Effect of Variation in Moisture Content on Soil Deformation and Differential Settlement of Frame Structures in Nairobi Area and its Environs

Hannah N. Ngugi1, *, Stanley M. Shitote1, 2, Nathaniel Ambassah3
1 Department of Civil Engineering, Pan African University, Institute for Basic Sciences Technology and Innovations, Juja, Kenya
2 Department of Civil Engineering, Rongo University, Rongo, Kenya
3 Department of Civil Construction and Environmental Engineering, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Juja, Kenya

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© 2021 Ngugi et al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Correspondence: Address correspondence to this author at the Department Civil Engineering, Pan African University Institute for Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation (PAUISTI), 62000-00200 Nairobi, Kenya; Tel: +254722592175; E-mail:



The stability of structures to a great extent depends on the foundation. The foundation of a building structure plays a key role in transferring the loading from the structure to the soil underneath. In foundation design, the effect of changes in soil moisture content to soil deformation and subsequent differential settlement during the lifespan of a structure is often ignored.


This research establishes the relationship between soil moisture content and soil deformation for soils in the Nairobi area and its environs. Soil deformation in some foundation supports in a building leads to an unequal settlement resulting in differential settlement. The research further determines the influence of soil deformation on the differential settlement of a typical four-storey reinforced concrete frame structure.


Seven soil samples collected from the Nairobi area and its environs were subjected to moisture content variation. Soil deformation was measured, and the laboratory test results were applied to determine the modulus of subgrade reaction constant for the elastic foundation. A four-storey reinforced concrete frame structure was modelled at varying foundation conditions. The resulting differential settlement for frame structure was evaluated. Two control cases were assessed. The structural behaviour depicted by changes in bending moments, shear forces, differential settlement, and member stresses for varying foundation cases was assessed. Staad Pro software was applied in structural modelling.


Increasing soil moisture content from 30% to 50% and 75% by keeping all other factors constant led to increased soil deformation ranging from 17.2% to 34% for the 7 soil samples tested. Structural modelling revealed that increasing soil moisture content at a group of four outer footings in a 16 footings’ building contributes to significant changes in shear forces, bending moments, compressive and tensile stresses, and supports the differential settlement. Differential settlement induced by soil deformation arising from an increase in soil moisture content from 30% to 75% increased by 49.1%.


Increase in soil moisture content contributed to soil deformation, which led to a significant differential settlement in a line of foundation’s outer footings in a building. The moisture content-caused differential settlement, which contributed to remarkable changes in the amount and distribution pattern for shear forces, bending moments, compressive and tensile stresses, and node displacement when the soil moisture content was increased from 30% to 75%.An increase in soil moisture content to 50% and above at some footings of a building would lead to structural failure unless the building structure is specifically designed to withstand such differential settlement. Construction stakeholders should consider the differential settlement attributed to variation in soil moisture content during the structure’s lifespan and safety factors adequately at the design stage to avoid potential structural failure and even collapse.

Keywords: Soil moisture content, Differential settlement, Foundation, Structure stability, Construction technology, Environs.