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Geotechnical Engineering


Checklist and Guidelines for Review of Geotechnical Reports and Preliminary Plans and Specifications

    Cost Criteria
1. Earthwork  - soil or rock cuts or fills where (a) the maximum height of cut or fill exceeds 15 m (50 ft), or (b) the cuts or fills are fills are located in topography and/or geological units with known stability problems. Greater than $1,000,000
2. Soil and Rock Instability Corrections - cut, fill, or natural slopes which are presently or potentially unstable. Greater than $ 500,000
3. Retaining Walls (geotechnical aspects) - maximum height at any point along the length exceeds 9 m (30 ft). Consideration of bidding cost-effective alternatives and geotechnical aspects (bearing capacity, settlement, overturning, sliding, etc.) are of prime concern. Structural design of and footings is beyond the scope of these reviews. Greater than $ 250,000

Table 2 Guideline "Minimum" Boring, Sampling, and Testing Criteria

The most important step in geotechnical design is to conduct an adequate subsurface investigation. The number, depth, spacing, and character of borings, sampling, and testing to be made in an individual exploration program are so dependent upon site conditions and the type of project and its requirements, that no "rigid" rules may be established. Usually the extent of work is established as the site investigation progresses in the field. However, the following are considered reasonable "guidelines" to follow to produce the minimum subsurface data needed to allow cost-effective geotechnical design and construction and to minimize claim problems. (Reference: "Subsurface Investigations" FHWA HI-97-021)

Geotechnical Feature Minimum Number of Borings Minimum Depth of Borings
Structure Foundation  

1 per substructure unit under 30 m (100 ft) in width

2 per substructure unit over 30 m (100 ft) in width

Additional borings in areas of erratic subsurface conditions

Spread footings: 2B where L< 2B, 4B where L > 2B and interpolate for L between 2B and 4B

Deep foundations: 6m (20ft) below tip elevation or two times maximum pile group dimension, whichever is greater

If bedrock is encountered: for piles core 3 m (10 ft) below tip elevation; for shafts core 3D or 2 times maximum shaft group dimension below tip elevation, whichever is greater.

Retaining Structures
Borings spaced every 30 to 60 m (100 to 200 ft). Some borings should be at the front of and some in back of the wall face.

Extend borings to depth of 0.75 to 1.5 times wall height

When stratum indicates potential deep stability or settlement problem, extend borings to hard stratum

Bridge Approach Embankments over Soft Ground
When approach embankments are to be placed over soft ground, at least one boring should be made at each embankment to determine the problems associated with stability and settlement of the embankment. Typically, test borings taken for the approach embankments are located at the proposed abutment locations to serve a dual function.

Extend borings into competent material and to a depth where added stresses due to embankment load is less than 10% of existing effective overburden stress or 3 m (10 ft) into bedrock if encountered at a shallower depth

Additional shallow explorations (hand auger holes) taken at approach embankment locations to determine depth and extent of unsuitable surface soils or topsoil.

Centerline Cuts and Embankments

Borings typically spaced every 60 m (200 ft) (erratic conditions) to 120 m (400 ft) (uniform conditions) with at least one boring taken in each separate landform.

For high cuts and fills, should have a minimum of 3 borings along a line perpendicular to centerline or planned slope face to establish geologic cross-section for analysis.

Cuts: (1) in stable materials extend borings minimum 5 m (15 ft) below depth of cut at the ditch line and, (2) in weak soils extend borings below grade to firm materials or to twice the depth of cut whichever occurs first.

Embankments: Extend borings to a hard stratum or to a depth of twice the embankment height.

Minimum 3 borings along a line perpendicular to centerline or planned slope face to establish geologic cross-section for analysis. Number of sections depends on extent of stability problem. For active slide, place at least on boring each above and below sliding area

Extend borings to an elevation below active or potential failure surface and into hard stratum, or to a depth for which failure is unlikely because of geometry of cross-section.

Slope inclinometers used to locate the depth of an active slide must extend below base of slide.

Ground Improvement Techniques
Varies widely depending in the ground improvement technique(s) being employed. For more information see "Ground Improvement Technical Summaries" FHWA SA-98-086R.
Material Sites (Borrow sources, Quarries)
Borings spaced every 30 to 60 m (100 to 200 ft). Extend exploration to base of deposit or to depth required to provide needed quantity.
Sand or Gravel Soils
SPT (split-spoon) samples should be taken at 1.5 m (5 ft) intervals or at significant changes in soil strata. Continuous SPT samples are recommended in the top 4.5 m (15 ft) of borings made at locations where spread footings may be placed in natural soils. SPT jar or bag samples should be sent to lab for classification testing and verification of field visual soil identification.
Silt or Clay Soils
SPT and "undisturbed" thin wall tube samples should be taken at 1.5 m (5 ft) intervals or at significant changes in strata. Take alternate SPT and tube samples in same boring or take tube samples in separate undisturbed boring. Tube samples should be sent to lab to allow consolidation testing (for settlement analysis) and strength testing (for slope stability and foundation bearing capacity Analysis). Field vane shear testing is also recommended to obtain in-place shear strength of soft clays, silts and well-rotted peat.
Continuous cores should be obtained in rock or shales using double or triple tube core barrels. In structural foundation investigations, core a minimum of 3 m (10 ft) into rock to insure it is bedrock and not a boulder. Core samples should be sent to the lab for possible strength testing (unconfined compression) if for foundation investigation. Percent core recovery and RQD value should be determined in field or lab for each core run and recorded on boring log.
Water level encountered during drilling, at completion of boring, and at 24 hours after completion of boring should be recorded on boring log. In low permeability soils such as silts and clays, a false indication of the water level may be obtained when water is used for drilling fluid and adequate time is not permitted after boring completion for the water level to stabilize (more than one week may be required). In such soils a plastic pipe water observation well should be installed to allow monitoring of the water level over a period of time. Seasonal fluctuations of water table should be determined where fluctuation will have significant impact on design or construction (e.g., borrow source, footing excavation, excavation at toe of landslide, etc.). Artesian pressure and seepage zones, if encountered, should also be noted on the boring log. In landslide investigations, slope inclinometer casings can also serve as water observations wells by using "leaky" couplings (either normal aluminum couplings or PVC couplings with small holes drilled through them) and pea gravel backfill. The top 0.3 m (1 ft) or so of the annular space between water observation well pipes and borehole wall should be backfilled with grout, bentonite, or sand-cement mixture to prevent surface water inflow which can cause erroneous groundwater level readings.
Soil Borrow Sources
Exploration equipment that will allow direct observation and sampling of the subsurface soil layers is most desirable for material site investigations. Such equipment that can consist of backhoes, dozers, or large diameter augers, is preferred for exploration above the water table. Below the water table, SPT borings can be used. SPT samples should be taken at 1.5 m (5 ft) intervals or at significant changes in strata. Samples should be sent to lab for classification testing to verify field visual identification. Groundwater level should be recorded. Observations wells should be installed to monitor water levels where significant seasonal fluctuation is anticipated.
Quarry Sites
Rock coring should be used to explore new quarry sites. Use of double or triple tube core barrels is recommended to maximize core recovery. For riprap source, spacing of fractures should be carefully measured to allow assessment of rock sizes that can be produced by blasting. For aggregate source, the amount and type of joint infilling should be carefully noted. If assessment is made on the basis of an existing quarry site face, it may be necessary to core or use geophysical techniques to verify that nature of rock does not change behind the face or at depth. Core samples should be sent to lab for quality tests to determine suitability for riprap or aggregate.

Table 3 - Required Geotechnical Engineering Analysis

Soil Classification Embankment and Cut Slopes Structure Foundations
(Bridges and Retaining Structures)
Retaining Structures
(Conventional, Crib and MSE)
Unified AASHTO1 Soil Type Slope Stability2 Analysis Settlement Analysis Bearing Capacity Analysis Settlement Analysis Lateral Earth Pressure Stability Analysis

Generally not required if cut or fill slope is 1.5H to 1V or flatter, and underdrains are used to draw down the water table in a cut slope.

Erosion of slopes may be a problem for SW or SM soils.

Generally not required except possibly for SC soils. Required for spread footings, pile or drilled shaft foundations.

Spread footings generally adequate except possibly for SC soils

Generally not needed except for SC soils or for large, heavy structures.

Empirical correlations with SPT values usually used to estimate settlement

GW, SP, SW & SP soils generally suitable for backfill behind or in retaining or reinforced soil walls.

GM, GC, SM & SC soils generally suitable if have less than 15% fines.

Lateral earth pressure analysis required using soil angle of internal friction.

All walls should be designed to provide minimum F.S. = 2 against overturning & F.S. = 1.5 against sliding along base.

External slope stability considerations same as previously given for cut slopes & embankments.

A-2-6A-2-7 GRAVEL
A-1-b SAND
A-2-4A-2-5 SAND
A-2-6A-2-7 SAND
Inorganic silt
Required unless non-plastic.

Erosion of slopes may be a problem.

Required unless non-plastic. Required.

Spread footing generally adequate.


Can use SPT values if non-plastic.

These soils are not recommended for use directly behind or in retaining or reinforced soil walls.
Lean Clay
Required Required    
Required Required    

Erosion of slopes may be a problem.

Required. Required.

Deep foundation generally required unless soil has been preloaded.


Consolidation test data needed to estimate settlement amount and time.

These soils are not recommended for use directly behind or in retaining walls. All walls should be designed to provide minimum F.S. = 2 against overturning & F.S. = 1.5 against sliding along base.

External slope stability considerations same as previously given for cut slopes & embankments

Fat Clay
Required. Required.
Required. Required.
---- PEAT
Required. Required.

Long term settlement can be significant

Deep foundation required unless peat excavated and replaced. Highly compressible and not suitable for foundation support
    Fills - not required for slopes 1.5H to 1V or flatter.

Cuts - required but depends on spacing, orientation and strength of discontinuities and durability of rock

Required for spread footings or drilled shafts.

Empirically related to RQD3

Required where rock is badly weathered or closely fractured (low RQD).

May require in situ test such as pressuremeter.


Use rock backfill angle of internal friction.

Updated: 03/25/2015

United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration