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SEAOC Blue Book – Seismic Design Recommendations

Geotechnical Investigations

ASCE 7-05 2007 CBC Other standard

reference section(s) reference section(s) reference section(s)
11.4 1613 FEMA 450 (NEHRP 2003) Ch. 3, 7
11.8.2 1802
Table 20.3-1

A geotechnical (foundation and soils) investigation is performed to evaluate the soil, rock, ground water, geologic,
and seismologic conditions that potentially affect the design and construction of a proposed development or
improvement that will include structures. Specifically, the geotechnical investigation provides recommendations for
design of foundation systems and subterranean structures, earthwork and excavation, ground water control, design of
paving and flatwork, slopes (including construction and stabilization), and for other soil work related to the project.
In seismically active areas, the geotechnical investigation evaluates the hazards associated with geologic and
seismologic conditions that may significantly impact the project. The geotechnical report needs to address these
hazards and provide design recommendations to mitigate or account for these hazards.

Before beginning the geotechnical investigation, the geotechnical/geologic consultant should be provided with as
much information about the project as possible, including site plans of the development showing locations and
elevations of the structures, topographic surveys, structural details including type of construction, structural loads,
and any unusual structural features. If the type of construction and the structural details are not known because the
project is in an early schematic design phase, it is helpful for the design professional to provide the
geotechnical/geologic consultant with best estimates of structural loads, considering the range of possible types of
construction. This information will allow the scope of the geotechnical investigation to be tailored to the specific
project and provide recommendations that are appropriate for the structures under consideration.

The geotechnical/geologic consultant should be made aware of any unusual structural features. For example, when
new structural technologies are being considered in the proposed buildings, such as the use of seismic isolation or
energy dissipation devices (dampers) it will likely require dynamic structural analyses to be performed. This may
require that the site be better characterized in order to provide site-specific ground motions. Another example of an
unusual structural feature is where there will be heavy column loads immediately adjacent to much lighter loads,
creating the possibility of large differential settlements between the two columns. Another example of unusual
structural features is where high uplift loads under seismic loading are anticipated. Knowledge of these and similar
unusual conditions at the beginning of the project will allow the geotechnical/geologic consultant to address these
special concerns and potentially avoid supplemental work that can result in delay and greater expense.

When projects proceed to final design, geotechnical/geologic consultants should be afforded the opportunity to
review the plans to see that the intent of their recommendations has been incorporated into the plans and
specifications, and to see if there are significant changes in the project. Such changes may include location, size,
structural loads, foundation systems and excavation depth. If there are significant changes to the project,
modifications to the recommendations in the geotechnical report may be needed, and in some cases, additional
geotechnical explorations may be warranted.

An insufficient or inadequate geotechnical investigation, improper interpretation of results, or a failure or inability to

properly present results in clear, understandable language may contribute to an inappropriate design, unnecessary
delays in construction, costly change orders, use of substandard materials, damage to the site and possibly adjacent
sites, post-construction remedial work, or even failure of a structure and subsequent litigation.

Being overly conservative in geotechnical recommendations can seemingly provide a safe design. However, such
practices can lead to waste and excessive cost, require that structures be designed for unrealistic forces, or even
economically threaten or terminate the project. Excessive excavation and replacement due to excessive conservatism

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SEAOC Blue Book – Seismic Design Recommendations
Geotechnical Investigations
can also lead to potentially greater impact to adjacent properties. As there is an ever-growing competitiveness in the
engineering field, there is a tendency for geotechnical consultants to be selected not on the basis of qualifications,
but on price. This can result in budgets for investigation being reduced, which translates not in reduction of the
scope of work but rather in the effort expended to meet that scope of work. Also, because of the generally litigious
nature of society, these factors sometimes combine to encourage recommendations with a greater degree of
conservatism to avoid failures and possible legal actions. The selection of geotechnical services based solely on low
cost may result in the work being awarded to less experienced firms or individuals that would be more conservative
based on their lack of experience.

Changing Practice
The general practice in the production of geotechnical investigations varies from region to region in the United
States. While subsurface explorations (generally consisting of drilled bore holes) are conducted in all regions, the
type of explorations and the type and frequency of soil sampling varies. In some parts of the United States, standard
practice for soil sampling for ordinary projects may be limited to in-situ Standard Penetration Tests (SPT), where the
blow counts (N-values) are recorded. The geotechnical recommendations are then based on empirical relationships
between soil capacity and/or soil strength and compressibility properties with the N-values and general soil
classifications, along with engineering judgment based on similar projects and loadings on similar soils (see Coduto
2001). More critical projects or those of greater scale should include laboratory testing of soils for classification and
determination of engineering properties.

In parts of the country where there is significant soil variability or where soil stability under seismic loading is a
consideration, the general practice may include more extensive soil sampling with the recovery of relatively
undisturbed soil samples in addition to Standard Penetration Tests. Soil properties including shear strength and
compressibility may be determined by laboratory testing of the “undisturbed” samples and/or remolded samples of
the soils. Investigations may also need to evaluate seismic criteria, such as Site Class, or hazards, such as
liquefaction. Additional tools such as seismic velocity profiling by geophysical testing methods or cone penetration
tests (CPTs) may also be performed, as well as dynamic testing of soil samples. The geotechnical recommendations
are then developed from calculations using the soil properties determined from the field investigation and laboratory

Until recently, seismic design considerations in geotechnical reports were generally only presented for projects in
the most seismically active regions of the country. However, as the newer seismic provisions are being developed
and adopted that increase seismic design levels, more regions of the country are considered as having greater
seismic potential and will be required to meet the new seismic provisions. Thus, geotechnical reports may need to
address seismic hazards in addition to the normal static design considerations in those regions formerly thought to be
less seismically active. Seismic hazards such as liquefaction are required by the International Building code (IBC) to
be evaluated for projects with a Seismic Design Category of C or higher.

As the practice of civil engineering encompasses many varied disciplines, geotechnical investigations should be
performed by licensed, qualified civil engineers with special education, training and demonstrated experience in
geotechnical engineering. State licensing and registration regulations for geotechnical engineering professionals
vary. In California, government-owned K-12 and community college schools and all non-federal hospital projects
are subject to review by the State of California Division of the State Architect and the Office of Statewide Health
Planning and Development, respectively, and those agencies require that geotechnical investigations be conducted
by registered Geotechnical Engineers. As the evaluation of seismic hazards also involves geology and earth
sciences, geotechnical investigations that include detailed seismic hazard evaluations should also be conducted with
qualified geologists or earth scientists. In California, these individuals should be Certified Engineering Geologists.

Beginning with the 1997 NEHRP Provisions, there is a departure from earlier seismic provisions. Previously,
seismic ground motion hazards for standard structures were defined as having a 10 percent probability of
exceedance in 50 years, or a mean recurrence interval of approximately 475 years. It was intended that this
definition would provide a uniform likelihood throughout the country that the design ground motion would not be
exceeded. However, it did not provide a uniform margin against failure for structures designed for that ground

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SEAOC Blue Book – Seismic Design Recommendations
Geotechnical Investigations
motion in all regions of the country. The approach adopted in the 1997, 2000 and 2003 editions of the NEHRP
Provisions is intended to provide a similar margin against collapse at the design ground motion in all regions of the
country. To accomplish this aim, ground motion hazards were related to the Maximum Considered Earthquake
ground motions, which are based on a set of rules that depend on both probabilistic and deterministic site-specific
ground motions.

The design earthquake ground motion is taken as two-thirds of the Maximum Considered Earthquake ground
motion. As stated in the Commentary to the 2003 NEHRP Provisions on ground motion (BSSC 2004), the
maximum considered earthquake ground motion in most regions of the U.S. is defined with a uniform likelihood of
exceedance of 2 percent in 50 years, or a mean return period of about 2,500 years. In regions of high seismicity,
such as much of California, the seismic hazard is typically controlled by large-magnitude events occurring on a
limited number of well-defined fault systems. The ground shaking associated with a 2 percent probability of being
exceeded in 50 years would be much larger that that which would be expected based on characteristic earthquakes
occurring on average every few hundred years on these known active faults. In these regions, NEHRP considers it
more appropriate to determine the Maximum Considered Earthquake ground motion based on the characteristic
earthquakes of these defined faults. The median estimate of ground motion for the characteristic event is multiplied
by a factor of 1.5 to determine the Maximum Considered Earthquake ground motion. Because of this change in the
way design ground motions are determined in the newer NEHRP Provisions, the design earthquake ground motion
will generally be higher than under previous provisions in many regions outside of the higher seismic regions of
California and some other Western states, and seismic design practices will need to be incorporated into more
buildings and structures. This will require that geotechnical reports provide more information related to seismic
hazards and recommendations related to seismic design.

Where geotechnical and/or geological reports contain specialized seismic design information or where substantial
professional judgment needs to be applied, peer review of the geotechnical and/or geological reports may be useful
to verify the adequacy of the methods used and the reasonableness of the assumptions made. Such dialogues can
lead to eventual development of seismic standards of practice in these areas.

Code Approaches
The ASCE 7-05 earthquake provisions are based on the 2003 NEHRP provisions. Foundation design requirements
are found in Section 12.13, which addresses only those foundation requirements related to seismic resistant
construction. ASCE 7-05 assumes that the foundation investigation will comply and address normal non-seismic
requirements dealing with extent of investigation, treatment of fill, slope stability, subsurface drainage, settlement
control, basement and retaining walls, and foundation requirements. Section 12.1.5, which applies to all Seismic
Design Categories, requires that the capacity of the foundation soils be capable of resisting loads at acceptable
strains considering both the short duration of loading and the dynamic properties of the soil during the earthquake.
Section 11.4 provides the procedures for determining the Maximum Considered Earthquake and design earthquake
ground motion accelerations and response spectra. These provisions are based on the 2003 NEHRP provisions
(BSSC 2004). Although not required in the provisions, the site class, based on definitions in Table 20.3-1, should be
determined by the geotechnical/geologic consultant. In Section 11.8.2, an investigation for structures with Seismic
Design Category C or higher should also include the potential hazard due to slope instability, liquefaction, lateral
spreading, and surface rupture, and the report should include appropriate recommendations for foundation design or
other measures to mitigate the effects of these hazards. The geotechnical/geologic consultant will need to have a full
understanding of the proposed project, as discussed earlier in this article, to include the information necessary for
design. The design professional will need to inform the geotechnical/geologic consultant of the Seismic Design
Category of the project to determine the need for seismic hazards evaluation. Some small projects (such as less than
1,500 square feet), or where a previous geotechnical report including seismic hazards evaluation was written for an
adjacent project, may not require a re-evaluation of the seismic hazards.

Chapter 7 of the 2003 NEHRP Commentary provides a discussion of the procedures for evaluating the hazards listed
in ASCE 7-05 Section 11.8.2. The information in the Commentary relies upon references that generally predate the
Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes and does not make references to later developments and advances. The
2000 NEHRP Commentary is based in large part on the Appendix of California Division of Mines and Geology

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SEAOC Blue Book – Seismic Design Recommendations
Geotechnical Investigations
(now California Geological Survey) Special Publication 42, 1988 Revision (Hart 1988). Special Publication 42 has
been revised several times since 1988 and the current revision is dated 1997 with 1999 supplements (Hart and
Bryant 1999). The same basic information is contained in Note 49 published by the California Geological Survey

The NEHRP Commentary also provides some procedures for evaluation of liquefaction and slope instability. Its
references date to the 1970s and 1980s. Later guidelines for evaluating and mitigating seismic hazards due to
liquefaction and landsliding were published by the California Division of Mines and Geology (1997). The current
state of practice in evaluating and mitigating liquefaction hazards can be found in Youd and Idriss (1997), Youd et
al. (2001), and Martin and Lew (1999). New guidelines for evaluating landslide hazards have been developed by
Blake, Hollingsworth and Stewart (2002). The 2007 California Building Code (CBC) suggests that liquefaction
evaluation be performed using a peak ground acceleration (PGA) equal to SDS/2.5 (Section 1802.2.7). However, the
magnitude associated with this level of shaking is not defined. The liquefaction hazard could be evaluated by
determining the magnitude associated with the design-level ground motion. This could either correspond to the
deterministic earthquake or the predominant magnitude from the probabilistic earthquake that were used in
developing the design level ground motion. If the probabilistic earthquake governs at short periods in the design
level ground motion, as an alternative procedure a probabilistic site hazard analysis could be performed to obtain the
Magnitude-7.5-weighted PGA, then divide that PGA by 2.5. It is also implied by Section 1802.2.7 that the design
level PGA for other seismic evaluation needs can be taken as SDS/2.5.

The CBC is based primarily on the 2006 International Building Code (IBC) and presents requirements for a
foundation investigation in Section 1802. The CBC requires the evaluation of the Site Class at the building site to
determining the seismic loadings. This requirement is similar to those in the 2003 NEHRP and ASCE 7-05
provisions. The classification is to be based on observation and any necessary tests disclosed by borings or
excavations made in appropriate locations. The CBC also states that additional studies may be necessary to evaluate
soil strength, the effect of moisture variation on soil-bearing capacity, compressibility, liquefaction and
expansiveness. In addition, the expected and differential settlement is to be reported. For structures with CBC
Seismic Design Category C or higher, the potential for slope instability, liquefaction, and surface rupture due to
faulting or lateral spreading must be evaluated during the geotechnical investigation. For structures with CBC
Seismic Design Categories D or higher, lateral pressures on below-grade structures due to earthquakes and the
potential consequences of liquefaction must be evaluated. The effects of adjacent loads are to be included in
foundation design where footings are placed at differing elevations. The investigation is also to address provisions
for control and drainage of surface water around buildings. For certain types of projects, or where a detailed seismic
hazards evaluation is warranted, engineering geologic reports addressing geologic hazards as well as geotechnical
and supplemental ground-response reports may be needed.

When recommending seismic lateral earth pressures on below-grade structures, the recommendations should be
developed with an understanding of the stiffness of the structure, the height of the structure, the stiffness and type of
earth material, the potential movement of the wall, unbalanced earth pressures from one side of the structure to the
other (such as with sloping ground), and appropriate seismic parameters. In general, the seismic parameters used in a
seismic lateral earth pressure evaluation are significantly less than the peak ground acceleration, and usually account
for a reduction due to equivalent uniform loading (as opposed to peak loading), and for a reduction to reflect the
seismic coefficient (average acceleration of the block of earth behind the structure).

The application of the building code (such as the CBC, IBC or other model codes) in practice is usually one where
conservative design values are provided in the absence of a geotechnical or foundation investigation. The
presumptive design capacities for footings (such as bearing capacity and lateral bearing) are usually conservative for
the soil types listed and generally would not result in economical design for major or complex structures with heavy
foundation loads. It should be noted that the presumptive code values consider only strength and not settlements,
deformations, or displacements. The presumptive code values also do not adequately address the capacities of the
soils for seismic loading. Design loadings may similarly be conservative in the absence of a geotechnical
investigation. A site-specific ground motion study may provide better estimates of the ground motions for design

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SEAOC Blue Book – Seismic Design Recommendations
Geotechnical Investigations
than the ground motions determined from the building codes. The conservative of the building codes inherently
encourages the use of geotechnical investigations to provide realistic and reasonable design values.

Geotechnical reports must contain and address increasing amounts of seismic and geologic information to provide
the necessary design recommendations for design of buildings and structures. Geotechnical and geologic consultants
must continue to educate themselves in identification and mitigation of seismic hazards. Structural engineers will
need to have a basic understanding of geotechnical issues that may impact their projects so that they are able to
recognize and discern whether adequate exploration and analysis has been performed and whether the proposed
solutions or mitigations are reasonable and appropriate. The design professional should evaluate if the
geotechnical/geologic consultant has the proper knowledge and experience in seismic issues to provide
recommendations that are state of the practice without being overly conservative.

Geotechnical parameters must also be developed with an understanding of how they will be applied. Sometimes
allowable values are provided when ultimate values would be more suitable. Also, geotechnical professionals should
be aware that some design values such as lateral earth pressure are provided as a strength-based design value that is
identical to the recommended design value; this is the case where parameters are computed with no factor of safety
applied to the value.

The geotechnical/geologic consultant should be aware of additional requirements that the local reviewing agency or
jurisdiction may have in addition to the model code provisions. For example two jurisdictions that have formal
manuals for the preparation of geotechnical reports are the County of Los Angeles (LADPW 2001) and the City of
Santa Monica, California (SMDBS 2002). The California Geological Survey (2007) has published its Note 48,
which serves as a checklist for review of engineering geology and seismology reports for public schools, hospitals
and essential services buildings. These manuals and checklists provide the minimum standards and recommended
format for geotechnical investigation reports submitted to these agencies. These types of documents can provide
insight into the geotechnical review process, the minimum standards used in the review, and project approval
process for these agencies and thus may produce more consistent, reliable reports. These manuals should not be
intended to specify specific engineering methods or scope of studies or to supplant the engineering judgment of the
professionals performing the investigations.

New Thinking
With an increased emphasis on performance-based engineering, especially with regard to behavior of structures
under extreme loading conditions including earthquake, traditional geotechnical methods of analysis may not
provide sufficient or adequate information for the foundation design or analysis methods required to model
foundation behavior and capacities. Performance based geotechnical analyses will not be governed by traditional
factors of safety and arbitrary allowable increases for extreme load conditions. Performance-based geotechnical
analyses will most likely be deflection or deformation controlled rather than load or “capacity” controlled.

Statistical methods for understanding the risks and likely outcomes of design may become more useful. This may be
especially useful where multiple variables may interact. Such methodologies are currently used in probabilistic
seismic hazard analyses where multiple scenarios can be modeled using decision tree analysis techniques. A
possible application of this technique may be the likelihood for liquefaction when there is variability in the ground
shaking as well as variability in the ground-water level.

The pace of research and new developments in earthquake resistant design has increased greatly since the 1994
Northridge Earthquake. Previously unknown potentially active or active earthquake faults will likely be found, and
further understanding of seismic wave propagation through basin deposits may alter the current practice. Design
professionals must not be content to sit still and continue to rely upon the past for the answers to the problems of the
future. It is incumbent upon the profession to be aware of the latest research, continue to advance in knowledge, and
use new technology and analysis techniques as they become proven as effective.

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Geotechnical Investigations

Blake, T.F., R.A. Hollingsworth, and J.P. Stewart, editors (2002). Recommended procedures for implementation of
DMG special publication 117 Guidelines for analyzing and mitigating landslide hazards in California, ASCE
Los Angeles Section Geotechnical Group, Southern California Earthquake Center, University of Southern
BSSC (2004). NEHRP recommended provisions for seismic regulations for new buildings and other structures, Part
1: Provisions, Part 2: Commentary (FEMA 450-1,2/2003 Edition), Building Seismic Safety Council,
Washington, DC.
CDMG (1997). Guidelines for evaluating and mitigating seismic hazards in California, Special Publication 117,
California Division of Mines and Geology (California Geological Survey), Sacramento, CA.
CGS (2002). Note 49 – Guidelines for evaluating the hazard of surface fault rupture, California Geological Survey,
Sacramento, CA.
CGS (2007). Note 48 – Checklist for the review of engineering geology and seismology reports for California public
schools, hospitals, and essential services buildings, October 2007, California Geological Survey, Sacramento,
Coduto, Donald P. (2001). Foundation design – Principles and practices, second edition, Prentice Hall, Upper
Saddle River, NJ.
Hart, Earl W. (1988). Fault-rupture hazard zones in California. Special Publication 42, California Division of
Mines and Geology (California Geological Survey), Sacramento, CA.
Hart, Earl W. and Bryant, William A. (1997, supplements added 1999). Fault-rupture hazard zones in California.
Special Publication 42, California Division of Mines and Geology (California Geological Survey), Sacramento,
LADPW (2001). Manual for preparation of geotechnical reports, County of Los Angeles Department of Public
Works, February 2000, revised May 8, 2001.
Martin, G.R. and M. Lew, editors (1999). Recommended procedures for implementation of DMG special publication
117 Guidelines for analyzing and mitigating liquefaction hazards in California, Southern California Earthquake
Center, University of Southern California.
SMDBS (2002). Guidelines for geotechnical reports, City of Santa Monica Department of Building and Safety,
Youd, T.L. and I.M. Idriss, editors (1997). Proceedings of NCEER Workshop on Evaluation of Liquefaction Resistance of Soils
NCEER Technical Report NCEER-97-0022, December 31, 1997.
Youd, T.L. et al. (2001). "Liquefaction resistance of soils, summary report from the 1996 NCEER and 1998
NCEER/NSF workshops on evaluation of liquefaction resistance of soils, Journal of Geotechnical and
GeoEnvironmental Engineering, ASCE (127) 4, pp. 297-131.

design earthquake
geologic hazards
geotechnical engineering
site characteristics
soil classification

How To Cite This Publication

In the writer’s text, the article should be cited as:

(SEAOC Seismology Committee 2008)

In the writer’s reference list, the reference should be listed as:

SEAOC Seismology Committee (2008). “Geotechnical Investigations,” August, 2008, The SEAOC Blue
Book: Seismic design recommendations, Structural Engineers Association of California, Sacramento, CA.
Accessible via the world wide web at: http://www.seaoc.org/bluebook/index.html

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