industry Research and Information Association reports on vertical drains (Holtz et al., 1991), on ground
treatment (Charles & Watts, 2002; Mitchell & Jardine, 2002)
and on the observational method in ground engineering
(Nicholson et al., 1998). The state-of-the-art paper on dynamic compaction methods by Greenwood & Kirsch (1983)
was also reviewed for references from Geotechnique.
Charles (2002) wrote that ground improvement has developed largely in an empirical, contractor-led fashion, and, for
the most part, it can be described as an experience-based
technology. In contrast, Geotechnique addresses mainly the
scientific aspects of ground engineering. Ground improvement is a part of ground engineering where practice usually
precedes theory, and research follows development, not just
in trying to explain why a technique works but, more
importantly, in trying to establish rational, rather than empirical, design methods and to see how the technique can be
improved and its limitations identified.
Table 1 includes a range of papers published in Geotechnique in the last 60 years on ground improvement topics.
Discussion is presented on those topics that in the authors
experience are commonly used or considered for use in
current engineering practice.

The term, ground improvement, is open to different


interpretations. First, it is an intention or objective, not
the process of achieving it, although the term is often used
in that sense. Secondly, improvement is a relative condition
as to which aspect and to what degree there is improvement.
Ground improvement has featured as the main topic in
three Geotechnique Symposia in Print. The first Symposium
in Print (SiP) was published in March 1975, and was on the
subject of Ground treatment by deep compaction. The
subject of soil treatment was again addressed in March
1981, when the third SiP was published, on Vertical drains.
The eleventh SiP was published in June 2000 and focused
on Ground and soil improvement. The theme for that issue
was restricted to the mechanical improvement of the ground
using vibro-compaction, vibro-replacement, dynamic compaction, soil mixing, compaction grouting, surcharging, deep
drainage, and other improvement techniques used to consolidate or reinforce the soil.
Discussion on this paper closes on 1 December 2008, for further
details see p. ii.
* Ove Arup & Partners, Solihull, UK.
Ove Arup & Partners, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK.

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PHEAR AND HARRIS

400

Table 1. Summary of selected ground improvement papers published in Geotechnique 19472007


Decade
19471956
Electro-osmosis

Casagrande
(1949)

1957 1966

19671976

19771986

Bjerrum et al.
(1967)

Reinforced soil

Blight & Dane


(1989)
Lee et al. (1994)

Lime/cement stabilisation

Sherwood
(1957)

Surcharging

Tomlinson
(1956)

19972007
Su & Wang
(2003)
Zornberg (2002)
Rowe (2002)
Boardman et al.
(2001)
Larsson et al.
(2005)

Tomlinson &
Wilson (1973)

Vertical drains

Observational method

Peck (1969)

Vibro-replacement

Hughes et al.
(1975)
McKenna et al.
(1975)
Menard &
Broise (1975)

Dynamic compaction

19871996

Groundwater control
Vacuum consolidation
Explosive compaction
Lime/cement columns

VIBRATORY TECHNIQUES
Vibro stone columns
The formation of columns of compacted stone in the
ground using a heavy vibrating poker to displace the in situ
ground and to compact the imported material is referred to
as vibro stone columns or vibro-replacement (Watts, 2000).
There are several ways to design stone columns. The currently used design methods for bearing capacity are mostly
refinements of work carried out about 30 years ago by
Baumann & Bauer (1974) and Hughes & Withers (1974). For
settlement calculations Baumann & Bauer, and also Priebe
(1995), are widely used. At the time of the first Symposium
in Print, the state of knowledge of how deep compaction
techniques work was relatively primitive, and several of the
papers addressed this (Charles, 2002). Two of these are
considered influential in the development of the design and
testing of stone columns, and are discussed below.
Hughes et al. (1975) described a case history of the plate
loading of an isolated stone column in soft clay on Canvey
Island in Essex. The soft clay was 9 m thick and overlay a
medium dense silty sand. The stone columns were 10 m long
and penetrated through the soft clay into the much stiffer
silty sand. This paper is important, because the behaviour of
the column in this field trial proved to be in accordance with
the behaviour predicted by the theory proposed by Hughes
& Withers (1974). As noted above, this theory is still widely
used for the design of stone columns.

Watson et al.
(1984)
Davies &
Humpheson
(1981)
Hansbo et al.
(1981)
McGown &
Hughes (1981)
Nicholson &
Jardine (1981)

Choa (1994)
Teh & Houlsby
(1991)
Choa (1994)

Almeida et al.
(2000)
Long &
ORiordan
(2001)
Nash & Ryde
(2001)
Hird & Moseley
(2000)

Hammond &
Thorn (1994)
Choa (1994)
Renton-Rose et
al. (2000)
Hansbo (1996)
Roberts &
Preene (1994)
Almeida et al.
(2000)
Gohl et al.
(2000)
Larsson et al.
(2005)

McKenna et al. (1975) described an apparently unsuccessful application of ground improvement. It is a case history of
stone columns supporting a widespread loadin this case a
trial embankment. This was built as part of the design studies
for a section of the M5 motorway in Somerset. To investigate
the effectiveness of stone columns in reducing the settlement
of high embankments built on soft alluvium, vibro-replacement stone columns constructed using the wet process were
installed under one end of a trial embankment. The columns
were about 11 m long, but did not penetrate the full thickness of the alluvium. The embankment was up to nearly 8 m
high. The foundations were instrumented, and a comparison
of the improved and unimproved ground showed that the
columns apparently had no effect on the amount or rate of
settlement of the embankment. This paper stimulated discussion at the symposium and further research into the reasons
for the poor performance of the ground treatment. It was
concluded that the reasons postulated were probably incorrect, and that the explanation was more complicated. The
columns had probably performed as rigid friction piles,
which had been punched into the clay because it had been
remoulded to a very low strength by the column installation
process. The widespread load contained the clay stratum,
preventing column bulging at any depth and so allowing
stress transfer down the columns (Greenwood, 1991).
These two case histories of a single loaded column and a
group of columns under widespread load demonstrate the

CONTRIBUTIONS TO GEOTECHNIQUE 19482008: GROUND IMPROVEMENT


importance of the containment of the soil on the column
behaviour. As a result, plate load tests on single isolated
columns do not represent the performance of columns under
widespread loading. This is because a single column fails
primarily because of bulging at shallow depths, but under
widespread load columns may fail by bulging or can be like
a rigid pile, according to the circumstances.
It is now recognised that plate load tests on single
columns should primarily be used only to check the quality
and consistency of workmanship, and zone tests are required
to demonstrate that vibro stone column treatment has
achieved the specified performance criteria. This approach to
quality control and performance testing is adopted by BRE
in their document Specifying vibro stone columns (Watts,
2000).
Vibro-compaction
Vibro-compaction is a technique for increasing the density
of granular soils by the insertion to depth of a heavy
vibrating poker. This method was first developed in Germany in the 1930s. A major development in the vibro
market worldwide over the last 25 years has been the
treatment of soils to resist the effects of liquefaction during
earthquakes. It had previously generally been considered that
vibro compaction is effective only where the fines (silt plus
clay) content does not exceed 15%. Slocombe et al. (2000)
importantly show how densification of granular soils using
vibro has progressed with the development of improved
depth vibrators, and better knowledge of how soils respond
to both vibration and displacement, and they also show the
importance of good workmanship. As a result, sands with
significantly higher fines content can now be compacted
using vibro. This is an example of the key role of equipment
development in the evolution of vibro techniques. Another
important aspect of this paperand of several others in the
eleventh SiPis that its emphasis is much more on testing
to confirm the post-treatment performance than was the case
in the first SiP 25 years earlier. This illustrates how ground
improvement technology has matured, but it is also a reflection of the general move within the construction industry
towards quality assurance and performance specifications.
Dynamic compaction
Dynamic compaction (DC) is the process of systematically
tamping the ground surface with a heavy weight dropped
from height. A major limitation of the method is the limited
depth to which surface impact loading can densify the soil.
The uncertainty of the depth to which treatment is effective
is also a problem. Menard & Broise (1975) stated that the
depth that could be compacted, H (in metres), could be
:
determined from the relationship H , (Mh)0 5 , where a
weight of mass M tonnes is dropped from a height of h
metres. This relationship has dominated analyses of dynamic
compaction for the last 25 years.
ADDING LOAD OR INCREASING VERTICAL
EFFECTIVE STRESS
Precompression (and surcharging)
Precompression is the deliberate act of compressing the
ground under an applied pressure prior to placing or completing the permanent load. It is described as surcharging
where the stress intensity from the preloading is greater than
the intensity from the permanent loading (Mitchell & Jardine, 2002). Precompression is used to induce settlements
that have three recognisable phases: immediate; primary
consolidation; and secondary consolidation (or creep).

401

One of the earliest recorded uses of precompression


ground improvement in the UK is given by Tomlinson
(1956). This was supervised by Thomas Telfords resident
engineer, and was during the construction of the Clachnacharry Locks on the Caledonian Canal near Inverness in
Scotland in 1811. The locks needed to be built 400 yards
(370 m) out from the shore of Loch Beauley on soft mud
55 feet (17 m) thick. The elasticity of the mud prevented
the usual process of piledriving, because the piles rebounded
after each blow of the piling hammer. It was therefore
decided to precompress the mud using over 20 feet (6 m)
of clay dug from the adjacent hill, topped off by a quantity
of stone (which was later used to build the locks). This load
was left in place for six months. After that time it had
compressed the mud by about 11 feet (3 m), with settlement being monitored by a spirit level from a mark on the
shore. When it was felt that no further sinking would take
place (as the load was much greater than that of the future
lock pit), the lock was excavated and the masonry chamber
was constructed.
Vertical drains
The five papers published in the third SiP, on Vertical
drains, in 1981 are all considered to be influential, and two
are described below.
Hansbo et al. (1981) described a design theory that can
be used for vertical drainage, which is still used today; their
paper also contained six well-documented case records,
related to different drain types, from sites in Sweden, Italy
and the Netherlands. Experience gained from these case
records showed that in many cases, even if the overall
performance appeared successful, there were aspects of soil/
drain behaviour that could not be explained on the basis of
the previously existing theories. It was also noticed that
experienced engineering judgement is needed with respect to
uncertainties in parameter selection, design and drain performance, to avoid disappointing results.
Davies & Humpheson (1981) presented a case history of
the behaviour of vertical drains in Belfast, where one section
of a new link road crossed soft estuarine deposits, known
locally as sleech, on embankments up to 8 m high. Vertical
drains were considered to be the most appropriate solution.
A site trial was carried out to compare vertical sand drains
and band drains installed beneath trial embankments. Both
performed well, and the results showed good agreement
between the laboratory and field data. This paper demonstrates the relationship between the coefficient of consolidation (ch ) and the vertical effective stress for soft clays. At
stresses less than the preconsolidation pressure ( p9c ) the
values of ch were almost an order of magnitude higher (i.e.
faster) than those above p9c : see Fig. 1 (Fig. 14 in the paper).
The ch values back-calculated from the trial embankments
and those obtained in the laboratory were in good agreement, probably because of the lack of preferential drainage
paths in the sleech. It was also noted that, in order to obtain
a reasonable prediction of the dissipation of excess pore
pressures with time, account must be taken of the variation
of ch with vertical effective stress.
The ability to derive increased confidence in values of the
coefficient of consolidation measured in situ from piezocone
dissipation tests was examined by Almeida et al. (2000). In
their description of an embankment built on very soft clay
in Rio de Janeiro they compared the coefficients of horizontal consolidation determined from special laboratory tests
and piezocone dissipation tests. They referred to the methods
of Teh & Houlsby (1991) to derive the coefficient of
consolidation from such dissipation tests.
Vertical drains are often used in combination with pre-

402

PHEAR AND HARRIS

Fig. 1. Variation of coefficient of consolidation with vertical


effective stress (originally Fig. 14 in Davies & Humpheson,
1981)

compression and/or temporary stabilising berms, as described by Long & ORiordan (2001). This is a case history
of the construction of embankments up to 8 m high over
very soft and highly compressible clay for the new bypass at
Athlone in the Republic of Ireland. Long & ORiordan also
described investigative work using a piezocone to determine
the increase in undrained shear strength in soft clay beneath
an embankment nine years after its construction. They observed an increase approximately equal to 0.22 3 vertical
effective stress (which is consistent with the work published
by Mesri, 1989).
Vacuum preloading
The principle of vacuum preloading is the application of
atmospheric pressure to form a temporary surcharge for soft
clays while applying a vacuum to the surface of the soil
beneath a membrane. It was developed in Sweden in the
1950s. Vacuum preloading provides a good example of the
interaction of theory and practice, because it requires both a
good understanding of the soil behaviour, and appropriate
tools and techniques (Charles, 2002). The paper by Chu et
al. (2000) is a case history of a 50 ha site in Tianjin in
China, where vacuum preloading was used to precompress a
20 m thick deposit of soft clay by 1 m.
THE OBSERVATIONAL METHOD IN GROUND
IMPROVEMENT
An observational approach has long been applied to piling
and ground improvement works, although it had never been

formally recognised as the observational method. The first


formal recognition of this was by Peck (1969) in his
Rankine Lecture. It was subsequently developed in Geotechnique in the ninth SiP in 1994, and in the CIRIA report by
Nicholson et al. (1998). It is particularly applicable to
ground improvement by deep compaction, but is also suitable for embankment and other construction on soft foundations where techniques such as precompression and vertical
drains are adopted.
The paper by Peck (1969) is considered to be one of the
most influential in the practical development of geotechnical engineering practice and philosophy over the last 35
years or so. Two of the case studies therein address ground
improvement topics. The first is the Cleveland Ore Yard in
Ohio, USA, where Terzaghi first used a best-way-out
observational method. The second is the unusual but nonetheless very interesting case history of the Cape Kennedy
causeway in Florida, USA. This was the 4 mile long
(6.5 km) causeway built to permit transport of Saturn
rockets from their assembly building to one of the launching pads. The rockets were carried in a vertical position on
a platform supported on caterpillar tracks. These ran on a 3
ft thick (0.9 m) stabilised platform over hydraulically placed
uniform fine sand. The ground surface was only a few feet
above sea level. Construction of the second causeway
started before the ground investigation was complete, and
unfortunately this found several zones with an SPT N value
of less than 2. This raised the possibility of liquefaction
failure under the passage of the fully loaded transporter, so
some form of ground improvement was required. Conventional techniques would have been costly and would have
taken too long, so it was decided to use an observational
method and compress the sand by repeated passes of the
transporter itself with increasingly heavy loads. This project
was carried out very carefully, with the input of three
expert consultants.
Examples of the application of the observational method
are given by Nicholson et al. (1998). There may also be
scope for combining techniques to enhance the treatment
scheme, such as vibro-compaction plus piling, as described
by Raison (1996) for the North Morecambe Gas Terminal.
The observational method is equally applicable to the
construction of embankments on soft clays and for land
reclamation works. Choa (1994) describes the application of
the observational method to the Changi Airport reclamation
in Singapore and the Tianjin Port development in China.
The settlement and piezometers records were reviewed
against predictions. Modification plans to be triggered, if
necessary, included controlling the consolidation settlement
by varying the surcharge preloading and the ground treatment method, such as vertical drains. A contingency plan
was developed to maintain the stability of the Tianjin East
Pier. This used vacuum dewatering to provide an additional
surcharge and thus accelerate the construction programme.
REINFORCED SOIL
A well-documented case history of the corrosion problems
encountered with a complex system of reinforced soil walls
up to 41 m high in South Africa was presented by Blight &
Dane (1989). The writers described the importance of using
a free-draining backfill around the galvanised strips, and the
compounded detrimental effects of using salt water in the
compaction process. Their paper includes a detailed description of their investigations, and methods of measurement of
the stresses in the steel strips, and of the lateral deflections
of the wall. The paper is accompanied by an interesting
discussion of the issues raised.
Lee et al. (1994) presented case histories of failure

CONTRIBUTIONS TO GEOTECHNIQUE 19482008: GROUND IMPROVEMENT


investigations for four reinforced soil walls, curved in plan,
built in Tennessee, USA. The paper describes the design and
investigations of the walls, and highlights many design
issues, including: the effect of using poorly compacted
coarse granular fill; three-dimensional deformation; stresses
induced in the reinforcement due to either foundation or fill
settlement; and the validity of applying empirical design
methods to walls with unprecedented features. The paper
was also accompanied by an interesting discussion of the
issues raised.
CONCLUSIONS
There has been a wealth of papers over the last 60 years
describing various ground improvement techniques, which
have charted the developments made in techniques. Perhaps
not surprisingly, the authors of this review have been drawn
to those papers that concentrate on case histories, rather than
research-based publications.
The papers selected demonstrate the commitment required
to obtain convincing evidence of the efficacy of a ground
improvement technique. Similarly, where failures have occurred, extensive work has been demonstrated to provide
credible explanations that can stand scrutiny. The lack of
papers published for some techniques, such as lime and or
cement stabilisation, arguably could be due to the inherent
difficulties in obtaining such evidence, particularly where
more prescriptive improvement methods are utilised, where
extensive instrumentation is not used.
It should be acknowledged that the existence of a significant number of technical journals gives many opportunities
to submit and publish papers, and the practical nature of
ground improvement might not immediately encourage
authors to submit to Geotechnique. In addition, of course,
Thomas Telford Ltd commenced publication of the Ground
Improvement journal in 2001.
The long-term post-construction performance of treated
ground appears to be seldom documented in case histories
in Geotechnique in the last 60 years. The aim of ground
improvement is, after all, to provide foundations that have
adequate bearing capacity and settlement characteristics to
assure satisfactory performance throughout the design life of
the structure or embankment that is to be built on them.
Charles (2002) noted that further research is needed to, inter
alia, gain a more realistic appreciation of what can be
achieved by ground treatment through the preparation and
study of well-documented case histories of long-term performance. Hopefully some of these will be published in
Geotechnique in the near future.
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