Posted in Academic Issues, Civil Engineering

Floating or Compensated Foundations

One type of foundation that needs some explanation are floating or compensated foundations. Since they are sometimes referred to as “floating,” some fluid mechanics background is in order.

Fluid Mechanics

For ships to float, they obey Archimedes’ Law, where the weight of the ship is equal to the weight of water displaced by the hull of the ship. This is more thoroughly explained in my handout Buoyancy and Stability: An Introduction. I also go through all this in this video:

If the hull of the ship is rectangular, it’s also possible to compute the upward force of the water–which equals the downward force of the weight–by multiplying the hydrostatic pressure by the plan area of the ship, as is shown below. As the ship settles further and further into the water, the hydrostatic pressure increases until equilibrium is reached.

Illustrating Water Pressure Increasing in Proportion to the Draught

This last will be useful when we consider soils because, although box shaped ships are not so common, box shaped buildings and foundations are.

Turning to buildings, soils are an intermediate material between pure fluids and solids. Some are obviously more intermediate than others, but in softer soils they are more “fluid-like.” Let us consider the multi-storey building at the right.

If we consider that the soil acts as a fluid, then for the building to “float” in the soil the weight of the soil displaced must be greater than or equal to the weight of the building. The difference between ships and buildings is twofold. One, it is possible for a building to weigh less than the weight of the soil displaced and not get shoved upward until equilibrium is reached. The second is that, frequently, we use a “per unit area” approach to balance the equation and come up with the “draught” D of the building.

In this case we have a three-storey building where each storey has a unit weight of 10 kPa, or 10 kN per square metre of area. Multiplying the number of storeys n by the unit weight Δq yields 30 kPa. The soil weight is 18 kN/m3, or otherwise put the displaced soil exerts an “upward force” of 18 kPa/m of depth. Dividing the downward pressure by the unit weight yields a foundation depth/draught D = 1.67 m.

At this point it is worth noting that, depending upon the properties of the soil, it is not always necessary for the soil displaced to equal in weight to the building, but can be less. This is because soils, unlike fluids, have shear strength when not moving, an issue I discuss in my monograph Variations in Viscosity. An illustration of this is at the left.

Here we have a building with eight storeys and 10 kPa/floor, for a total pressure of 80 kPa. On the soil side we have a unit weight of 19 kN/m3 (after eliminating those pesky kilogram force units) and a foundation depth of 4 m, which results in an upward pressure of 76 kPa. The difference between the two is 4 kPa, not much but still enough to reduce the depth of the basement if the soil were a true fluid.

It’s first worth noting that an alternative way to look at the problem is that we are computing the total stress of the foundation at the base and then comparing it with the downward pressure of the building. That works for box like structures such as we are dealing with. If we have a more complex structure such as is shown at the right, we will have to adjust our strategy.

Beyond that, soils are routinely called upon to handle normal and shear stresses induced by the pressure exerted on the foundation. How well they do this is at the core of geotechnical foundation design. We must consider whether foundations will fail in bearing capacity, settlement or both. Bearing capacity is not as great of a problem with “large” structures such as mat foundations as it is with spread footings. Settlement, whether elastic or consolidation, is a major issue, and is something else that separates soils from fluids: rearrangement of the particles during volume change of the soil.

How much net pressure that is permissible is something that needs to be considered once it is established. Nevertheless, it is possible to use the soil’s own weight to help balance and support the structure during its useful life.

Note: graphics are from Bengt Broms, and more of these can be found in the post Bengt Broms Geotechnical Slides.


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