In previous blogs, we discussed that foundation movement can be categorized into two types: foundation settlement (the most common) and foundation upheaval (the most difficult to remedy by foundation repairs). Today, I will discuss the latter: upheaval.
As a Structural Engineer, I recently represented a homeowner of a new custom home (costing about $1mm) where the foundation heaved upwards over 5” – within the first year! The slab was constructed over drilled concrete piers; which is the type of foundation I would design for myself if I ever built a new home (shoot me dead first).
The homeowner called me to check out his foundation after the builder (and his engineer) had inspected the home and told the homeowner that “it was just normal settlement” (however, it did not settle, it heaved upward). As part of my inspection, I reviewed the foundation design and determined it to be a good design. So, if it was a good design, why did the foundation move and cause numerous sheetrock cracks, slab cracks, etc.?
The answer to this very good question is that it moved primarily for 4 reasons:
- The foundation was constructed on a lot with highly plastic clay soils (soils that expand and lot when the soil moisture content increases and shrinks a lot when the soils dry).
- The builder did not follow the engineer’s specifications for site preparation.
- The builder did not provide adequate drainage conditions around the foundation.
- The builder built the foundation in 2006, during a record breaking drought in North Texas.
I will focus my brief discussion on the last reason, which I consider being the primary problem.
This particular residence is built in a suburb of Dallas that is well known for its highly expansive clay soils. Prior to designing the foundation, the builder obtained a geotechnical report that indicated that the soils at the site were such that 6 inches of PVR were possible. PVR is “Potential for Vertical Rise”; this means that under the “right” conditions, the soils could expand upward over 6 inches. The geotechnical engineer recommended several measures the builder should take to minimize any foundation movement. However, the builder did not follow the recommendations and the foundation heaved upwards about 5” in the first year.
In 2006, when the slab was built, the highly plastic clay soils, because of a record breaking drought, were in an extremely “shrunken” state. Unfortunately, when the drought ended and the rains returned, the soils expanded significantly and lifted the slab up off the piers. Because of the large size and shape of the house, a satisfactory remedy was not economically feasible.
It should be said that even if the drainage conditions around the foundation had of been perfect (and they were not), the slab would have still been lifted up off the piers by the expanding clay. When the rains returned, the soils were going to be re-hydrated no matter what the drainage conditions.
As a side note, the builder also built the slab too close to the ground surface, plus it was a flat lot so the surface water had no place to run. I guess the builder was not aware that water runs down hill.
Fortunately, the homeowner retained an experienced attorney who was able to get the builder to buy the house back. The builder told me that he now pre-swells the soils prior to installing a foundation (which was one of the recommendations his geotechnical engineer had made originally). After the builder bought the house back, he fixed the cosmetic defects in the house and then resold it in an “as is” condition at a discounted price.
For more information on foundation movement and foundation repairs, go to www.GeoDFW.com