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Most tunnels are actually built as trenches using cut-and-cover

techniques. This St. Louis subway tunnel was built using the
bottom-up method, using cast-in-place concrete walls and
precast roof segments.

he vast majority of below-grade

are actually created using cutand-cover construction methods. This
methodin which a trench is excavated
from the surface, then re-coveredis
usually more economical and more
practical than mined or bored tunneling.
Its especially practical at shallow depths
(30 or 40 feet) but depths to 60 feet are
not uncommon.
extremely versatile. Most of the worlds
subways have been built using cut-andcover techniques. Its the overwhelming
method of choice for traffic, rail and
pedestrian underpasses, utility tunnels,
and a host of other applications.

project and the expected jobsite

Byrd continues, To determine
the best waterproofing solution, one
must consider how the tunnel will be
constructed. Will it be constructed with
cast-in-place concrete, precast, shotcrete,
or a combination such as a precast
tunnel roof placed onto cast-in-place
walls? Access is also a defining factor in
product selection. Will the waterproofer
have the space to install the membrane
from the exterior or will it be blindside
Major factors determining the
construction method include
excavation depth, soil type, elevation

Construction Methods
Depending on the situation, a variety
of different construction methods can
be used. Stacy Byrd, National Products
Manager at CETCO, says, There are so
many different methods of constructing
a tunnel and the waterproofing solution
should be designed to fit that particular

The Calgary light rail tunnels

reached 60 feet below grade, and
used a combination of soil nails,
shotcrete, and cutback slopes that
waterproofers had to work around.
Photo Courtesy City of Calgary



of the water table, site access, and the

amount of time which the final at grade
surface can be disturbed.
In general, the many different
construction method used to build cutand-cover tunnels can be divided into
three major categories. Each of them
requires an entirely different approach to
Bottom-Up Construction: The most
common technique is the bottom-up
construction. Here, a trench is excavated
from the surface downward. Once the
final depth is reached, the tunnel floor
is built, then the walls and roof are put
into place. Finally, the entire structure is
buried and the surface restored.
If the construction site has plenty
of room, the trench is usually cut back.
Walls are typically cast in place, and
the waterproofing can be applied to the

Photo Courtesy CETCO

Cut and Cover


structure. The floor of the excavation is

easily accessible for equipment and for
the delivery, storage and placement of
For these reasons, bottom-up
construction is perhaps the most
economical method of building large,
shallow tunnels, but has the disadvantage
of making the site unusable longer than
either of the other methods detailed
Dave Polk, owner of Epro Services,
has been involved with a number of
complex tunnel projects, including the
Calgary light rail extension.
Calgary was cut-and cover, says
Polk, at Epro, but it was a little different
because portions of it were open-cut.
Polk adds that the deepest areas reach
60 feet below grade, and that parts of the
line are a dual tunnel layout.
We did underslab on everything,
says Polk. Its a 60-mil HDPE film, and
that underslab system is bath-tubbed up
12/8/2011 11:21:24 AM
the wall to water table height. Once the

Photo Courtesy CETCO

outside face of the concrete with minimal

Usually, though, theres not enough
room for positive side waterproofing.
Especially in urban settings, where most
cut-and-and cover tunnels are built, land
is at a premium, so the excavation is cut
vertically and reinforced with soldier
piles or soil nails. In these cases, the
waterproofing is done blindside. With
this construction method, the walls
(usually shotcrete or using removeable
forms on the exposed face) are poured
after the waterproofing is finished.
Roofs can be poured in place or
formed with precast planks. The roof
waterproofing is then tied into the wall
waterproofing and drainage, and then
the whole system is buried.
Bottom-up construction offers
several advantages:
First, its well
understood by contractors, so finding
skilled labor isnt a problem. Additionally,
waterproofing and drainage systems can
VB-VBP Ad half Pg 12-11 - Waterproof PRINT.pdf 1
be applied to the outside surface of the

All of the joints in the precast roof

segments of the St. Louis subway
tunnel at left were detailed and
sealed before the waterproofing and
drainage layers were installed.
walls were in place, the roof was poured
in place in 15-foot sections using slip
The roof experienced a tremendous
amount of construction traffic during
the backfill process, so the membrane





Winter 2012


Photo Courtesy CETCO

This college utility tunnel used

modular precast sections. It was
waterproofed using a bentonitepolymer alloy after the segments
were placed in their final location.
chosen had to be extremely durable.
We started with a spray-applied
liquid membrane, and then laid down a
fabric reinforcement, says Polk. Then
we spray another membrane over that,
which creates a reinforced monolithic
membrane that will stand up to site
conditions. That was covered with a
15-mil polyolefin film, and then a heavy
duty drainage composite, which we tied
into the composite on the walls.
CETCO was involved with
waterproofing the recent extension of
the below-ground St. Louis light rail,
which used bottom-up cut-and-cover
construction for the walls and a pre-cast
Byrd explains. Because it was
going through residential sections of the
community, they couldnt overexcavate
and had to pour the tunnel walls
directly onto the soil retention system.


We provided a bentonite-geotextile
membrane that was installed to the
soil retention wall prior to the concrete
placement. The bentonite geotextile
membrane was also used as an underslab
barrier over the gravel substrate.
The precast arched concrete
segments for the roof were waterproofed
using a peel-and-stick butyl rubber
membrane that tied into the system used
on the walls.
Modular Tunnels:
For small
tunnels, such as utility or sewer access
tunnels and pedestrian underpasses, a
variation on bottom-up construction can
be used. Called modular tunnels, this
construction method uses corrugated
steel or pre-cast concrete segments to
create the structure. These segments are
usually waterproofed offsite and craned
into place.
One of the primary challenges with
waterproofing precast tunnels, then,
is ensuring that the membrane is not
damaged between when it is applied and
when the tunnel segments are set into
place. To ensure the waterproofing and
drainage components stay in constant
contact with the bottom of the precast
section, designers often call for a concrete
mud slab instead of loose gravel at the
bottom of the excavation.
Waterproofers must also pay careful
attention to the many joints between the
pre-cast sections to ensure the tunnel
remains dry.
A utility corridor built on the
campus of the University of Connecticut
in 2006 used this method. Each segment
measured ten feet square and eight
feet long, and was craned into place
onto a four-inch thick mudslab, then
waterproofed. First, the joints between
each segment were sealed using Ultraseal
BT, a product that combines bentonite
clay with a hydrophilic polymer. Then,
workers covered the roof and walls of
the tunnel with Volclay, a similar sheet
product that also contains a bentonitepolymer alloy.
Top-down Construction: The top-

down construction method calls for the

walls and roof of the tunnel to be put into
place before the actual excavation takes
place. The advantage of this method
is that the surface is disturbed for a
minimal amount of timean important
consideration if the tunnel is being built
under a heavily used traffic artery.
In the top-down method, the first
step is getting the temporary walls in
place. These could be steel sheet piles
or a concrete slurry wall. Once the walls
are completed, the roof of the tunnel is
constructed and the surface (usually a
roadway) is restored.
The surface is then available for
normal use while the tunnel excavation
is carried out.
Top-down cut-and-cover tunnels
use blind-side waterproofing techniques.
The waterproofing membrane is typically
applied between the temporary shoring
wall and the permanent tunnel lining.
The tunnel floor slab and the underslab
barrier are typically the last part of
construction to be completed.
The underpass tunnel leading to
the San Jose Airport was built using this
method. Site conditions were difficult,
to say the least; the water table was only
six feet below grade, which meant even
the top of the tunnel would be below the
water table.
Polk, at Epro Services, explains
how the job went. The first thing that
needed to be done was the installation
of construction wells and pumpsa site
dewatering system, says Polk. They
built the top of the tunnel first. They
drove pilings in, then poured corbels and
reinforced concrete beams on that. Once
that was is place, we could waterproof
the top. By finishing the top first,
surface roads could be opened sooner
and minimize the traffic disturbance.
We used our spray membrane with
a HDPE [high-density polyethylene]
film over the top, says Polk. We knew
it would be covered by paving, so we just
used strip drains for drainage.
Then they began excavating under

the roof, installing post-tensioned

tiebacks as the work progressed to keep
the pilings stable. The tunnel bottom had
to withstand 20 feet or more of hydrostatic
pressure, so the waterproofing system
here was absolutely critical. They used
a seamless, spray-applied membrane
sandwiched between two layers of
The wall waterproofing was done
blindside. Polks crew first applied
a dimple drain sheet, then carefully
sealed around the tiebacks and other
penetrations. They tied this into the top
and bottom waterproofing systems, then
sprayed a final layer of waterproofing
on the walls. Then it was enclosed in
shotcrete. Completed about ten years
ago, its still as watertight as the day it
was completed.

The type of waterproofing used
on cut-and-cover tunnel installations
usually hinges on the type of soil
retention system used on the sides of
the excavation. As noted above, open
cut excavations are the easiest. Soldier
piles and sheet piles are more difficult.
Soil nails retention systems, which
can involve detailing around literally
hundreds of different points, are the
most involved.
Regardless of the system used,
waterproofing is essential. Not only does
it reduce corrosion and maintenance and
extend the life of the structure, but it can
also improve safety. In colder climates,
leaking tunnels can create hazardous
ceiling icicles or ice patches on roadways.
Additionally, once a tunnel is
placed in service, theyre extremely
inconvenient to close, which imposes
waterproofing options. Particularly with
rail tunnels, options for getting toand
repairingleaking sections become
extremely limited.
A few years ago, the U.S. Department
of Transportation published a white

paper explaining good design of cutand cover tunnels. It places special

emphasis on waterproofing.
conception of the waterproofing system
in cut-and-cover tunnels demands an
exact planning of the system, a good
collaboration and discussion between
producer, designer of the project, main
contractor and installer, it reads. Too
often the importance of waterproofing

is underestimated by the designer with

the consequence that the execution of
the waterproofing works are immensely
difficult to achieve.
Their study indicates that the best
results can be achieved by paying special
attention to joint sealing, waterproofing
of penetrations, reinforcement optimization, and drainage in area of the


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