Shrinkage in Civil Engineering: Understanding the Phenomenon

As a civil engineer, you may have come across the term “shrinkage” in various contexts. Shrinkage is a natural phenomenon that occurs in many construction materials, including concrete, clay, and wood. In simple terms, shrinkage refers to the contraction or reduction in volume of these materials as they lose moisture over time.

The Science Behind Shrinkage

Shrinkage is primarily caused by the evaporation of water from the material. When a construction material, such as concrete, dries out, the water within it evaporates, leading to a reduction in volume. As this happens, the material undergoes a series of internal stresses that can result in cracks and deformations.

Types of Shrinkage

There are two main types of shrinkage that occur in civil engineering: drying shrinkage and autogenous shrinkage.

Drying Shrinkage

Drying shrinkage occurs when the moisture content within a material decreases due to evaporation. In concrete, for example, as the water in the mixture evaporates, the cement paste undergoes volume reduction, leading to shrinkage. This type of shrinkage is influenced by multiple factors, including the composition of the material, ambient humidity, and temperature.

Autogenous Shrinkage

Autogenous shrinkage, on the other hand, is the shrinkage that occurs in the absence of external drying. It is caused by the self-desiccation of cement paste as it hydrates and forms crystals. This type of shrinkage can be particularly problematic as it often goes unnoticed until cracks appear in the hardened concrete.

Consequences of Shrinkage in Civil Engineering

The effects of shrinkage can be significant and have a direct impact on the structural integrity and durability of civil engineering projects. Some of the consequences of shrinkage include:

  • Cracking: Shrinkage-induced stresses can cause cracks to form in the materials, compromising their strength and durability.
  • Deformations: Shrinkage can lead to deformations in structures, affecting their overall stability.
  • Aesthetic Issues: Shrinkage can result in unsightly cracks in buildings and infrastructure, affecting their visual appeal and reducing their lifespan.
  • Reduced Service Life: If not properly taken into account during the design and construction phases, shrinkage can shorten the lifespan of a structure, requiring costly repairs and maintenance.

Factors Affecting Shrinkage

Several factors can influence the extent and severity of shrinkage in construction materials. These include:

  • Material Composition: Different materials have different shrinkage properties. For example, certain types of clay may be more prone to shrinkage than others.
  • Moisture Content: The moisture content in the material before and during construction significantly influences the potential for shrinkage.
  • Temperature and Humidity: Ambient conditions, such as temperature and humidity, can affect the rate at which materials dry and therefore impact shrinkage.
  • Design and Construction Techniques: The design and construction processes, including the use of proper curing techniques, can minimize shrinkage-related issues.

Mitigating Shrinkage Effects

To mitigate the negative effects of shrinkage in civil engineering projects, engineers employ various strategies:

  • Proper Mix Design: By carefully selecting the materials and proportions in the mix design, engineers can minimize the potential for shrinkage.
  • Addition of Shrinkage Reducing Admixtures: Certain admixtures can help control shrinkage in concrete by reducing the capillary tension within the material.
  • Joint Placement: Strategic placement of control joints in concrete structures allows for controlled cracking, relieving the stress caused by shrinkage.
  • Curing Techniques: Adequate curing of construction materials, particularly concrete, can significantly reduce the potential for shrinkage.


Shrinkage is a natural phenomenon that occurs in various construction materials. It refers to the contraction or reduction in volume that happens as these materials lose moisture over time. There are two main types of shrinkage: drying shrinkage and autogenous shrinkage. Shrinkage can have significant consequences, including cracking, deformations, aesthetic issues, and a reduced service life of structures. Factors such as material composition, moisture content, temperature, humidity, and construction techniques influence shrinkage. Engineers can mitigate the effects of shrinkage through proper mix design, the use of shrinkage reducing admixtures, strategic joint placement, and appropriate curing techniques.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the main types of shrinkage in civil engineering?

There are two main types of shrinkage in civil engineering: drying shrinkage and autogenous shrinkage.

How does shrinkage affect civil engineering projects?

Shrinkage can lead to cracking, deformations, aesthetic issues, and a reduced service life of structures.

How can shrinkage effects be minimized?

Shrinkage effects can be minimized through proper mix design, the use of shrinkage reducing admixtures, strategic joint placement, and appropriate curing techniques.

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