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Madhira R. Madhav
J.N.T.University, Hyderabad, India

ABSTRACT: Granular piles have been developed initially to resist compressive loads
through predominantly pile action. However, the capacity of single or small groups of GPs is
restricted by the bulging capacity. The carrying capacity of GP can be enhanced by
reinforcing it with geosynthetics (geogrids or geotextiles) in the form of sheets or by
jacketing, to inhibit bulging near the top. The failure modes of small groups of granular piles
range from simple punching of short GP, axial compression of long ones, to shear buckling of
peripheral GP. However, they offer cost effective alternative to expensive pile groups. By a
simple modification of placing a steel plate, a concrete pedestal or a geogrid at the bas and by
attaching a steel rod or a cable to the footing, a granular pile can be made to resist uplift or
pullout forces. The response of Granular Pile Anchors (GPA) is much superior to that of solid
piles as the load is directly transferred to the tip where the bulging capacity is the highest.
This improvement is orders of magnitude more in case of normally consolidated soils whose
undrained strength increases with depth. The paper summarizes and presents an overview of
the recent development pertaining to granular piles.

In general, the term soft ground includes soft clay soils, soils with large fractions of fine
particles such as silts, clays soils which have high moisture content, peat foundations, and
loose sand deposits near or under the water table. For clayey soils, the softness of the ground
can be assessed by its undrained strength, cu, or by its unconfined compression strength, qu.
on the other hand, the SPT N values are utilized to ascertain the consistency of the ground
and its relative density. Table 1 outlines the identification of soft ground according to the
types of the structures using the aforementioned assessment methods. Considering such
factors as the significance of the structure, applied loading, site conditions, period of
construction, etc., it becomes important to select appropriate method suitable for specific soil
types as tabulated in Table 2 For soft and cohesive soils in subsiding environments, ground
improvement by reinforcement (i.e. sand compaction piles), by admixtures (i.e. deep mixing
method), and by dewatering (i.e. vertical drains) are applicable. For loose sand deposits,
various in-situ compaction methods are applicable such as dynamic compaction, resonance
compaction, and vibroflotation. Above the ground, such techniques as earth reinforcement or
mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) and the utilization of lightweight synthetic materials as
Amongst various techniques for improving in-situ ground conditions, granular piles or stone
columns are probably the most versatile. They provide primary functions of reinforcement
and drainage, and in addition, improve the strength and deformation properties of soft soil in
post installation and reconsolidation phase. Granular piles increase the unit weight by
replacement, drain rapidly the excess pore pressures generated, act as strong and stiff
elements and carry higher shear stresses. They are installed in wide variety of soils, ranging
from loose sands to soft clays and organic soils. Granular piles are cost effective, more so, in
end bearing conditions. They are installed using vibro-replacement, composer (sand
compaction piles), rammed stone columns and even by heavy tamping. The rammed stone
columns incorporate the additional benefits of heavy tamping as they in effect are preloaded.
Table 1 Outlines for Identification of Soft Ground (after Kamon and Bergado, 1991)
N- value qu qc Water
Structure Soil Condition
(SPT) (kPa) (kPa) Content (%)
Road A: Very soft Less than 2 Less than 25 Less than 125
B: Soft 2 to 4 25 to 50 125 to 250
C: Moderate 4 to 8 50 to 100 250 to 500
Express A: Peat soil Less than 4 Less than 50 > 100
Highways B: Clayey soil Less than 4 Less than 50 > 50
C: Sandy Soil Less than 10 - >30
Railway (Thickness of
More than 2m 0
More than 5m Less than 2
More than 10m Less than 4
Bullet train A Less than 2 Less than 200
B 2 to 5 200 to 500
River dike A: Clayey soil Less than 3 Less than 60 > 40
B: Sandy soil Less than 10
Fill dam Less than 20

Table 2 Applicability of Ground Improvement for Different Soil Types

(after Kamon and Bergado, 1991)
Improvement Admixtures or
Reinforcement Compaction Dewatering
Mechanism Grouting
Improving period Depending on Relatively short Long term Long term
the life of term
Organic soil
Volcanic clay soil
Highly plastic soil
Lowly plastic soil
Silty soil
Sandy soil
Gravel soil
Interaction High density High density by
Improved state of
between soil and by decreasing void
inclusion decreasing ratio (Change in
(Change in soil
(No change in void ratio soil state)
soil state) (Change in
soil state)

Ground improvement with granular piles is also one of the most preferred choices to improve
liquefaction resistance of loose sands and minimize settlements following a seismic event.
The range of soils, saturated uniform sands to silts which are most susceptible to damage due
to liquefaction, falls in the range of soils that can be improved by stone columns either by
vibro-compaction or vibro replacement. No damage was observed from the treated sites
wherein stone columns were used to improve the site characteristics and which were
subjected to recent Loma Prieta earthquake (Mitchell and Wentz, 1991). Granular piles
mitigate the potential for liquefaction and damage by (i) preventing build up high pore
pressure; (ii) providing drainage path and (iii) increasing the strength and stiffness of ground.


Various methods for installation of granular piles have been used all over the world
depending on their proven applicability and availability of equipment in the locality. The
following common methods will be briefly described.

Vibro-Compaction Method
The vibro-compaction method is used to improve the density of cohesion less, granular soils
using a vibroflot which sinks in the ground under its own weight and with the assistance of
water and vibration (Baumann and Bauer, 1974; Engelhardt and Kirsch, 1977). After
reaching the predetermined depth, the vibroflot is then withdrawn gradually from the ground
with subsequent addition of granular backfill there by causing compaction. The process is
repeated in stages forming a compacted column of granular piles shown in Fig. 1. The ranges
of grain size distributions of soils suitable for this method are shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 1 Vibro-Compaction Method (Baumann and Bauer, 1974)

Fig. 2 Range of Soils suitable for Vibro Compaction Methods (Baumann and Bauer,

Vibro-Compozer Method
This method is popularized in Japan and is used for stabilizing soft clays in the presence of
high ground water level (Aboshi et al. 1979; Aboshi and Suematsu, 1985; Barksdale, 1981).
The installation procedure is illustrated in Fig. 3. The resulting pile is usually termed as sand
compaction pile. These are constructed by driving the casing pipe to the desired depth using a
heavy vertical vibratory hammer located at the top of the pipe. The casing is filled with
specified volume of sand and the casing is then extracted and partially redriven using the
vibratory hammer starting from the bottom. The process is repeated until a fully penetrating
compacted granular pile is constructed.

Fig. 3 Vibro-Composer Method (Aboshi and Suematsu, 1985)

Cased Borehole Method

In this method the piles are constructed by ramming granular materials in prebored holes in
stages using a heavy falling weight (usually of 15 to 20 kN) from a height of 1.0 to 1.5 m.
The method is a good substitute for vibrator compaction considering its low cost. However,
disturbance and subsequent remolding by the ramming operation may limit its applicability to
sensitive soils. The installation process is illustrated in Fig. 4.
Fig. 4 Cased Borehole Method (Datye and Nagaraju, 1975)

Vibro-Replacement Method
This method is used to improve cohesive soils. The equipment used is similar to that for vibro
compaction (Fig. 5). The method can be carried out either with the wet or dry process. In the
wet process, a hole is formed in the ground by jetting a vibroflot down to the desired depth
with water. When the vibroflot is withdrawn, it leaves a borehole of greater diameter than the
vibrator. The uncased borehole is flushed out by and filled in stages with imported gravel.
The main difference between the wet process and dry process is the absence of jetting water
during the initial formation of the hole in the former.


Granular piles are often constructed through soft soils fully penetrating to an end- bearing
stratum. However, they may be constructed as floating piles, the tips ending within soft layer
but at depths where the strength of the soil is adequate. Granular piles may fail individually
or as a group. The failure mechanisms for a single granular pile are illustrated in Fig. 6
indicating respectively, the possible failures as: a) pile, b) bulging and c) general shear
For single, isolated granular piles, the most probable failure mechanisms are pile or bulging
failure. Pile mechanism controls the ultimate load for short GP resting on soft to medium stiff
bearing layer (the tip of the pile is floating in the soft soil) while bulging failure is most likely
for long GP bearing on stiff stratum. The lateral confining stress which supports the granular
pile is usually taken as the ultimate passive resistance which the surrounding soil can
mobilize as the pile bulges outwards. Most of the approaches in predicting the ultimate
bearing capacity of a single, isolated granular pile has been developed based on the above
assumption. Table 3 tabulates the different methods to estimate the ultimate bearing capacity
corresponding to bulging, general shear, and sliding modes of failure as presented by Aboshi
and Suematsu.

Fig. 5 The Vibro-replacement method (Aboshi and Suematsu, 1985)

Side Friction

End Bearing
b) Short Column with Rigid Base c) Short Floating Column
Shear Failure Punching Failure

a) Long Column with Firm or

Floating Support - Bulding Failure

Fig. 6 (a) Bulging, (b) General Shear and (c) Pile Failure Mechanisms of Single
Fig 3.1 Pile inMechanisms
Failure a homogeneous Soft
of a Single LayerPile
Granular (Barksdale and Bachus,
in a Homogeneous 1983)
Soft Layer
(Barksdale and Bachus, 1983)
Table 3 Estimation of Ultimate Bearing Capacity (Aboshi and Suematsu, 1985)

qult   c zk pc  2co k pc 11  sin
sin 

s Greenwood (1970)

qult  Fc1C o  Fq1 Qo 11  sin
sin 

s Datye and Nagaraju
1  sin  s
qult   ro  4C o  Hughes and Withers
1  sin  s (1974)

qult 
1  sin  s
1  sin  s 
 
4C o   ro  K o q s  W B  1  W B q s
2 2

  Madhav et al. (1979)

1 
qult  Co N c    c BN     c D f N q Madhav and Vitkar
2  (1978)
1 
Shear qult    c B tan 3    2C o tan 2   2(1  a s )C o tan Barksdale and Bachus
2  (1983)
tan  s a s tan  s 
  450 
 
qult  1  a s C o   s z   s z a s tan  s cos2 
Sliding n Aboshi et al. (1979)
Surface s 
1  n  1a s

The ultimate compressive capacity of GP, P* (=4Pult/πd2cu), of GP by pile failure mechanism

increases linearly with L/d (Fig. 7). The ultimate compressive capacity of GP, P* for bulging
failure is constant with length but increases with increasing values of g and G/cu. Short GP
capacity is controlled by pile failure while that of long GP is limited by bulging failure. The
variations of critical lengths at which the failure of GP under compression transits from pile
to bulging failure with g and G/cu are shown in Fig. 8. The normalized critical length,
(L/d)cr, increases with increasing, g, of the granular pile material and G/cu ratio of the soft
50 Pile Failure



Bulging Failure
30 500

25 200
0 5 10 L/d
15 20 25 30

Fig. 7 Variation of Ultimate Compressive Load with L/d and G/c u for φg = 350
9 500



28 38 48
Angle of Shear Resistance

Fig. 8 Variation of (L/d)cr with g


A new foundation technique developed making the granular pile to resist uplift force together
with compressive load acting on it, is termed as Granular Pile Anchor (GPA). The GPA is an
improved granular pile (Fig. 9), with a concrete pedestal, a steel plate or a geogrid placed at
the bottom with a metallic rod or a stretched cable attached to apply the pullout force. The
pullout load is transmitted to the tip of GPA enabling it to resist the uplift force. The
functionality of GP is improved by providing an anchor at the bottom of the granular fill. The
uplift resistance depends on (i) the weight of the granular pile and (ii) the shearing resistance
along the soil- granular pile interface.

Fig. 9 Granular Pile Anchor (GPA)

Phani Kumar et al. (2000 & 2004) reported tests on small models of “granular pile anchors”
subjected to pullout force, to control heave in expansive soils. Granular pile treated expansive
soil adjusts itself to changes in moisture better than an untreated- soil, because granular pile is
highly permeable. The ultimate uplift resistance and deformation at failure increase with the
increase in embedment ratio. Geopier soil reinforcement elements are increasingly being used
to strengthen and stabilize soils (White et al. 2001) for settlement control and uplift control.
Lillis (2004) reported results from in situ tests on pullout response of GPA. Kumar et al.
(2003 & 2004) and Ranjan et al. (2000) present results from laboratory and field tests on
pullout response of GPA in cohesive and cohesionless soils.

Fig. 10 Definition Sketch of GPA

Granular Pile Anchor (GPA) of diameter, d, and length, L, is considered (Fig. 10). The in situ
soil and GP material properties that are considered are as before cu, G and s and gp. The
applied force, P0, is resisted by the interface shear stresses, τ, acting on the cylindrical
boundary of the GPA. The ultimate pullout capacity of the granular pile anchor is the load at
which the GPA is pulled out of soil (Fig.11) either by the failure of the bond between the pile
and the soil surrounding it or by bulging (Hughes and Withers 1975).

(a) (b)
Fig. 11 Pullout (a) or Bulging (b) Failures of GPA
For pile failure mechanism, the ultimate load, Pult, of the GPA is the summation of the shear
resistance mobilized along the circumference of the pile along the depth and the weight of the
pile material as
 .d 2
Pult   .d  .L. gp
and for bulging failure mechanism,
 .d 2
Pult 

.N cu .Nc*   ho 
Bulging is assumed to occur at a distance of half-diameter of the GPA from the tip instead of
from the top as is considered for bulging of granular piles in compression.

The ultimate pullout resistance of GPA is estimated for both the pile and bulging failure
mechanism using Equations (*) and (**) for the same ranges of the parameters as described
in calculation of ultimate compressive capacity. The ultimate pullout of GPA by pile failure
mechanism is independent of G/cu and g (Fig. 12) but increases linearly with L/d ratio. The
bulging capacity of GPA depends on G/cu, g and L/d as bulging could take place near the tip
and not at the top as in granular piles under compression.
105 500
Pile G/cu=50
75 Failure

Bulging Failure

0 10 L/d 20 30

Fig. 12 Variation of Pullout Capacity of GPA with L/d and G/c u for φ=350.

The variation of P* with L/d for different shearing angles, g, and G/cu (Fig. 12) shows that
the pile failure as observed in case of GP in compression dominates the failure mechanism at
smaller L/d ratios for all g while bulging failure controls the ultimate pullout capacity at
increasing L/d ratios with increasing shearing angles.

120 Failure


80 φ=30

Bulging Failure

0 10 20 30

Fig.13 Variation of Ultimate Pullout Capacity of GPA with L/d and g for different G/cu

While the ultimate pullout capacity by pile failure is strongly sensitive to the L/d ratio, the
capacity by bulging failure increases (Fig. 13) relatively mildly with L/d ratio. The particular
L/d value at which the failure mechanism shifts from pile to bulging failure is termed as the
critical length ratio, (L/d)cr. Fig. 14 presents the variations of (L/d)cr with g & G/cu. The
critical length ratio, (L/d)cr increases significantly with the angle of shearing resistance, g, of
the granular pile material and marginally with the G/cu ratio.

21 500




28 35 42
Angle of Shear Resistance

Fig. 14 Variation of (L/d)cr with Angle of Shearing Resistance


The common method for estimating the ultimate bearing capacity of granular pile groups
assumed that the angle of internal friction in the surrounding cohesive soil and the cohesion
in the granular pile are negligible. Furthermore, the full strength of both granular pile and the
cohesive soil has been mobilized. The pile group is assumed to be loaded by rigid foundation.
The ultimate bearing capacity of granular pile groups as suggested by Barksdale and Bachus
(1983) is determined by approximating the failure surface with two straight rupture lines.
Assuming the ultimate vertical stress, qult, and the ultimate lateral stress, 3, to be the
principal stresses, then the equilibrium of the wedges requires:
qult   3 tan 2   2c avg tan 


 c B tan 
3   2c
 avg
  45 
 avg  tan  s a s tan  s 

c avg  1  a s c
where c = saturated or wet unit weight of the cohesive soil, B = foundation width,  = failure
surface inclination, c = undrained shear strength within the unreinforced cohesive soil, s=
angle of internal friction of granular soil, avg = composite angle of internal friction, cavg =
composite cohesion on the shear failure.
The development of the above approach did not consider the possibility of a local bulging
failure of the individual pile. Hence, the approach is only applicable for firm and stronger
cohesive soils having undrained strengths greater than 30 – 40 kN/m2. However, it is useful
for approximately determining the relative effects on ultimate bearing capacity design
variables such as pile diameter, spacing, gain in shear strength due to consolidation, and
angle of internal friction.
For the case of the soft and very soft cohesive soils, the pile groups capacity is predicted
using the capacity of a single, isolated pile located within a group and to be multiplied by the
number of piles (Barksdale and Bachus, 1983). The ultimate bearing capacity for a single,
isolated pile in this case is expressed as:
qult = c N1c
where N1c = composite bearing capacity factor for the granular pile which ranges from 18 to

Cavity Expansion
3 3

3 3


qult qult

 
B tan 

B tan 

3 

Failure Surface

a) Square group b) Infinitely Long group

Fig. 15 Granular Pile Group Analysis (Barksdale and Bachus, 1983)

Most of the approaches in estimating the settlement of the composite ground assumed an
infinitely wide, loaded area reinforced with granular piles having a constant diameter and
spacing. For this loading condition and geometry, the unit cell idealization is assumed to be
valid (Fig. 16). The model of a unit cell loaded by a rigid plate is analogous to a one
dimensional consolidation test. The unit cell is confined by a rigid frictionless wall and the
vertical strains at any horizontal level are uniform. Different methods for estimating the
settlement of the composite ground are summarized in Table 4.

Table 4 Estimation of Settlement of Composite Ground (Aboshi and Suemastsu,1985)


Equilibrium S t  mv  c H Aboshi et
Method 1 al. (1979)
R  c 
1  (n  1)a s

1 1 / 2  f ( , a s ) 
 1  as   1
Priebe R  (k A ) s f ( , a s )  Priebe
Method  1   2  (1  2 )(1  a s )   s (1976)
f ( ,a s )     ( K )  tan 2
( 45 0
 )
      
2 A s
1 2  1 2 a s  2

Granular 2  Van Impe

S t  RH (1   2 )(1  )
Wall Method 1 2 E and De Beer
R  f (a s ,  s , ,  / E ) (1983)

Incremental Cc  ( P )  p 
 y  (1  a s ) log10  0 vc 
Method 1  e0  ( P0 ) vc  Goughnour
(p ) * vc (1983)
p  1  K  Ko (K if K  1
1  2K o
(1 if K  1)
1  1  as
K  Ko    1 s Baumann
v  1 v  1  as and Bauer
(p) *v ( Po ) vc a s  K 0 ( Po ) vc a s tan 2 (45   s / 2)
(p) *

KFa s tan 2 (45   s / 2)
v Hughes et
Rp  al. (1975)
Cc  ( P )  (p ) v *

log10  0 vc 
1  e0  ( P0 ) vc 

Finite K E  ( m1)   FE   K c ( m)  ( m)  F ( m) DN  Alaam and

Element Poulos
Method (1983)
Fig. 16 Unit Cell – Dilating Granular Pile
The material used in stone column is dense angular gravel and/or sand. Optimal design of
stone column requires an optimum stress concentration factor. Hence the vertical stress on
stone column is often close to its peak strength and the material dilates. The model proposed
by Van Impe and Madhav (1992) incorporates the dilatancy of granular pile material and
axial symmetry of the problem. The results obtained (Fig. 17) show the beneficial effect of
dilatancy on settlement reduction.

Fig. 17 The effect of column spacing (ratio de/dc) and angle of dilatancy ψ on
settlement reduction factor
Even 0.5% dilatancy reduces settlements significantly compared to a case in which the pile
material yields at constant volume. The reduction factor, , from the Fig. 18 compares well
with those proposed by Greenwood (1970), Priebe (1976), Balam & Booker, Van Impe and
Madhav theory are higher than those based on Priebe and Balaam and Polous approaches, but
range within the experiences put forward by Greenwood.

Fig. 18 The comparison of settlement reduction factors according to different

Analytical methods


Granular piles/Stone Columns are one of the most versatile techniques for engineering the
ground. They can be installed to improve a variety of ground conditions through several
variants of the technique, vibro-compaction, vibro-replacement, rammed granular piles,
vibro-compozer, vibro-wings, sand or gravel compaction piling, etc. The ground is improved
by reinforcement, densification, and drainage functions. They are equally effective under
normal as well as seismic conditions.
The load carrying capacity of the ground gets improved by 50 to 100% while the settlements
get reduced by a factor of three to four. Interestingly, most of the settlements occur during the
loading stage and post-construction settlements are very small.
Traditionally granular piles have been utilized to resist compressive loads. However, by a
simple modification of providing a steel plate/concrete pedestal/geogrids and anchoring a rod
or a cable, pullout forces can be transmitted to the bottom of the GP. The granular pile now
becomes Granular Pile Anchor whose performance is somewhat superior to a rigid pile as the
bulging is likely only at the tip where the capacity is significantly higher. GPA being
compressible, the deformations die out in the deeper layers and very small deformation is
reflected at the top.
Settlements of granular pile reinforced ground if loaded uniformly through a semi-rigid
granular bed, are uniform and a small fraction of the values corresponding to those of
untreated ground. The possible dilation of the granular pile material, if mobilized, provides
additional stiffness and improved reduction in the settlements.
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