Causes for Building Settlement

The most common causes for building settlement are from underlying deposits of compressible fill or native soils. Compressible soils which are under unchanged building foundation loading cause settlement to start immediately and taper off over time. Therefore, if the settlement is not noticed until much later in time, the presence of compressible foundation soils is not likely the culprit. One cause, which can result in building settlement at any time, would be the shrinkage of plastic clay soils. These clay soils will shrink when they “dry out” and are problematic where they are subjacent to the foundation and have significant initial moisture. Shrinkage of foundation clay soils is typically associated with added landscaping which causes water to be “sucked out” of the soils.

Another fairly common source of settlement are foundation soils that can collapse when exposed to moisture. Therefore, settlement of the structure would be noticeable after significant precipitation and is likely to occur early after and even during construction. Soils which would exhibit this behavior are loose, drier fine sands to silts. More common in colder climates, another typically early post-construction source is thawing soil. More specifically, building settlement results from thawing of frozen soils left below the foundation.

Two other more typical causes are less time dependent but are location dependent. These are building settlement from land subsidence in karst terrain and underground mining. In other words, there are only certain regions where either karst conditions and/or underground mines are present. These karst and mine subsidence events may occur at any time. These land subsidence events are discussed in blogs entitled “What is Karst Subsidence” and “What is Mine Subsidence”.

There are some causes of building settlement which are more directly identifiable. These include from underground tunneling, structures next to temporary or permanent yielding retaining walls, earthquake shaking of mainly loose fine sands which can contain some silt, and high extraction underground mining which causes immediate ground collapse.

Red herrings of building settlement, even to the professionals, can be building foundation heave, and from subtle landsliding. Landsliding is discussed in “Landsliding What to Do” and building heave will be discussed in an upcoming blog. Where the building damage is apparently from settlement but requires proper investigation a qualified geotechnical engineer expert in forensic analysis is recommended.

If MEA can assist you with your building settlement problems, please contact us at 314-833-3189.



(Photo Credits: Tim Leffel)

What is Karst Subsidence?

Karst subsidence is land subsidence that is caused by cavities or voids in the underlying bedrock which collapse or from soil filling them in from above resulting in surface subsidence. Under normal circumstances, the voids or cavities were created by the flow of groundwater in fractures in soluble bedrock over a great deal of time. The most significant land subsidence effects occur over voids which have been solutioned in limestone bedrock but also result in other soluble rocks such as dolomite, gypsum, and halite. The most typical land subsidence results from groundwater draining downward into these solution voids carrying soil particles with it. This results in the ground settlement in the form of a sinkhole to a more gradual depression on the ground surface. Therefore, when downward drainage of groundwater is caused into open bedrock voids, the potential for subsidence results. Some more common triggers are: unlined surfaced drainage trenches, pumping of water wells, quarry pit dewatering and retention/detention ponds.

Figures 1 and 2 are examples of this.



For more information see: Risk Investigation of Karst on Sinkhole/Subsidence Prone Land.

What to Look for when Selecting a Geotechnical Engineering Company

If you have a project which requires geotechnical engineering how can you determine which company best suits your needs? The most common means used to find the most appropriate company for your work is to ask an associate, colleague, or even a friend who is some how connected to your area of inquiry. If a company is found by some other means, or even such a company(s) is suggested, that company should be further vetted. Some of the more relevant company information to obtain when determining the geotechnical engineering company to select are:

  • How long has the geotechnical engineering company been in service?
  • Does the company specifically do the geotechnical engineering work you need done?
  • Given their expertise, are they reasonably local, especially if there is significant site work involved?
  • Experience in serving your industry

The last point can be over looked. Companies that have experience servicing your industry generally understand your needs and wants and therefore can more intuitively anticipate critical site conditions which may otherwise not been properly emphasis, or even been ignored.

Geotechnical engineering companies service different entities. This includes contractors, commercial property developers, government agencies, mining companies, homeowners, petroleum related industries, power industry, and co-professional (architects, civil engineers, structural engineers, and environmental engineers). These different entities have different needs and wants.

In addition to having an appreciation for the industry it is more important, however, to have sufficient expertise in the specific areas of need and circumvent industry service.

However, when problematic, unexpected geotechnical conditions has resulted at the site, one is looking to perform a Geoforensics investigation and remediate the unwanted conditions. Examples of this are unexpected earthwork difficulties, excessive structure settlement or heave, earth retaining structure excessive movement, dam failures, pavement damage, and land sliding. If there is potential, this situation may result in some form of dispute resolution. Then this work becomes more individual dependent having the unique abilities of an expert witness. See finding such an expert please refer to What to Look for in a Geotechnical Engineering Expert and Traits to Dig for In An Engineering Expert.


Landsliding refers to the downward shifting of the ground on a slope. The slope can naturally exist and/or be manmade. The reason for the shifting is either there has been added force to the slope or the slope has been weakened. There are a number of ways downward force can be added to the slope. Some of the more common applications which can cause landslides are:
  • The slope is steepened and/or heightened with fill soil
  • Slope becomes water logged and thus made heavier
  • A structure is constructed on or close to the slope
  • The water level in the waterway at the bottom of the slope dropped significantly causing downward seepage forces.
More typical causes for landsliding from slope weakening are: waterway bank erosion; man-made undercutting or excavations along the slope; removal of root reinforcement from vegetation; and weathering of the soil mantle. Landsliding can occur slowly to abruptly with little warning. More typical tell-tale signs of slope instability are ground cracking along the slope which is most commonly towards the upper portion of the slope; trees, poles, fences, etc. which are leaning downslope and ground surface bulging of heaving near the bottom of the slope. 

Rotational Landslides

Diagram of an idealized landslide showing commonly used nomenclature for its parts. Courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey.