Posted in Deep Foundations, Geotechnical Engineering

Can Any Alpha Method be Converted to a Beta Method?

It’s been a favourite topic of this site to consider the issue of alpha vs. beta methods for deep foundations (both driven and bored piles.) In our post Shaft Friction for Driven Piles in Clay: Alpha or Beta Methods? we show that the Kolk and van der Velde method for driven piles in clay can be converted from an alpha method to a beta one by some simple math. The key to this success is that the ratio of undrained shear strength to effective stress is at the core of the method.

If we want to simplify things further, we can consider this, from the “new” NAVFAC DM 7.1, originally from Skemption:

\frac{c}{\sigma'_o} = 0.11+0.0037PI (1)


  • c = undrained shear strength of the soil
  • \sigma'_o = vertical effective stress of the soil
  • PI = plasticity index of the soil

The relationship between undrained shear strength and vertical effective stress in a qualitative sense is illustrated by the diagram at the right, from Broms.

Substituting this into our derived value for \beta in the Kolk and van der Velde method yields

\beta = 0.9 (\frac{L-z}{d})^{-0.2}(0.11+0.0037PI)^{0.7} (2)


  • \beta = ratio of the vertical stress to the horizontal friction on the pile shaft
  • L = length of the pile
  • z = distance from the soil surface
  • d = diameter of the pile

This makes the \beta factor simply a function of the pile geometry and the plasticity index at a depth z .

But can this be done for methods where the relationship between undrained shear strength and the effective stress? The answer is “sort of,” and this post will explore that possibility.

Let us consider an example from the Dennis and Olson method for driven piles. It is a classic “alpha-beta” type of formulation; we will only consider the alpha method portion of the method. For a beta method to be equivalent to an alpha method, the following must hold:

f_s = \alpha c = \beta \sigma'_o (3)

We should note that, for the beta side of the method,

\beta = F_{SD} K \tan \delta (4)


  • F_{SD} = geometry factor based on the aspect ratio of the pile
  • K = lateral earth pressure coefficient
  • \delta = friction angle of the pile-soil interface

We will not consider this computation further, but only assume that

f_s = \beta \sigma'_o (5)

For the shaft resistance in clay

f_s = \alpha \overline{c} F_c F_L (6)

The two F constants are defined in the original monograph. The relationship between \alpha and c F_c is shown below.

Figure 1 Relationship of c Fc with alpha for Dennis and Olson Method

This is more complicated than, say the O’Neill and Reese method for drilled shafts. But the idea is the same. Our goal is basically to convert the values of alpha (where c is an independent variable) to use as a beta method.

We start by modifying Equation (3) for the Dennis and Olson method thus:

f_s = \alpha \overline{c} F_c F_L = \beta \sigma'_o (7)

Solving for \beta ,

\beta = \frac {\alpha \overline{c} F_c F_L}{\sigma'_o} (8)

Substituting Equation (1) into Equation (8) yields

\beta=\alpha\,\left ( .11+ .0037\,{\it PI}\right ){\it F_c}\,{\it F_L} (9)

The remaining difficulty is that \alpha is a function of c . This can be dealt with by manipulating Equation (1) to read

\overline c = (0.11+0.0037PI)\sigma'_o (10)

in which case

\overline c F_c = (0.11+0.0037PI)\sigma'_o F_c (11)

The left hand side is the independent variable of the graph above; the right hand side can be computed to substitute for that same independent variable.

Let us consider an example, namely the one used in the Dennis and Olson example:

Figure 2 Example Problem

The problem here is that we are given an undrained shear strength value for the clay layer but not a plasticity index. We are given a unit weight for the clay layer (not automatic for problems like this.) So we can compute the ratio of the undrained shear strength to the effective stress. For the top layer, the midpoint effective stress is 900 psf, and the undrained shear strength 2000 psf. The ratio is thus 2000/900 = 2.22. From Equation (1), the plasticity index is about 571. This, of course, is highly unlikely, and illustrates an important point about academically formulated problems: they’re not always realistic in their parameters. For the effective stress levels we have, it is likely that the undrained shear strength needs to be considerably lower than is given in the problem.

In any case substituting F_c and \sigma'_o from the original data and PI from the current data yields c F_c = 1400\,psf , which is the same as the original. From here we can compute \alpha = 0.49 and, substituting into Equation (9), we obtain \beta = 0.76 . Multiplying this by the effective stress of 900 psi yields the same result of f_s = 685\,psf .


  • Getting rid of \alpha altogether is hampered by the fact that there is not an analytic function for \alpha in the first place. The Dennis and Olson method is not unique in this regard.
  • For methods such as Kolk and van der Velde where the ratio of undrained shear stress and vertical effective stress are important parts of the method, applying correlations such as Equation (1) is fairly simple. When this is not the case then things are more complicated.
  • Using Equation (1) is doubtless a good check on values of c , which when applied in an alpha method implicitly contains the effects of effective stress.
  • Going forward, probably the best way to “close the loop” and make all methods beta methods is to formulate the method for clays in terms of \frac {c}{\sigma'_o} as is the case with Kolk and van der Velde. Doing this would be an important step in moving static methods forward.

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