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How to Estimate Cut and Fill Volumes for Earthworks

Projects

Introduction
On construction projects it is often
necessary to modify the existing ground
levels to create platforms to build on.
Accurately calculating the volumes of
soil that must be removed (cut) or added
(fill) to create the final ground levels is
an essential part of the planning
process.

In this article we are going to describe


how these volumes can be calculated.
We will take an example project, and The example project which will be used in this article.
use three of the most common methods This is a (fictional) platform being added to Alcatraz
to estimate cut and fill volumes. The Island in San Francisco Bay. The project includes cut
three methods that we will go through (shaded red) and fill (blue)
are:

The cross-section method


The grid method
Using specialist software

The examples described in this article have been worked through for each of these three
method with an excel spreadsheet which is available here. You may wish to download this
spreadsheet and work through the examples yourself to aid understanding of the methods
described. The spreadsheet also contains a number of formulas which automate certain
aspects of these methods described below, so you may find it useful for implementing
these methods on your own project.

How to Calculate Cut and Fill Kubla Ltd


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Cross-Section Method
The cross section method involves plotting cross sections of the existing and proposed
levels at regular intervals across the project site. For each of the cross sections, the cut
area and the fill area is determined. The volume between each pair of sections is estimated
by multiplying the average cut or fill area of the two sections by the distance between them.
Once these volumes have been calculated for each pair of sections the total cut and fill
volumes are obtained by adding them all together.

There are several different methods used


to determine the areas of cut and fill once
the sections have been plotted. Perhaps
the simplest (but most time consuming)
method is to plot the sections on gridded
paper and count the grid cells of the cut
and fill areas. Multiplying the cell count by
the area represented by each of the grid
cells gives the cut or fill area for the
section. Other methods include drawing
the sections in CAD and exporting areas or
Sections are drawn at equal intervals through the
calculating areas mathematically using the project. For each section line the cut area and the fill
trapezoidal rule. The spreadsheet included area is determined. The volume between two sections is
with this article includes formulae which determined as the average area of the two sections
have automated the process of calculating multiplied by the distance between them. By adding
section areas using the trapezoidal rule. together the volumes between all of the sections the
total cut and fill volumes are obtained.
This can save a great deal of time if you
are using the cross section method.

The accuracy of the cross section method


depends to a large degree on the distance you
choose to set between the sections. Closer
sections improve the accuracy of the estimate,
but take longer to estimate. A balance has to be
made between accuracy on the one hand, and
speed of generating the estimate on the other.

One of the great advantages of this method is


that cross sections are generated in the process.
These provide a useful visual summary of the
estimation, which present the cut and fill depths
across the project in a very clear way. One of the
An example calculation for the volumes disadvantages off the method is that it can be
between two sections of the example shown extremely laborious to extract cross sections
opposite. This calculation is repeated for all of from the drawing, and to determine the areas of
the sections, and the values are added together the sections.
to get the total cut and fill volumes.

How to Calculate Cut and Fill Kubla Ltd


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Grid Method
The grid method involves drawing a
uniform grid onto a plan of the
earthworks project, and taking off the
existing and proposed ground levels at
each node of the grid. With these values
the average depth of cut or fill required
on each cell of the grid is calculated, and
the volume for each cell is obtained by
multiplying the depth by the cell area. By
adding the volumes for each cell
together the total cut and fill volumes for
the project can be estimated. The average cut or fill depths are determined for each cell
in the grid. From these depths the volumes of each grid
cell can be calculated, and by adding the cell volumes
The cut or fill depth for each cell is found
together the total cut and fill volumes are obtained
by subtracting the average existing level
of the cell from the average proposed
level. If the resultant depth is positive then this is a fill cell, while a negative value indicates
a cut cell. In either case, the volume is calculated by multiplying the cut of fill depth by the
area of the grid cell.

Once the volume has been calculated for each grid cell, all of the cut cells are added
together to obtain the total cut volume. The same is done for the fill cells to get the total fill
volume.

As with the cross-section method, the


accuracy of the grid method depends upon
the size of grid cell which is used. A
compromise has to be made between the
accuracy which is required, and the time
which will be taken to produce the estimate.

An advantage of the grid method are that the


basis of the estimate can be fully
summarised on the site drawings, which
presents a very clear summary of the
calculations for others to check. One of the
disadvantages are no graphical summary is
generated for the estimation. Also, like the
section method, the grid method is time-
consuming and tedious to implement.

An example calculation of the volume for one of the


grid cells in the example on the right

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Software
Modern computer software allows
earthworks volumes to be calculated
quicker and more accurately than
either of the two manual methods
described above. There are a
number of software products
available for this purpose. These
products vary greatly in terms of
complexity and price.

The first stage of producing an


estimate using software is to import
the existing terrain. Once this is
done the proposed terrain is drawn,
and the software automatically
calculates the cut and fill volumes
A screen shot from Kubla Cubed, which is software for
required.
estimating earthworks volumes. As well as calculating
volumes automatically, the cut and fill depths are shaded.
Different software products use At $190, this is one of the most economical software
different methods to generate the products of its type.
estimate. Some will essentially apply the grid method described above on a fine-resolution
grid, whereas others use a triangulation of the terrain to calculate volumes directly. In any
case, the processing power of modern computers means that a high level of accuracy can
be achieved in a fraction of the time it would take to produce a manual estimate.

There are many advantages to using software to calculate earthworks volumes, and most
companies which estimate earthworks on a regular basis will use software to do so.
Perhaps the principal advantage of software is that it is much quicker to produce a more
accurate estimate when compared with the manual methods described above. Another
major advantage is that most modern software products of this type will have useful display
options which can be exported for presentations. Shading cut and fill depths across the
project is a particularly useful facility. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to be more impressed
by computer-generated images than they are by hand calculations, and trust them more.
This is particularly important when presenting your estimates to a client as part of a tender.

The primary disadvantage of using software to produce estimates is the cost of the
software licence, which varies between around $200 to several $1000s. While this cost
should be offset against the time saved by using the software as well as the improved
chance of winning bids with computer visualisations, it can nevertheless be a cause of
concern for a company that does not need to produce many earthworks estimates.

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Summary
There are a number of methods available for estimating cut and fill quantities, three of
which are described here. The best method for a particular organisation will depend on a
number of factors, including:

The number and complexity of the projects which you need to estimate
The presentational requirements for the estimation
The level of accuracy required
The time you have available to produce the estimate
The money you have available to buy software licences

This article is written by an employee of Kubla Ltd. who are the makers of Kubla Cubed, a software
product which is mentioned in this article.

This article, including the images, are the copyright of Kubla Ltd. They may be used by educators
provided attribution is given. In all other cases you must contact Kubla before using this
copyrighted material.

The topographic data used in the example in this article is provided courtesy of the NOAA.

If you have any feedback on this article please email l.woods@kublasoftware.com

How to Calculate Cut and Fill Kubla Ltd


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