Foundations provide support for structures, transferring their load to layers of soil or rock that have sufficient bearing capacity and suitable settlement characteristics. There are a very wide range of foundation types available, suitable for different applications, depending on considerations, such as:
- The nature of the load requiring support.
- Ground conditions.
- The presence of water.
- Durability of the materials.
- Sensitivity to noise and vibration.
- Proximity to other structures.
Very broadly, foundations can be categorised as shallow foundations or deep foundations. Shallow foundations are typically used where the loads imposed by a structure are low relative to the bearing capacity of the surface soils. Deep foundations are necessary where the bearing capacity of the surface soils is insufficient to support loads imposed and so they are transferred to deeper layers with higher bearing capacity.
Pile foundations are deep foundations. They are formed by long, slender, columnar elements typically made from steel or reinforced concrete, or sometimes timber. A foundation is described as 'piled' when its depth is more than three times its breadth (Atkinson, 2007).
Pile foundations are principally used to transfer the loads from superstructures, through weak, compressible strata or water onto stronger, more compact, less compressible and stiffer soil or rock at depth, increasing the effective size of a foundation and resisting horizontal loads. They are typically used for large structures, and in situations where soil is not suitable to prevent excessive settlement.
 Pile classifications
Piles may be classified by their basic design function (end-bearing, friction or a combination) or by their method of construction (displacement (driven) or replacement (bored)).
End-bearing piles develop most of their friction at the toe of the pile, bearing on a hard layer. The pile transmits load direct to firm strata, and also receives lateral restraint from subsoil.
Friction (or floating) piles develop most of the pile-bearing capacity by shear stresses along the sides of the pile, and are suitable where harder layers are too deep. The pile transmits the load to surrounding soil by friction between the surface of the pile and soil, which in effect lowers the bulb of pressure.
Driven (or displacement) piles are driven, jacked, vibrated or screwed into the ground, displacing the material around the pile shaft outwards and downwards instead of removing it.
There are two groups of driven piles:
- Driven in situ: Either with a permanent concrete or steel casing, or with temporary casing.
- Preformed: Prefabricated off-site from timber, concrete or steel.
For more information, see Driven piles.
Bored (or replacement) piles remove spoil to form a hole for the pile which is poured in situ. They are used primarily in cohesive subsoils for the formation of friction piles and when forming pile foundations close to existing buildings.
For more information, see Bored piles.
Screw piles have a helix near the pile toe so they can be screwed into the ground. The process and concept is similar to screwing into wood.
For more information, see Screw pile foundations.
For more information, see Micropiles.
Pile walls can be used to create permanent or temporary retaining walls. They are formed by placing piles directly adjacent to one another. These can be closely-spaced contiguous pile walls or interlocking secant pile walls; which depending on the composition of the secondary intermediate piles can be hard/soft, hard/firm or hard/hard secant walls.
In effect, the thermal mass of the ground enables the building to store unwanted heat from cooling systems and allows heat pumps to warm the building in winter. Generally, ground source heat pumps extract heat from the ground by way of underground pipes which are laid either horizontally or vertically in the ground. In geothermal piles, the pipe loops are laid vertically, within the piles themselves.
For more information, see Geothermal pile foundations.
- Percussion drivers: Hammers driven by steam, compressed air or diesel.
- Hydraulic drivers: Hydraulic rams push piles into the ground.
- Vibratory drivers: Piles are vibrated into the ground.
- Rotary augers: Used to screw replacement piles into the ground.
For more information, see Piling equipment.
Piles can be used individually to support loads or grouped and linked together with a reinforced concrete cap. As it is very difficult to bore or drive piles exactly vertical, the pile cap should be able to accommodate some deviation in the final position of the pile heads. The pile cap should overhang the outer piles, typically by a distance of 100-150 mm on all sides, depending on the size of the pile.
Pile caps can also be linked together with reinforced concrete ground beams. At least three is capped piles are needed to ensure stability against lateral forces (with the exception of caisson piles). Capping beams are also suitable for distributing the weight of a load-bearing wall, or of close-centred columns to a line of piles. Piles may be staggered in the beam to allow for any eccentricities that may occur in loaded conditions.
The capping beam should be kept clear of the ground where the purpose of the piles is to overcome the problem of the subsoil swell and shrinkage. This can be done by casting the capping beam on polystyrene or other compressive material, thereby allowing an upward ground movement without damage to the beam.
It is advisable to test load at least one pile per scheme by forming a trial pile that is in close proximity but does not form part of the actual foundations. The pile should be overloaded by at least 50% of its working load and held for 24 hours. This provides a check on the ultimate bearing capacity of the pile as well as the workmanship involved in forming the pile.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Bored piles.
- Continuous flight auger piles.
- Driven piles.
- Geothermal pile foundations.
- Ground anchor.
- Grouting in civil engineering.
- How deep should foundations be?
- Pad foundation.
- Piled raft foundation.
- Piling equipment.
- Piling mat.
- Raft foundation.
- Retaining walls.
- Screw pile foundations.
- Secant pile wall.
- Sheet piles.
- Tension piles.
 External references
Featured articles and news
PCSAs enable clients to employ contractors before the main contract commences. Read our introductory article.
ICE 200 brings together transformative projects from the past 200 years - and the engineers behind them.
Dame Judith Hackitt hosts an industry summit to kick start the second phase of the review.
This article explains the Buildings Regulations completion certificate, what it is, and when its needed.
Graphene has many potential applications, but when will it start being used in civil engineering?
Increasing productivity – now more than ever as we lead up to Brexit – should be the sector’s number one priority in 2018.
Carillion's collapse causes Construction Leadership Council to delay the construction sector deal report.
Urban Heritage, Development and Sustainability: international frameworks, national and local guidance.
What will the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) mean for you when they come into force in May?
Business Secretary chairs a new taskforce to monitor and advise on mitigating the impacts of Carillion’s liquidation.
Sir John Armitt is appointed the new chair of the National Infrastructure Commission.
High quality and high density homes - is it what we need or is it storing up trouble?