What Is Foundation Engineering?

The title foundation engineer is given to that person who by reason of training and experience is sufficiently versed in scientific principles and engineering judgment (often termed "art") to design a foundation. We might say engineering judgment is the creative part of this design process.

The necessary scientific principles are acquired through formal educational courses in geotechnical (soil mechanics, geology, foundation engineering) and structural (analysis, design in reinforced concrete and steel, etc.) engineering and continued self-study via short courses, professional conferences, journal reading, and the like.

Because of the heterogeneous nature of soil and rock masses, two foundations—even on adjacent construction sites—will seldom be the same except by coincidence. Since every foundation represents at least partly a venture into the unknown, it is of great value to have access to others' solutions obtained from conference presentations, journal papers, and textbook condensations of appropriate literature.

The amalgamation of experience, study of what others have done in somewhat similar situations, and the site-specific geotechnical information to produce an economical, practical, and safe substructure design is application of engineering judgment.

The following steps are the minimum required for designing a foundation:
1. Locate the site and the position of load. A rough estimate of the foundation load(s) is usually provided by the client or made in-house. Depending on the site or load system complexity, a literature survey may be started to see how others have approached similar problems.

2. Physically inspect the site for any geological or other evidence that may indicate a potential design problem that will have to be taken into account when making the design or giving a design recommendation. Supplement this inspection with any previously obtained soil data.

3. Establish the field exploration program and, on the basis of discovery (or what is found in the initial phase), set up the necessary supplemental field testing and any laboratory test program.

4. Determine the necessary soil design parameters based on integration of test data, scientific principles, and engineering judgment. Simple or complex computer analyses may be involved.

For complex problems, compare the recommended data with published literature or engage another geotechnical consultant to give an outside perspective to the results.

5. Design the foundation using the soil parameters from step 4. The foundation should be economical and be able to be built by the available construction personnel.

Take into account practical construction tolerances and local construction practices. Interact closely with all concerned (client, engineers, architect, contractor) so that the substructure system is not excessively overdesigned and risk is kept within acceptable levels. A computer may be used extensively (or not at all) in this step.

The foundation engineer should be experienced in and have participation in all five of the preceding steps. In practice this often is not the case. An independent geotechnical firm specializing in soil exploration, soil testing, design of landfills, embankments, water pollution control, etc. often assigns one of its geotechnical engineers to do steps 1 through 4.

The output of step 4 is given to the client—often a foundation engineer who specializes in the design of the structural elements making up the substructure system.

The principal deficiency in this approach is the tendency to treat the design soil parameters—obtained from soil tests of variable quality, heavily supplemented with engineering judgment—as precise numbers whose magnitude is totally inviolable.

Thus, the foundation engineer and geotechnical consultant must work closely together, or at least have frequent conferences as the design progresses. It should be evident that both parties need to appreciate the problems of each other and, particularly, that the foundation design engineer must be aware of the approximate methods used to obtain the soil parameters being used. This understanding can be obtained by each having training in the other's specialty.

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