Foundation (structure)

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This article is about Foundation (structure). For other uses of the term Foundation, please see Foundation (disambiguation).

A foundation is a structure that transfers building loads to the ground. Foundations are generally broken into two categories: shallow foundations and deep foundations.

Shallow foundations

For more information, see: shallow foundation.

Shallow foundations are those which rest at the surface of the ground or are embedded a few feet into soil. One common type is the spread footing which consists of strips or pads of concrete (or other materials) which extend below the frost line and transfer the weight from walls and columns to the soil or bedrock. Another common type is the slab-on-grade foundation where the weight of the building is transferred to the soil through a concrete slab placed at the ground surface.

Deep foundations

For more information, see: deep foundation.

Deep foundations are used to transfer building loads deeper into the earth than is practical for shallow foundations, when shallow foundations can not provide adequate capacity due to size and structural limitations. There are different types of deep foundations including piles, drilled shafts, caissons, piers, and earth stabilized columns. The naming conventions for different types of foundations vary between different engineers. Historically, piles were wood, later steel, reinforced concrete, and prestressed concrete. Sometimes these foundations penetrate into bedrock.


Foundations are designed to be sufficient to carry the anticipated building loads with limited settlement by a geotechnical engineer, and the foundation itself is designed structurally by a structural engineer.

The primary design concerns are settlement and bearing capacity. When considering settlement, both total settlement and differential settlement are considered. Differential settlement occurs when one part of a foundation settles more than another part. This can cause problems to the structure the foundation is supporting. It is necessary that a foundation is not loaded beyond its bearing capacity or the foundation will "fail".

Foundations must also be designed to be economical, and sometimes to meet site constraints which limit the construction methods acceptable. For example, pile-driving in urbanized areas can create vibrations which annoy the occupants of nearby buildings and possibly cause cosmetic damage to nearby buildings.

Other possible design considerations, depending on the site, include design for expansive soils, scour, frost heave, and permafrost conditions.

Changes in soil moisture can cause expansive clay to swell and shrink. This swelling can vary across the footing due to seasonal changes or the effects of vegetation removing moisture. The variation in swell can cause the soil to distort, cracking the structure over it. This is a particular problem for house footings in semi-arid climates such as South Australia, Southwestern US, Israel, and South Africa where wet winters are followed by hot dry summers.

Scour occurs when flowing water removes supporting soil from around a foundation, for example, at a pier supporting a bridge over a river. Foundations where scour conditions occur must be designed for the expected long-term configuration of the soil.

Frost heave occurs when water in the ground freezes to form ice lenses; foundations must either be embedded below the level at which frost heave occurs, or be designed to accommodate the movements of the frozen ground.

When structures are built in areas of permafrost, consideration must be given to the thermal effect the structure will have on the permafrost. Generally, the structure is designed in a way that tries to prevent the permafrost from melting.

See also