How could I find out about the type of ground my property is on?


Soil investigation

As engineers we are often organising soil investigations to determine the ground that a house is on. Bore holes are sunk to confirm the ground and its composition. A good place to obtain information is from the British Geographical Survey.

Many may believe that the ground is similar and homogenous. This is far from the case there are numerous occasions where ground investigations have been vital in highlighting ground problems. For example;

  • Camden along the union canal; it appears that the canal through Camden was constructed by excavating the canal and dumping the spoil along the route on either side. We discovered this while working on a small house where there was a range of fill between 2m and 4m deep. The house had been constructed on top of the fill material.
  • The Amy Johnson School in Carshalton appears to be a level area. The soil investigation highlighted that the chalk below the ground have large peaks and troughs within it. Some areas the chalk was 1m below the ground levels and others 3m. This knowledge changed the ground types used.

Ground investigation

Strong foundations are widely understood as being pivotal to the structural integrity of any building. What is often overlooked, by many outside the construction industry is what lies beneath: What do we have under the foundations? Soil? That’s pretty simple isn’t it? Well, no. Not really. The ground below the surface can come in many forms and vary significantly between different properties which may be within just a few metres of each other. We don’t know what’s below the surface until we excavate directly. Understanding what type of ground is present below a property plays a fundamental role in designing suitable foundations. Constructing poorly designed foundations due to lack of knowledge of the ground can often have costly consequences.


An engineer will assess the property and consider the level of work and what may be need. A review of Croft’s extensive data base of ground investigations.

Review of the Age of building

On Small Projects Foundation Exposures may be all that is required: Excavations to expose the footings depth and spread. Bore holes to confirm the soil to depth may be needed. Foundations will affect the ground below equal to 2x their width; narrow footings will effects will be shall, wide rafts will be much deeper. Bore holes will test the soil to 12-15m below the site.The rigs used are small and can be unbolted and assembled in small tight sites.

How did they fix the leaning Tower of Pisa?

A classic example of building movement due to unfavourable ground conditions. For many years professionals tried to stiffen the soft soil to no avail. Professor Burland, a great English Geotechnical Engineer, solved the century old problem of the lean. Instead of stiffening the weak soil, he proposed weaken the stiffer soil. Slow, using small bore holes, soil was removed weaken the ground. The tower tilted back to a better lean. Famously Professor Burland asked how straight the major of Pisa wanted it. The lean could have been completely removed and the tower straightened. But who would have wanted to visit it then! In the UK we now use the “Burland Scale” to classify cracking to buildings.

Soil types

Broadly speaking, the main types of natural ground in and around Greater London Basin are either gravel or clay. In some areas it may be a mixture of both. The Chilterns to the North and the Downs to the South are formed from chalk rising up. In built up areas, over most natural layers of soil, ‘Made Ground’ has been laid down over time (the rubbish of millennia). This consists of man-made material such as rubble or soil that has been placed there artificially during previous developments and generations. The degree of Made Ground can vary significantly from site to site.

Survey Types

Desktop Surveys

There is a wealth of data held about Britain’s green and pleasant land. Old bore hole records, geological maps, old rivers, flood data and historic land use maps can all be used to gain a picture of the site. A Phase 1 Desk Study is an ideal way to determine what is below the site and the surrounding area. This can be carried out at RIBA Stages 2-3.

Ground and Site Investigations

There are numerous names used for investigations:

  • SI – Site Investigation
  • GSI – Ground site Investigations
  • FE – Foundation Exposures where the footings are exposed
  • Trial pits – a hole is dug to 2-3m to view the ground

Borehole Investigations

This is done by a rig that penetrates the ground several metres below the surface. Soil samples at different depths are collected for analysis.

[Photo] Partial view of borehole rig in operation in residential garden

Often, gravity induced ‘striking’ of the soil is carried out to subsequently calculate the strength of the ground. There are several types of Boreholes that can be drilled.

Shell and Auger

A tripod is erected and cores taken. These types of rigs provide some of the best results. They are ideal for open sites to fit the tripod and tractor unit on.


A drill is screwed into the ground and the soil taken. Unlike the shell and auger, the soil is disturbed and samples are not as good. The rigs are smaller and can get into tighter spaces. Demountable rigs can be carried through a front door of a typical domestic property.

Window Sampling

For shallower depths to around 6m, a small probe is forced into the ground. The resistance against the soil provides a guide to the soil type.

Soil testing

Lab Testing

Soil samples taken by the soil investigation team are passed onto accredited labs for further analysis. For example, tests to find the moisture content of soils with a significant clay content may be required. Atterberg limits can be found.


Soil Penetration Tests. A Cone Penetrometer is driven into the ground and the results recorded.


Californian Bearing Ratio this is test developed for highways to determine the ground stiffness.

Hydrogeology & Hydrogeological Testing

This is with regards to the flow of groundwater below a site. It is concerned with water tables and how water moves across a site. This type of investigation can monitor perched water above aquifers, water aquifers, tidal flows, seasonal variations, ground water conveyance. This data can also be used to advise on risks associated with flooding and assist with hydrogeologists with their conceptual ground models.

Water Monitoring

The water level of the ground is measured during an initial site investigation. For more thorough investigations, a monitoring well is left in place and repeat readings are taken over several weeks. A standpipe is inserted into the ground. A plastic drain pipe is placed into the bore hole to prevent it collapsing and to allow the water table to be measured (known as “dipping”). Below is cap plate to a monitoring well.[Photo]View of cap plate of monitoring wellTo obtain more detailed information and data over time a piezometer is placed in the bottom of the hole and records water pressure.Three monitoring points are needed to capture flow in both directions. Time is also necessary to get a better understanding. The longer the time, the better the flow of water is understood.

Trial Pits (TP) & Foundation Exposures (FE)

Investigation into existing foundations is often needed. This involves digging with direct visual inspection and measurements taken on site.[Photo]View of excavations around wall and foundationFoundation exposures need not be too intrusive. A 300mm hole (1 foot square) can be used and a core taken.

Brownfield Sites

Many developments that Croft are commissioned on are on ‘Brownfield’ sites. These are areas that have already been developed or where groundwork has already been carried out. These are good for the environment as it reduces the demand to develop on ‘Greenfield’ sites. However, with Brownfield sites there are more uncertainties within the ground which can have implications on future development. These include: lack of consistency in the type of ground; excessive depths of made ground; obstructions within the ground (eg tree roots, buried services or foundations from previously demolished buildings) and contaminants within the soil.

Scope of investigations

It is possible for developments to proceed without the ground being investigated thoroughly. In this case the engineer will often make conservative assumptions on the strength of the ground. The risks of this approach may involve an over-design of the foundations as well as not being able to account for hidden obstructions or hazards in the ground.A client’s decision to proceed with a ground investigation involves having to make financial allowances for intrusive works relatively early in the project. The benefits of having such works done at an early stage often outweigh the costs. Often clients may ask themselves ‘Can we afford to do this?’ when perhaps the question should be ‘Can we afford not to?’The scope of the ground investigations will vary according to the scale of the development, the requirements from the local authority and the type of ground likely to be encountered. Croft have long-term working relationships with a number of ground specialists and are able to advise clients on the most suitable way forward.