Ground Investigation - Procedures

Site Investigation


These illustrate the ground conditions only at the location of the particular borehole or trial pit. Correlation between boreholes is for guidance only and its accuracy cannot be guaranteed.


This technique uses a tripod winch and an essentially percussive action using a variety of tools. Disturbed and undisturbed samples can be taken. This is the most suitable method for soft ground investigation, enabling the maximum amount of information to be obtained. However, minor changes in lithology may be overlooked unless continuous undisturbed sampling is used.


Groundwater levels vary seasonally and the details given on the borehole logs relate only to the dates and the conditions described in the borehole records. The rate of boring may not have allowed an equilibrium water level to be established and the use of casing may seal off certain seepages.


Disturbed samples of soils are taken for identification and classification purposes. In cohesive soils 'undisturbed' samples 100mm in diameter are taken by open drive sampler for laboratory testing of strength, permeability and consolidation characteristics.


S.P.T tests are used in granular and cohesive materials and in soft or weathered rocks. Difficulties in obtaining true 'N' values mean they must only be used as a guide and not as an absolute value in foundation design.


Two main types of rotary drilling are carried out in rock. Rock coring using diamond or tungsten carbide tipped core bits provides samples and information on rock types, fissuring and weathering. Openhole drilling only produces small particles for identification purposes and the information gained is therefore limited. The latter is, however, useful as a quick method for detecting major strata changes and for the location of coal seams and old workings. Water, air, foam or drilling muds may be used as the flushing medium in either case.


These can be carried out in boreholes or trial pits and gives a good indication of in-situ permeability.


This enables soil conditions to be closely examined at any specific point and samples taken. It also gives useful information on the stability of excavations and ingress of water.


Window sampling consists of driving a series of 1m-long tubes into the ground using a dropping weight. On completion of each 1m run, the tube is withdrawn. The next tube is then inserted and the process repeated to provide a continuous profile of the ground. On each run the tube diameter is reduced in order to assist in its recovery.


This is routinely carried out in trial pits or probe holes to check for elevated levels of methane and carbon dioxide or oxygen deficiency, particularly since risks can exist from natural gases, landfill sites and rising groundwater levels in mine workings below ground. Longer term monitoring is carried out with gas monitoring standpipes.


Samples from borings or trial pits are described as specified in the standard procedure outlined in the British Standards. The description includes colour, consistency, structure, weathering, lithological type, inclusions and origin. All descriptions are based on visual and manual identification.


The natural or in-situ moisture content of a soil is defined as the weight of water contained in the pore space, expressed as a percentage of the dry weight of solid matter present in the soil. Soil properties are greatly affected by the moisture content and the test can help to give an indication of likely engineering behaviour.


Two simple classification tests are known as the liquid and plastic limits. If a cohesive soil is remoulded with increasing amounts of water, a point will be reached at which it ceases to behave as a plastic material and becomes essentially a viscous fluid. The moisture content corresponding to this change is arbitrarily determined by the liquid limit test. 'Fat' clays, which have high contents of colloidal particles, have high liquid limits; 'lean' clays, having low colloidal particle contents have correspondingly low liquid limits. An increase in the organic content of a clay is reflected by an increase in the liquid and plastic limits.

If a cohesive soil is allowed to dry progressively, a point is reached at which it ceases to behave as a plastic material, which can be moulded in the fingers, and it becomes friable. The moisture content of the soil at this point is known as the 'plastic limit' of the soil.

The range of water content over which a cohesive soil behaves plastically, i.e. the range lying between the liquid and plastic limits, is defined as the plasticity index.

A cohesive soil with a natural water content towards its liquid limit will, in general, be an extremely soft material whereas a cohesive soil with a natural water content below its plastic limit will tend to be a stiff material.


A knowledge of particle-size distribution is used to classify soils and to indicate likely engineering behaviour. British Standards define soils in relation to their particle-size.


The bulk density of a material is the weight of that material per unit volume and includes the effects of voids whether filled with air or water. The 'dry density' of a soil is defined as the weight of solids contained in a unit volume of the soil.


The permeability of a material is defined as the rate at which water flows through it per unit area of soil under unit hydraulic gradient.


When subjected to pressure, a soil tends to consolidate as the air or water in the pore space is forced out and the grains assume a denser state of packing. The decrease in volume per unit of pressure is defined as the 'compressibility' of the soil, and a measure of the rate at which consolidation proceeds is given by the 'coefficient of consolidation' of the soil. These two characteristics Mv and Cv are determined in the consolidation test and the results are used to determine settlement of structures or earthworks.


The strength of geological materials is generally expressed as the maximum resistance that they offer to deformation or fracture by applied shear or compressive stress. The strength characteristics of geological materials depend to an important degree on their previous history and on the conditions under which they will be stressed in practice. Consequently, it is necessary to simulate in the laboratory tests the conditions under which the material will be stressed in the field.

In general, the only test carried out on hard rocks is the determination of their compressive strength but consideration must be given to fissuring, jointing and bedding planes.

The tests at present in use for soils and soft rocks fall into two main categories. Firstly, those in which the material is stressed under conditions of no moisture content change, and secondly those in which full opportunity is permitted for moisture content changes under the applied stresses. Tests in the first category are known as undrained (immediate or quick) tests, while those in the second category are known as drained (slow or equilibrium) tests. The tests are normally carried out in the triaxial compression apparatus but granular materials may be tested in the shear box apparatus.

The undrained triaxial test gives the apparent cohesion Cu and the angle of shearing resistance Øu. In dry sands, Cu = 0 and Øu is equal to the angle of internal friction whereas with saturated non-fissured clays Øu tends to 0 and the apparent cohesion Cu is equal to one-half the unconfined compression strength qu. On site the vane test gives an approximate measure of shear strength.

For some stability problems use is made of a variant of the undrained triaxial test in which the specimen is allowed to consolidate fully under the hydrostatic pressure and is then tested to failure under conditions of no moisture content change. This is known as the consolidated undrained triaxial test. Pore water pressures may be measured during this test or a fully drained test may be carried out. In either case the effective shear strength parameters C' and Ø' can be obtained which can be used to calculate shear strength at any given pore water pressure.


The density at which any soil can be placed in an earth dam, embankment or road depends on its moisture content and on the amount of work which is used in compaction. The influence of these two factors can be studied in compaction tests, which can determine the maximum dry density (MDD) achievable at a certain optimum moisture content (OMC).


In flexible pavement design a knowledge of the bearing capacity of the subgrade is necessary to enable the thickness of pavement for any particular combination of traffic and site conditions to be determined. The quality of the subgrade can be assessed by means of the California Bearing Ratio Test or approximately by the MEXE cone penetrometer.


A knowledge of total soluble sulphate content and pH of soils and groundwater is important in determining the protection required for concrete or steel in contact with the ground.


The ground investigation is carried out in accordance with the requirements of Eurocode 7, in particular BS EN 1997-2: 2007 Eurocode 7 – Geotechnical Design, Part 1 and BS EN 1997:2004 Eurocode 7 – Geotechnical Design, Part 2. It is also in accordance with British Standards BS EN ISO 14688-1 and 2 "Geotechnical Investigation and testing – Identification and Classification of Soil" Parts 1 and 2 and BS EN ISO 14689-1 "Geotechnical Investigation and Testing – Identification and Classification of Rock". BS 5930 the Code of Practice for Site Investigation is partly superseded. This appendix briefly describes the nature of the work carried out. It also gives a brief description of the more important tests, which are made for engineering purposes on rocks and soils (see also BS 1377). By its very nature, any ground investigation only samples a small percentage of the ground. Consequently, changes in ground conditions and soil properties can occur between any two exploratory points, for example local features such as soft ground, pockets of contamination and faults. This is also true of the exploration of mineworkings and such features can extend beneath parts of the site not investigated. Unrecorded bell pits and shafts can also exist between exploratory points. The ground investigation is designed to minimise such risks but they cannot be eliminated