VERTEX has Experts that Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk.

Unlike others, VERTEX provides forensic consulting alongside traditional AEC services which allows for a 360 degree view of your project.

VERTEX Services


Need an expert for your case?

Our forensics experts work alongside AEC specialists which enhances our skills and bolsters the credibility of our expert consultants.

Find an Expert


VERTEX delivers innovative solutions on complex projects globally.

Since 1995, VERTEX has completed over 90,000 projects.

View Portfolio


VERTEX believes in a Lifetime of Learning philosophy.

Stay current with our industry experts as they share their insights and knowledge on the built environment.

View Insights

Grow Your Career

Join Our Team

VERTEX is looking for talented individuals to join a highly technical team of forensic consultants, design engineers, construction managers, and environmental scientists.

Learn More

Contact Us

Have a question or want to speak with a technical professional?

VERTEX is a multi-discipline firm with global coverage. Our international network of resources enables us to provide multi-national clients with the most qualified local professionals who understand the culture, language, and regulatory framework.

Call Us: 888.298.5162

Call Us

Call us at 888.298.5162.


Differential Settlement in Buildings

June 6, 2018

Have you noticed cracks in your interior walls or sticking doors and/or windows? If you have, your house may be a victim of settlement.

What is Settlement?

Settlement is the downward movement of the ground (soil) when a load is applied to it. The load increases the vertical effective stress exerted onto the soil. This stress, in turn, increases the vertical strain in the soil. This increase in vertical strain causes the ground to move downward. In fact, most buildings settle over time. However, most building settlement occurs during the first few years after construction, unless there are changes in the drainage patterns around the building, severe changes in weather, or other external factors. Ongoing building settlement is uncommon.

Types of Building Settlement

Uniform Settlement

During uniform settlement, the entire foundation settles at a constant rate. Usually, there is no, or very minor, cracking during uniform settlement.  

Differential Settlement

Differential settlement commonly occurs as a result of the non-uniform movement of the underlying soils (soil settlement at different rates). This type of settlement can result in cracking to the foundation, exterior cladding, and interior finishes. Additionally, with a pier and beam foundation system, each individual pier may settle at a different rate, which is different than the settlement that would occur to a slab foundation. 

What Causes Settlement of Soils?

Settlement occurs from soil consolidation due to a reduction in voids or spaces between soil particles due to applied loads or changes in moisture content. The loss of moisture in soils causes consolidation. As the moisture takes up volume in the soil, and when the moisture is expelled, the soil loses volume and consolidates. In the opposite circumstance, when there is a buildup of moisture in the soils, smaller clays and silts, which were previously used to fill the voids between larger soil types and provide additional structural support, will drain downwards in the ground when the moisture eventually subsides. This will cause the supporting soil to lose its load-bearing capabilities.

Typical Causes of Settlement

  • Weak bearing soils
  • Addition to an existing house
  • Improperly backfilled soils / poor compaction
  • Irregular rainfall or drought
  • Poor drainage around the house
  • Changes in the groundwater table
  • Mature trees growing close to the house
  • Seepage from a plumbing leak or swimming pool
  • Pumping of oil or water out of the nearby ground

How do you know if your house has experienced settlement? 

The most common evidence that settlement has occurred is:

Exterior Cracking

Usually indicated by vertical cracks in poured foundations, or stair-step cracking in brick or CMU walls. The cracks on exterior walls usually originate from the ground. Larger cracks generally indicate ongoing settlement.  

Interior Cracking

Usually indicated by semi-horizontal or 45-degree angle cracks. Cracks are typically found at the corners of windows at doors, where the building has the most stress and is usually due to the foundation shifting. These cracks can also form from heaving, which is the upward movement of soil, the opposite of settlement.  

Sagging Floors

Sagging floors generally occur when a house was built with a pier and beam foundation system. The individual piers will settle at different rates, resulting in the floors that sag at the location of the settled pier.  

Sticking Windows and Doors

Windows and doors that are hard to open or stick may be a sign of settlement. Check for scrape marks on the floor or the door jamb, or a misaligned latch, which are signs that settlement may have occurred.

How Do You Repair and/or Stop Settlement?

Helical Piers

Helical piers are typically used to jack up spread footings. The piers are typically spaced approximately every five feet and are driven in the ground until sound soil or bedrock is reached.  

Slab Leveling

Slabs that have settled can be leveled by the use of mudjacking or polyurethane foam. Mudjacking is the use of flowable concrete or grout and polyurethane foam is a closed cell foam. In both uses, holes are drilled in the settled slab and the flowable fill is pumped through. The pressure exerted through the pumping process raises the slab as well as consolidating the soil to prevent future settlement. Polyurethane foam is typically more expensive than mudjacking; however, it is typically stronger, has a longer life span, will not retain moisture, and the slab can be utilized sooner.  

Pier and Beam

If your house is on a pier and beam system that has settled, the piers will need to be leveled. This will effectively lift the sagging floors as well. To accomplish this, the use of hydraulic jacks, sitting on a strong foundation, will be needed to lift the house around the settled pier. Metal shims can then be placed between the pier and the beam.

To learn more about VERTEX’s Forensic Engineering services or to speak with an Engineering Expert, call 888.298.5162 or submit an inquiry.

Author: C. Doug Day, P.E.

Related Services

VERTEX Services, Forensic Engineering

Forensic Engineering

VERTEX’s forensic engineering services include investigating the cause and extent of damage from weather events and construction defects.

Learn More

Forensic Expert Witness Services

Expert Witness Services

VERTEX offers expert services on megaprojects and high-profile real estate and other property or construction claims throughout the globe.

Learn More

Back to Insights