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Foundations for the Future

For the past 50 years civil engineers have been filling the ground under our towns and cities
with, among other things, bored concrete piles. In London Clay in particular, such piles are a
quick, quiet and cost-effective method of supporting ever-taller buildings and structures. But,
unlike the shallower footings of old, today's deep foundations are almost impossible to
remove when the building reaches the end of its life and the site needs to be redeveloped.
The easiest solution-but one that is clearly not sustainable - is to fill up the space in between
with even bigger piles. This article argues that reuse of existing piles is the real answer and
discusses the changes needed in our approach to designing, building and paying for
foundations in the future.
The centres of most large British cities have had rich and varied history. In particular, most of
the centre of London has been continuously occupied since medieval times, with remnants
from previous occupations and many successive phases of development remaining in the
Generally, up to the 1950s, most buildings were built on shallow foundations and typically had
just one level of basement. Since then, when bored piling and diaphragm walling techniques
became common, buildings have grown taller and basements have grown deeper. Pile loads
have also increased as developers continually seek to fill sites with the largest building
possible and floor spans have lengthened to provide more flexible building layouts.
Most modern buildings now leave behind a set of deep foundations and the foundations for
later buildings have to be installed through this detritus. Generally, the existing piles are of the
bored cast-in-place type as driven piles can seldom be used in such urban situations. This is
certainly the case in the City of London, where the problem of old bored piles is most acute. In
addition to piles and embedded retaining walls, London is also underlain by tunnels and
shafts of London Underground's tube and stations, Mail Rail, British Telecom, London
Electricity, Thames Water and other transport and utility operators. These also take up space
beneath many sites and limit available locations for new foundations.
The volume of ground left available for foundations for new developments is reducing. Sites
on their third set of deep foundations have almost filled the subsoil with little room left for the
installation of new piles. The number of sites now being redeveloped with piles for the third
time or more is fast increasing. As the current set of building stock is demolished when its
useful life ends, in perhaps 30 years time, there will be great difficulty in installing an efficient
set of new piles on many sites.
This article addresses the problems of redeveloping sites that contain a legacy of old bored
cast-in-place reinforced concrete piles, as these are the type of sites most likely to be
encountered in the future. The aim of the article is to highlight the problems that the current
approach to provision of new piles is building up for the future and to provide a framework for
the assessment of concrete piles for reuse.
Old piles-avoid, remove or reuse?
There are three basic options for dealing with old piles when the foundations for a new
building are being planned:
Currently, the easiest option is to avoid all old foundations. In particular situations this can
lead to a need for large transfer structures and larger, high-capacity piles. Where avoidance
of existing foundations is feasible, it allows the redevelopment to proceed but adds to the
detritus in the ground beneath the site to affect future developments.
In the future, as the number of old piles builds up across a site, the option to avoid them will
become increasingly expensive. Continuously adding to the detritus in the ground is not
Where existing foundations or deep obstructions lie in the way of proposed foundations,
removal is a possibility, even for existing deep piles. Another situation where foundation
removal is sometimes used is in cases where the old foundations penetrate valuable
archaeology and new foundations are constrained to use the same foundation positions.
Removal can be achieved by over-coring and progressive removal of pile lengths from the
ground although, where the piles do not contain full-length reinforcement, removing lengths of
pile from the ground can be difficult. The costs and time-scale required for pile removal
cannot be defined with any certainty because they can be affected by many factors. A further
problem concerns the effects of pile removal on the surrounding ground. The effects of drilling
and soil swelling due to slow pile removal may result in loss of skin friction for subsequent
piles installed at the same location.
Reuse of old piles is the third option. Some experience has already been built up on the reuse
of piles such as the timber piles at Tobacco Dock1 and concrete and steel piles on several
other projects.
The requirements for a new building's pile positions and capacities seldom coincide with what
is available from existing pile locations. Where they do coincide, it may be possible to reuse
an old pile cap over an entire pile group.
Mixing old and new piles under new pile caps is possible but consideration should be given to
possible differential settlement of the pile cap under loading. This is due to different pile types
and also different stiffness responses of similar pile types since the older piles will have been
Installing new under-reamed piles will be very difficult should the under-ream belling tool hit
an old unmarked pile. The installation of new pile bores through old pile under-reams is also
difficult, because the auger will tend to slip down the under-ream surface. There are several
other requirements that must be met before old piles can be reliably reused. These include:
reliability of information about the existing piles
acceptability of reuse to prospective project funders and future building insurers
confidence in the geotechnical capacity of the piles
ability to ensure that the piles do not become damaged, such that their future
durability might have been impaired
confidence that the pile materials have not significantly deteriorated and will not do so
over their future design life.
The importance of as-built information
The extent and efficiency to which old foundations can be reused depends on the amount of
information that is available. Ideally there will be complete as-built drawings showing the
dimensions of all piles, details of pile reinforcement including its curtailment depth in the pile
and contemporary pile installation records which detail any problems during piling and how
they were resolved. This extent of information is seldom available.
Testing is likely to be destructive and will probably involve exposing and breaking down pile
heads to show dimensions and reinforcement details. Pile length may be proven by integrity
testing but can probably only be confirmed by rotary coring right down to the pile toes.
Integrity testing needs an exposed clear pile head.
For coring to work successfully, the core hole and pile both need to be effectively vertical.
This level of testing is only needed when it is necessary to load the old piles to their previous
Proving the depth of reinforcement can be more problematic but may only be of concern in
the upper parts of a pile where it is possible to expose a representative part of the surface.
The depth of reinforcement can be determined by lowering down a core hole in the pile the
probe of a covermeter with an ultra-sensitive antenna and noting where the signal is lost. The
potential separation distance between reinforcement and the covermeter needs to be
considered for the range of verticalities of the pile and core hole and the method should
initially be proven in controlled conditions.
The UK Construction (Design and Management) Regulations require that pile records are
now kept for the life of the building and it is hoped that, in the future, more and better quality
information will be available to assess piles for reuse.
New approach to insurance needed
Building funders increasingly require guarantees that all parts of a building will remain
serviceable over the building's design life, not least due to pressure from future insurers and
occupants - especially those employing other design consultants to pursue a due diligence
search. This is likely to mitigate against allowing 25-year-old reinforced concrete piles being
incorporated into the new works.
A further problem comes down to whether any party is prepared to take responsibility for the
continued performance of reused piles over the new building's design life. In many cases, the
original piling contractor may no longer be in business or may have disposed of the piling
records. Even where the contractor and his records both still exist, the contractor is highly
unlikely to offer a warranty allowing reuse of the piles. The original designer may have been
either the piling contractor or a consultant and is unlikely to accept any responsibility for reuse
of the foundations.
The current consultant can never be completely confident that anomalies or unrecorded
variations in the original piling do not invalidate some of its design assumptions for reuse. The
amount of testing is likely to be prohibitively expensive to prove totally all aspects of the piles
on which the design relies. Such testing will probably involve a lot of destructive testing that
would need a lot of work to put right.
Problems of finding a body to take responsibility for the second life of the piles, as if they were
new, is the main reason for piles not being reused at present. A way around this may be for
the piles to be insured specifically for each new redevelopment, and separately from the rest
of the building. Assessing geotechnical capacity In most situations, soil mechanics theory
shows that the consolidation process that occurs around piles after installation should cause
capacity to increase with time. While the authors are not aware of any load tests that have
been carried out on piles both immediately after installation and subsequently on a similar pile
which has been in place for many years, it is unlikely that such testing would show any loss in
Classical research
shows that the shaft capacity of bored piles in London Clay increases
over the first 1.2 years after pile installation. More recent research
confirms the data for
bored, driven and jacked-in-place piles in London Clay where capacity increased by around
20% in the two months after installation and by a further 15% over the following three years.
Most of the increase was assessed as being due to increases in shaft friction. Similar results
have been observed for driven piles in sand
where shaft capacity was seen almost to double
between six months and five years after installation.
Depending on how much information is available, reused piles can be reloaded up to a limit
capacity, possibly related to the originally rated capacity or to the previous maximum load that
the piles have experienced, proven by the load take-down. If it is suspected that the pile
dimensions could vary or that the records are unreliable, a degree of caution is required. In
such a situation, the pile capacity will normally be related to that taken from the load take-
down and often to a fraction of that value, perhaps somewhere between a half and the whole
The geotechnical capacity of a pile can be confirmed by load testing a pile to failure.
However, as it is unlikely that the test pile itself will be used again, there should be confidence
that the test pile is representative of the dimensions and likely behaviour of other piles.
Depending on the intensity of new loading, load testing of a sample pile to failure may prove
necessary for reusing a high proportion of the previously rated load capacity.
If there are any doubts about the ground conditions in which the piles were installed, a more
thorough desk study and extra ground investigation may be needed. These may be required
to measure the ground strength to current standards to facilitate modern design practices (for
instance, measurement of undrained strength on U102 samples) or possibly just to define
more reliably the variation in stratigraphy across the site.
Looking out for physical damage
Piles can become damaged during installation (for instance, due to construction problems,
movement of plant, vibrations as adjacent piles are installed) or during the operational life of
the building (for instance, due to heave-induced tension). However, most damage is likely to
be caused in the piles as the first building is demolished. Where piles are to be reused, care
needs to be taken during demolition, particularly when slabs or pile caps are removed above
the piles.
Testing of piles to assess damage is normally carried out using the transient dynamic
response ('soft hammer') test, which can detect cracks in the upper part of the pile, to a depth
equal to perhaps twenty times the diameter
. As the testing is non-destructive, a large number
of piles can be tested. Only piles where the pile head is exposed can be tested, so if the pile
cap is also to be reused, proving pile integrity can be difficult. The requirement to wait until the
completion of demolition before proving that the piles are undamaged introduces significant
programme risk.
Assessing steel and concrete deterioration
Before reusing piles, it is necessary to confirm that the pile materials have not deteriorated to
such an extent that their required design life is impaired. Several deleterious processes can
affect the pile concrete and steel reinforcement as shown in the diagram below.
If piles are to be reused, the pile materials must be sampled and a design life reassigned
which obviously needs to be greater than that of the new building that they will support. The
frequency of testing will depend on the details of the original materials and the exposure
conditions to which the piles have been subjected. Additional ground investigation may have
to be carried out if the original investigation did not adequately define the exposure
Material standards change, so it may be necessary to demonstrate that materials from, say,
20 years earlier comply fully with current equivalent standards, especially with regard to
concrete durability. Past performance established from observation may, however, provide a
better indication of suitability than strict compliance with standards.
Tests that prove that the materials remain serviceable are set out in the table below.
Type of
Sulphate attack
Acid attack
Visual Inspection
Chemical analysis
Reinforcing steel
Exposure for visual inspection
Chloride ion content profile
Carbonation depth (if exposed to air)
Cover to reinforcement
Tests to prove that existing piles remain serviceable
Wherever possible and practical, a representative part of the surface of foundations that are
being considered for reuse should be exposed for visual examination and testing.
Unless exposure conditions are likely to change significantly, foundations that exhibit no signs
of 'normal' or thaumasite sulphate attack after several decades are unlikely to suffer such
attack over another few decades of service. However, disturbance of previously undisturbed
ground to expose existing foundations may, in itself, constitute a change in exposure
conditions. In particular, this could be the case if the ground contains sulphides that could
oxidize to sulphates and hence increase the risk of attack as illustrated in the diagram below.
Other changes of exposure condition that could be significant include exposure of concrete to
different ground conditions through backfill, increased mobility of groundwater or permanent
exposure of previously buried concrete. Where deterioration of the concrete surface is
observed, it may be possible to estimate the likely rate of future deterioration and form a
judgement as to its significance for the required performance in terms of load capacity and
service life. For piles relying on skin friction for their capacity at working load, the potential
implications for the geotechnical capacity due to surface deterioration need to be considered
Choice of testing and interpretation of the resulting information should take careful account of
past and future exposure and operating conditions. For example, corrosion of reinforcement
in a fully embedded pile is unlikely to be significant below about 1m depth owing to the low
oxygen availability. This is likely to be true even where cover is very low or the concrete
contains cracks of width greater than those prescribed by current codes of practice
. The
significance of cover and cracking might, however, be quite different in other situations, such
as a piled retaining wall where the reinforced concrete is required to carry sustained bending
Developing a strategy for testing
Assuming that an acceptable body can be found to take responsibility for the piles, a strategy
for testing is needed to prove that the piles can be relied upon to carry load. The extent of
testing will depend on the amount of original information that is available and how heavily the
piles are to be loaded when compared with their original capacities.
A strategy to show that piles can be reused is likely to take the form outlined in the table
Activity Sampling and
Assessment Confirmation
Desk study and
invest-igation of
soil and water in
Index testing
Strength testing
Sulphate testing
Compare to
previous results
Pile design
Pile durability
Expose pile head Break down to
Pile dimensions
Pile head
Pile durability
Absence of defects
Concrete integrity
Rotary core pile
to toe
Obtain cylinders Pile to toe level
Material testing Crush cylinders
Evidence of
Load capacity
Pile durability
Load test to geo-
technical failure
The diagram below shows material testing schematically.
Basements also need consideration
Basement spaces will be similarly affected as successive generations of basements are built
on the site, although the problems are likely to be less severe. It is seldom feasible in urban
situations to install new retaining walls outside previous walls as buried services have usually
been installed right up to the boundary.
Removal of the original wall is almost never feasible because its retentive action is needed
until completion of the new basement to prevent potentially damaging movements of the
ground outside the site. Therefore each new generation of basement retaining wall has to be
installed inside the original one. This results in a progressive loss of available space.
Over the next twenty years, the presence of old foundations in the ground is going to present
an increasing problem and will ultimately inhibit future developments on many valuable urban
sites. Owners of such sites may find that their foundation costs for future developments will be
very expensive and the foundation constraints may result in a less cost-efficient building on
the site.
Now is the time to make sure that good records are kept which will allow piles being installed
for current projects to be more easily reused in the future. Some developers may find that
independent supervision of piling and maintenance of pile records will allow better
consideration of foundation reuse for later projects on the same site. An alternative approach
that some developers might want to adopt on particularly congested sites is to install sufficient
foundation capacity for the current building and for likely future buildings on the same site.
Such an approach would need to be agreed with prospective building funders and insurers,
which must recognize that such foundations would be an asset for the future developability of
the site.
1. MITCHELL J. M., COURTNEY M. and GROSE W. J. Timber Piles at Tobacco Dock,
London. Proceedings of ISSMFE Conference Colloque International Fondations Profondes,
Paris, March 1999.
2. WHITAKER T. and COOKE R.W. An investigation of the shaft and base resistance of large
bored piles in London Clay. Proceedings of a Symposium on Large Bored Piles, 1966, ICE,
London, pp. 7-49.
3. WARDLE I. F., PRICE G. and FREEMAN T.J. Effect of time and maintained load on the
ultimate capacity of piles in stiff clay. In Piling: European Practice and Worldwide Trends
(Sands (ed.)), 1992, pp. 92-99.
4. CHOW F. C., JARDINE R. J., NAUROY J. F. and BRUCY F. Time-related increases in the
shaft capacity of driven piles in sand. Gotechnique, 1997, 47, No. 2, 353-361.
5. TURNER M. J. Integrity Testing in Piling Practice. CIRIA Report 144, CIRIA, 1997.
6. TYSON J. P. Design of reinforcement in piles. TRL Report 144, Transport Research
Laboratory, Crowthorne,1995.
Reproduced with permission from the Institution of Civil Engineers UK