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Materials and Structures/Matériaux et Constructions, Vol. 34, January-February 2001, pp 7-13

Crack development in concrete structures due to imposed strains – Part I: Modelling

D. Pettersson and S. Thelandersson

Div. Structural Engineering, Lund University, Sweden

Paper received: January 11, 2000; Paper accepted: May 19, 2000


In the present paper, a technique for the modelling of

crack development in reinforced concrete structures exposed to imposed deformations is described. In a sec- ond paper, parametric studies are performed for a wall

fully restrained at the base. The objective of this research is to improve the control of cracking in engineering design.

A two-dimensional Finite Element model with four-

node elements is used to simulate concrete. Closing forces in cracks are modelled with spring elements. The spring stiffness is estimated from bond stress – slip rela- tions for reinforcement and tension softening of con-

crete. Yield of reinforcement is also included in the model. Temperature change is used as load and the cal- culations are performed stepwise with opening of nodes and implementation of spring elements.

It is shown that tensile softening of concrete can be

neglected but multiple cracking must be considered in the calculations. The progression of cracking in the structure is simulated in the analysis. Results are given in terms of development of crack width with increasing temperature load. The crack widths approach an upper limit for large temperature loading. The proposed model can also be adapted to other structures and restraints.


Cette publication présente une modélisation du développe- ment des fissures dans les constructions en béton armé soumis à des déformations. Dans une deuxième publication, des études paramétriques sont réalisées sur un mur encastré à la base. L’objectif de ce travail est de permettre à l’ingénieur de mieux contrôler le développement des fissures. Un modèle bi-dimensionnel aux éléments finis à quatre nœuds est utilisé pour simuler le comportement du béton. Les efforts internes de fermeture des fissures sont modélisés par des éléments de raideur. Ceux-ci sont déterminés par la relation contrainte d’adhé- rence - glissement pour l’armature et pour le ramollissement en trac- tion du béton. Le cisaillement de l’armature est également inclus dans le modèle. Un changement de température simule le charge- ment, et les calculs sont réalisés par étapes, en contrôlant l’écarte- ment des nœuds et l’ajout d’éléments de raideur. Il est démontré que le ramollissement en traction du béton peut être négligé, mais l’existence de multiples fissures doit être prise en compte dans l’analyse. La progression des fissures dans la construction est simulée dans l’analyse. Les résultats présentés illustrent le développement des fissures en fonction de l’augmenta- tion de la température. La largeur des fissures atteint une valeur maximale pour des températures élevées. Le modèle proposé peut également être adapté à d’autres structures et d’autres modes de contrainte.


Control of cracking of concrete structures is impor- tant in engineering design, but often treated in a rather crude way. This is especially valid for structures exposed to imposed deformations. Reinforcement is used to limit the crack width by creating several narrow cracks instead of a few wide-open cracks, but it does not prevent crack- ing. The required amount of reinforcement to limit the crack width is normally based on the concept of a con- crete bar fixed in both ends where the capacity of the

reinforcement at yield should be higher than the force necessary to create a new crack, see e.g. Jaccoud [1] and CEB [2]. Cracking due to imposed deformations was studied with a one-dimensional model by Reinhardt [3] and Nagy [4]. For other types of structures and boundary condi- tions, the approach in [1] and [2] will probably lead to an overestimation of minimum reinforcement and thereby more expensive structures with decreased functionality. Crack spacing and crack widths from imposed deforma- tions in concrete walls fully restrained at the base were


Materials and Structures/Matériaux et Constructions, Vol. 34, January-February 2001

e.g. dealt with in ACI Commitee 207 [5], Rostásy [6], Kheder et al. [7] and Iványi [8]. Stoffers [9] indicated that the restraint at the base has a crack distribution effect also for non-reinforced walls. This effect gives that rein- forcement ratios lower than minimum reinforcement also will limit the crack widths. Iványi [8] also showed that the minimum reinforcement can be reduced for base restrained walls. Harrison [10] showed the influ- ence of the restraint for walls and some other structures. For further studies of crack widths and crack spacing, improved methods are needed that can be used for dif- ferent structures and boundary conditions. In development of crack calculation methods the focus must be on the cracking behaviour. Fracture mechanics deals with the fracture process and softening of concrete in a single crack, see e.g. Karihaloo [11]. The closing forces in cracks mainly originate from the rein- forcement crossing the crack, and are affected by the bond of the reinforcement in the vicinity of the crack. Tests of bond stress – slip relations were performed e.g. by Magnusson [12] and Bigaj [13], and are also reported in Concrete Manual [14]. Modellings of bond have been done e.g. by Bigaj [13] and Lundgren [15]. For crack cal- culations in realistic structures modelling of the bond behaviour must be simplified. The studied cracks arise from a combination of imposed deformations and restraint. CEB [16] deals with imposed deformations in form of thermal effects. Crack risks in fully restrained walls have been studied e.g. by Emborg [17], and for walls and slabs with varying restraint conditions by Pettersson [18, 19]. Crack devel- opment in walls as field observations has been studied by many e.g. Kheder et al. [7]. The present paper is the first in a series of two. The research is part of a project with the aim to develop improved methods for estimation of crack widths and crack spacing in reinforced concrete structures exposed to imposed deformations. The cracking process in a wall, fully restrained at the bottom, is analysed with the help of a two-dimensional Finite Element model. Tension softening of concrete and yield of reinforcement are considered. The effect of reinforcement on crack width under decreasing temperature is studied. The method can be applied to other structures and boundary condi- tions, and in the second paper parametric studies will be performed with the purpose to improve control of cracking in practical design.


The purpose here is to study crack development in realistic concrete structures and to find a method good enough to estimate the crack widths and crack spacing without studying the cracking process in detail. Therefore, the strategy employed here is to find a model, which is simple, but yet can describe the cracking process with suf- ficient accuracy for the stated purpose. In the model, the


concrete outside cracking zones is assumed to behave lin- early elastic. The behaviour in the vicinity of cracks is gov- erned by tensile softening/cracking of concrete and closing forces imposed by reinforcement crossing the crack. Both these effects are modelled by springs in element bound- aries, with stiffnesses estimated from simplified considera- tions of fracture mechanics and bond - slip behaviour of reinforcement, respectively.

2.2 Characterisation of spring properties

The present model is based on the following concep- tual behaviour. The cracking process starts when the tensile stress exceeds the tensile strength of the concrete. Upon further deformation, the concrete exhibits soften- ing, i.e. gradual decrease in tensile stress until an open crack is formed, see e.g. Karihaloo [11]. At the same time, reinforcement bars crossing the crack will be suc- cessively activated so that the whole force is carried by reinforcement once the crack is fully open. In the soft- ening phase, load is carried by both concrete and rein- forcement, and both effects are modelled by equivalent springs. When the crack is fully open, only the spring representing reinforcement is active.

Concrete softening Tension softening of concrete is assumed localised to the fracture crack plane and is described by a linearly decreasing relation between stress σ and fictitious crack opening w. For this case, the fracture energy G f is the area under the σ-w curve. A characteristic length ch , which can be seen as a material parameter, is defined as (see e.g. [11]):

l ch









where f ct is the tensile strength and E c is the elastic mod- ulus of concrete. In the softening phase, the relation between stress change ∆σ and change in crack width, w, is:


where the incremental distributed (negative) stiffness of the concrete, k c [N/m 3 ], during softening and the width w o of the crack when it opens (when σ becomes zero), can be expressed in terms of the material properties as:

∆σ = k c w

w < w o





= 2l



Closing effects of reinforcement The closing force of a reinforcement bar crossing a crack is represented in the model by a linear spring with stiffness K r [force/unit length], connecting the opposite faces of the crack. A linear bond stress-slip relation for one reinforcement bar is used to calculate the displace- ment u(0) of the bar relative to concrete at the crack faces. The spring stiffness K r is then given by the relation between the force in the bar and the slip 2u(0), for the two faces of the crack. This stiffness can then be trans-

Pettersson, Thelandersson

Pettersson, Thelandersson Fig. 1 – Boundary conditions for a reinforcement bar between two cracks. formed into

Fig. 1 – Boundary conditions for a reinforcement bar between two cracks.

formed into a distributed stiffness k r [N/m 3 ] representing all bars crossing the crack. A general theoretical solution for the displacement u(x) along a bar supported by linear, axially distributed springs was first given by Volkersen [20]. Fig. 1 shows a

bar between two cracks with spacing ‘2a’, and the corre-

sponding linear model. With the boundary conditions N(0) = P and u(a) = 0, the following solution is obtained:

P u ( x ) = [ λ E A s Φ where: k π
u (
x ) =
λ E A
⋅ Φ














= the force in the bar crossing the crack [N]


S = elastic modulus for the steel [Pa]

A Φ = cross section area for a bar with diameter Φ [m 2 ]

k b = the distributed bond-slip stiffness along the bar, defined as the ratio between bond stress and slip [Pa/m]. Equations (4) and (5) are then used to express the

spring stiffness K r in the crack for one bar:





λ E A






π ⋅









λ a


tanh λ a

) =



The distributed spring stiffness in the crack from reinforcement is given by








r ρ





n = number of bars per 1 m 2 [m -2 ]

ρ = reinforcement ratio (A s /A c ) [-]. Bond stress – slip tests with short embedment lengths

can be assumed to describe the local bond behaviour in

bars. A typical bond stress – slip relation from tests is shown in Fig. 2. In the present context only the stiffness

shown in Fig. 2. In the present context only the stiffness Fig. 2 – Bond stress

Fig. 2 – Bond stress - slip rela- tion from tests, with linearized stiffness k b .


k b is of interest and it is here estimated as the secant stiff- ness corresponding to a stress level equal to 0.8bond strength. The bond stiffness k b depends on test set up, concrete quality and diameter. From test results pre- sented in [12-14], k b can be estimated to 60 GPa/m for ribbed bars with Φ = 12 mm. For bars with larger diame- ter the value of k b is somewhat lower. In the tests, the reinforcement bars are normally con- fined. For less confined bars in realistic structures the curves are expected to develop in a similar way but with lower bond strength, which means that the same k b may be used. In reality the action of reinforcement in con- crete is distributed along the bar a certain distance from the crack. In the FE-model with springs this action is described by a concentrated force in the finite element node in the crack. This simplification leads to an error in the local stress field, but will have negligible effect on the global behaviour of the structure. With k b = 60 GPa/m and Φ = 12mm Equation (5) gives λ ≈ 10 m -1 . For λa ≥ 1.5 we have tanh λa 1. For a 12-mm bar this is valid when the crack spacing ‘2a’ is larger than 0.3 m. This means that K r is independent of ‘a’ except for highly reinforced structures which are highly stressed so that the minimum crack distance becomes very small. In the calculations, the spring stiffness K r in Equation (6) was evaluated assuming tanh λa = 1, for the whole cracking process. The modelling of bond behaviour used here is sim- plified and associated with some uncertainty. The effect of bond properties on the cracking behaviour will there- fore be investigated in more detail in the second part of the paper.

Total spring stiffness

The average stress in the crack as function of the

crack width is illustrated in Fig. 3. The behaviour is gov-

σ y


f st ρ. A minimum reinforcement ratio ρ min (= f ct /f st ) can be derived from the criteria of not exceeding the yield strength of the reinforcement at the onset of a crack.

erned by Equations (3) and (7). The average stress over the cross section at yield of reinforcement is σ


over the cross section at yield of reinforcement is σ y Fig. 3 – Average stress

Fig. 3 – Average stress in the crack as function of the crack width for reinforced concrete. The influences of changes in f ct , f st and ρ are indicated.

Materials and Structures/Matériaux et Constructions, Vol. 34, January-February 2001

2.3 Implementing the spring element

The concrete structure is modelled with plane finite elements where the concrete is regarded as linear elastic. The cracking behaviour is modelled with non-linear springs introduced in the nodes. The properties of the springs have been described above. Two different approaches have been used in the analysis, an incremental solution and a total method giving stepwise valid solutions. The primary principle for the incremental method is linear solutions of incremental changes in the system, with updating of spring properties after each step, taking into account both softening of concrete and closing forces of the reinforcement crossing the crack. The results from each step are superimposed to obtain the final solution. In the stepwise valid solution method, the softening of concrete is neglected and springs describing the effect of reinforcement are introduced successively. After each modification, the system is analysed and the range of validity of each solution is determined. The result is that the behaviour of the structure (including crack widths) during the cracking process can be simulated, assuming that softening of concrete can be neglected. The Finite Element program can be set up to do this automatically in a rather simple way, by introducing non- linear spring elements in both x- and y-directions in all nodes from the outset. The properties of the springs will change during the process from practically infinite stiff- ness (before cracking) to a finite stiffness representing the closing force of reinforcement in the open crack and to a prescribed force in the spring representing yield in the reinforcement. The cracking criterion is based on the magnitude of the force in the spring elements instead of element or node stresses, which also means that cracks can only be created at element boundaries. By comparing the two methods, it will be shown below that it is reasonable to disregard the effect of soft- ening, for the present purpose.


Fig. 4 shows the geometry for the studied structure and the load in principle, given as a temperature decrease in the wall relative to the base. The input material prop- erties are representative for normal reinforcement and hardened concrete. The effect of reinforcement in cracks is described according to section 2.2 with tanh λa = 1. Calculations are performed for reinforcement ratios, ρ, from 0.001 to 0.020.

Input material properties Concrete:

E c = 32 GPa (E-modulus) f ct = 3.5 MPa (tensile strength)

ch = 0.4 m (characteristic length)

α = 10·10 -6 K -1 (coefficient of thermal expansion).


Reinforcement/bond, Φ = 12 mm:

E S = 200 GPa (E-modulus) f st = 600 MPa (tensile strength) k b = 60 GPa/m (bond stiffness).

3.2 FE-model

The FE-program ANSYS, version 5.4 was used for the calculations [21]. The concrete structure is simulated with two-dimensional plane four-node elements, assum- ing plane stress. The elements are chosen quadratic with side length 0.1 m. The structure is fixed at the bottom and the symmetry of the structure is used to limit the size of the problem. The predefined infinitely stiff spring elements change status to simulate cracking. The number of temperature load steps is adapted to cover a reasonable span of temperature decrease. The shape of the temperature change is regarded as a reason- able simplification with respect to outer temperature changes and the influence from the ground.


A crack predestined to the symmetry line of the struc- ture is studied with the purpose to compare the incre- mental method and the method with stepwise valid solu- tions. All calculations give that cracking first appears about 300 mm above the base where the temperature profile changes from linear to uniform, see Fig. 4. The crack then develops upward, but also a bit downward. The position of maximum crack width then moves upward, sometimes all the way to the top of the structure. Fig. 5 shows two curves for temperature change as function of maximum crack width for a high reinforce- ment ratio, ρ = 0.020. Tension softening is influencing the incremental solution at smaller crack widths and thereafter the curves are almost identical. Generally the effect of softening is not significant. Calculations show that the influence of softening further decreases with decreasing reinforcement ratio ρ. The explanation for this is that softening is only active in cracks with a width smaller than w o 0.1 mm. Softening is described with the material parameter G f . It is shown e.g. in Hillerborg

parameter G f . It is shown e.g. in Hillerborg Fig. 4 – Geometry and temperature

Fig. 4 – Geometry and temperature loading for the studied structure.

Pettersson, Thelandersson

Pettersson, Thelandersson Fig. 5 – Temperature change - maximum crack width, calculated with the two methods.

Fig. 5 – Temperature change - maximum crack width, calculated with the two methods.

- maximum crack width, calculated with the two methods. Fig. 6 – Temperature change - maximum

Fig. 6 – Temperature change - maximum crack width, stepwise valid solutions.

[22] that larger structures become more brittle and thereby the influence of softening decreases. The con- clusion is that softening can be neglected so that the sim- pler method with stepwise valid solutions can be employed especially for lower reinforcement ratios. Fig. 6 shows curves for different reinforcement ratios ρ obtained with this method. Yield of reinforcement is shown as a descending of the linearly growing parts of the curves. A study of the stresses outside the symmetry line indicates stresses exceeding the tensile strength of the concrete. Thus, modelling which allows cracking only in the symmetry line is not sufficient to estimate crack widths in the structure.

5. A STRUCTURE WITH MULTIPLE CRACKING 5.1 The incremental method

Fig. 7 shows the order of cracking calculated with the incremental method with the possibility of multiple cracking implemented. The first crack (1) arises in the same position as for one crack. Vertical cracks are then created with small distances from the symmetry line and outwards on the same level above the base. Cracks are formed to about halfway to the end of the structure before the second node in the symmetry line (X) is


before the second node in the symmetry line (X) is 11 Fig. 7 – Order of
before the second node in the symmetry line (X) is 11 Fig. 7 – Order of

Fig. 7 – Order of cracking for incremental method (in the symmetric half of the struc- ture).

Fig. 8 – Temperature loading - maxi- mum crack width curves in principal for structures with one and several cracks.

Table 1 – Temperature change and maximum crack width immediately after cracking for the second node from the bottom in the symmetry line, here given for two reinforcement ratios


T (°C)

w max (mm)

ρ = 0.005 (1 crack) multiple cracking



. 10 -3



. 10 -3

ρ = 0.005 (1 crack) multiple cracking



. 10 -3



. 10 -3

cracking. The short length of the cracks and small dis- tances between them implies that the initial cracking zone near the base can be regarded as a softening zone with more or less uniform softening. Fig. 8 shows in principle the difference between the case when only one crack is allowed and the case with multiple cracking. Table 1 gives, for two different values of ρ, a comparison of the maximum crack widths imme- diately after cracking for the second node from the bot- tom in the symmetry line. It is seen that the crack is formed at a higher temperature change for multiple cracking and that the crack width becomes smaller. The arrow in Fig. 8 also illustrates this. The first crack in the structure appears for T = 12.8°C.

5.2 The method with stepwise valid solutions

This method is more convenient to use, but tension softening of concrete has to be neglected. As indicated it is possible to neglect tension softening for one crack and especially for lower reinforcement ratios. The influence of softening will be higher for structures with multiple cracking, because the crack width is spread out to several cracks. As lower reinforcement ratios are of interest the method is still regarded as sufficiently accurate. The order of cracking in structures for the method

Materials and Structures/Matériaux et Constructions, Vol. 34, January-February 2001

et Constructions , Vol. 34 , January-February 2001 Fig. 9 – Order of cracking for stepwise

Fig. 9 – Order of cracking for stepwise valid solutions (in the symmetric half of the struc- ture).

with stepwise valid solutions is indicated in Fig. 9 for the first eight cracks. This order of cracking is in good agree- ment with cracking observed in tests. The first crack will arise in the symmetry line as for the previous cases. The second crack appears approximately in the middle of the symmetric half of the structure. The next two cracks arise in the fourth points of the structure. Then, four cracks arise between the existing cracks. The first cracks are developed to the full height before the next crack starts to develop. Some variation of the order may arise for the later cracks with varying reinforcement ratios. Analyses were performed where the number of cracks was artificially limited. Fig. 10 shows the maxi- mum crack width as function of the temperature change for different maximum number of cracks in the symmet- ric half of the structure for ρ = 0.005. As is indicated in the figure the number of cracks is very important for the maximum crack width. Without restrictions on the number of cracks the FE-calculations give that the num- ber of cracks is limited to eight for temperature changes up to 40°C. This gives a crack spacing of about 0.5 m, which is reasonable. For highly reinforced structures with high temperature changes minimum crack spacing may have to be imposed by restrictions in the program. The maximum crack width w max may be located in any of the cracks and may also change position with increasing temperature change. Fig. 11 shows the maxi- mum crack width for each of the eight cracks for the case with free cracking. The curves can be assembled to the curve for free cracking shown in Fig. 10. As is shown, the different cracks develop towards almost the same crack width. The maximum crack width sometimes decreases with increasing temperature change. The reason for that is that a new crack has been formed and this leads to partial closing of the cracks in the vicinity. The order of cracking is given by Fig. 9 and cracks of higher order starts at a higher temperature change. Note the big difference in the starting temperature between the fourth and fifth cracks, which is explained by the cracking order. For multiple cracking the side length of the plane elements in the FE-model affects the crack widths. Larger elements give restrictions for the crack develop- ment. This implies a bit larger crack widths for larger elements (see Fig. 10). This effect is small for higher reinforcement ratios. For lower reinforcement ratios the effect is increasing due to increased extent of yielding of reinforcement.


due to increased extent of yielding of reinforcement. 12 Fig. 10 – Temperature change - maximum

Fig. 10 – Temperature change - maximum crack width, for dif- ferent number of cracks.

- maximum crack width, for dif- ferent number of cracks. Fig. 11 – Temperature change -

Fig. 11 – Temperature change - maximum crack width, for the eight different cracks.

For reinforcement ratios of 0.005 and higher the influence of element size is small. For a reinforcement ratio of 0.001 and side length 0.1 m, the crack width will be overestimated with almost 20% compared to calcula- tions with smaller element. Elements with side length 0.1m have been used to limit the size of the calculations, even though smaller element would have given a bit more reliable results. The results from the calculations shall not be interpreted in absolute terms, but will give a good estimation of crack widths and can be used for parametric studies.


A simplified FE-method to calculate crack widths and crack distributions in reinforced concrete structures is pro- posed. Closing forces in cracks are modelled with spring elements. The spring stiffness is estimated from bond stress – slip relations for reinforcement and tension softening of concrete. Yield of reinforcement is also included in the model. Temperature change is used as load and the calcula- tions are performed stepwise with opening of nodes and implementation of spring elements. Results are given as maximum crack widths as func- tion of temperature change. It is shown that reinforce-

Pettersson, Thelandersson

ment has a closing effect of the crack widths. Multiple cracking must be considered in the model to include the crack distribution effect of the restraint at the base. Crack development for multiple cracking gives reason- able crack spacing and crack widths approach an upper limit for high levels of temperature load. The errors related to simplifications in the modelling are of minor influence. Most important for the results of the calculations are reasonable input values. The used side length for the plane element in the FE-model will give an overestimation of the crack width for lower reinforcement ratios, but the results are still reasonably accurate. Imposed deformation originating from shrinkage in the concrete is different from temperature action. In the model used here, with the action of reinforcement described by springs in cracks no distinction can be made between imposed strain from temperature and shrinkage. In the case of shrinkage, additional restraint is imposed on the concrete by the reinforcement, which does not shrink. The onset of cracking due to shrinkage will occur somewhat earlier (at lower value of the imposed strain) than for temperature loading. The restraint from reinforcement in the case of shrinkage is imposed continuously along the structure in the same way as restraint acting on the side of the structure. This means that the reinforcement will be more efficient in terms of crack distribution when the imposed strain originates from shrinkage. On the other hand the stress in the reinforcement will be somewhat lower in the case of shrinkage since a moderate compressive stress is pre- sent in the reinforcement before cracking [23]. This means that the closing effect in cracks by the reinforce- ment is somewhat smaller. In general, the crack widths should usually be about the same for shrinkage and for temperature action, although the cracking behaviour can be slightly different. The extreme case with a structure completely restrained at the ends (and not at the sides) was studied by Thelandersson et al. [23]. For this particular case, the crack width is slightly higher for shrinkage than for tem- perature action, but the difference is small for normal reinforcement ratios. For other types of restraint the dif- ference can be expected to be even smaller [23]. Finally, the given method is simple enough to make it possible to perform parametric studies to evaluate the effect of reinforcement to limit cracking due to imposed defor- mations. Another advantage of the method is that it can be adapted to different structures and boundary conditions.


Elforsk AB – the Swedish Electrical Utilities Research and Development Company, financially sup- ported this work.



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