Foundations are designed to have an adequate load capacity with limited settlement by a geotechnical engineer, and the foundation itself is designed structurally by a structural engineer.
The primary design concerns are settlement and bearing capacity. When considering settlement, total settlement and differential settlement is normally considered.
Differential settlement is when one part of a foundation settles more than another part. This can cause problems to the structure the foundation is supporting. It is necessary that a foundation is not loaded beyond its bearing capacity or the foundation will “fail”.
Other design considerations include scour and frost heave. Scour is when flowing water removes supporting soil from around a foundation (like a pier supporting a bridge over a river). Frost heave occurs when water in the ground freezes to form ice lenses.
Changes in soil moisture can cause expansive clay to swell and shrink. This swelling can vary across the footing due to seasonal changes or the effects of vegetation removing moisture. The variation in swell can cause the soil to distort, cracking the structure over it.
This is particular problem for house footings in semi-arid climates such as South Australia, South Western US, Turkey, Israel, Iran and South Africa where wet winters are followed by hot dry summers. Raft slabs with inherent stiffness have been developed in Australia with capabilities to resist this movement.