Slabs, Basements, and Piers

MoccasinAugust 7, 2010

Ok, we started this discussion on another thread and now I think a lot of interest is showing about house foundations.

So we'll put our comments here.

The link below leads to the previous thread, and the foundation comments started showing up toward the last half of the remarks.

I am making my remarks here, to sort of lead off.

I was just visiting in Iowa for one night. They were telling me that their basement in the old farmhouse has had water in it all spring and summer. Very sad. I am not familiar with basements/cellars/root cellars/storm cellars. Although when I was a kid, my aunt in the country had a sort of storm shelter which was halfway dug into the ground with heavy timbers supporting the mounded over earthen top--which had grass growing all over it. It was also the place they put the milk and such. We always watched out for snakes getting inside too.

In Louisiana, and along streams which frequently had water out of their banks, the houses were usually on piers. This let the water pass under the house and not ruin things. It was also a cooler house, with deep front porches, high ceilings, tall windows, protective shutters outside and windows which opened inside.

And I'm not sure about Levittown and the mass produced homes there built after WW2, but I think even up that far north, they were on slabs. Anyone know for sure? I remember my DH saying that his sister had a house on a slab in his little Massachusetts town. I'll have to ask him about the slab being affected by heaving. Putting hot water pipes within the slab could be one form of heat, but also would lead to corroded metal pipes because of the nature of concrete. That's why all the concrete bridge supports are deteriorating, water, concrete, and metal reinforcements don't make for a long term relationship.

The barns in colder climates have a deep foundation of stone sometimes 10 feet tall. That makes the barns in Minnesotta look a lot more massive than the barns in Alabama. I saw a horse barn the other day that was built on a concrete slab....but it was in Mississippi. They had floor drains in the center hallway, and I know they must have washed the whole barn down one way or another. It sure did not look like my grandpa's barn!

And I lived in one house in Mobile which had a basement. It was usually full of water, and it could not be used. It was an old old house that was probably single family when it was built, but by the time my parents moved in, it had four families renting. Anyway, basements in houses around here are the exception and not the rule.

Here is a link that might be useful: Frustrated w/ real estate agent.. WanttoRetire

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Here in FL there are no basements; everything is built on a slab, or, near the water, on piers. The water table is only a few feet down, so basements are out of the question. I grew up in a house with a basement; in CT, they are the norm. Many are wet, but with today's technology, there's no excuse for a wet basement unless you build in an area that really shouldn't have one.

Now days, they create a drainage system around the foundation, and that, coupled with proper water proofing, should result in a dry basement. It's in the building codes now.

You can still have a damp basement, even if there are no leaks. In the summer, hot, humid air hits the cool foundation walls, and condenses, just like the dew on the outside of your glass of iced tea. I guess the trick is to keep the hot humid air from ever entering the basement, or have enough ventilation and de-humidification. It's still common in a new home to have a dehumidifier in the basement for this reason.

Having lived on a slab for the last 30 years, I hope to never live on a slab again! They are cold, and hard on the feet and back. Professional dancers won't dance on a concrete stage. I remember when they first built the Lincoln Center (or was it the Kennedy?) the first ballet troupe refused to dance there until they put a suspended wooden floor over the concrete stage. Also- anything fragile you drop on a concrete floor is gone in an instant.
Our next house will be a wooden floor suspended over a walk-out basement.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 5:38PM
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As far as I understand, the soil is an important determination of whether to build a slab, crawl space, or basement. I know there is "expansive" clay and soil, and "low to moderate" expansive clay soil. Doing some research, it looks like the main areas with "expansive" clay soil would be in the South and Texas.

Here in Ohio, at least in Northeast Ohio, having a slab, or even a crawlspace, home, is a serious hit to property value. Basements are, by far, the norm. When I was looking at houses, we looked at a few houses here in the city that had a slab or crawl-space foundation. I refused to even consider them. My biggest fear was that there was no way to *see* of there was any significant damage, heaving, or cracking on the slab. On all of the slab homes I looked at (they were all century homes), their walls and ceilings had significantly more shifting and unevenness.

I love basements because it is great for storage! We didn't have a functional basement in our last house and it drove me crazy. Plus all the utilities are right there on the roof of the basement/floor of the first floor for easy access. And the hot water heater, furnace, etc. are all in the basement not consuming valuable home space.

There can occasionally be problems with water in basements, but it is not common. Most basements shouldn't have problems with significant water intrusion, or something is very wrong. Naturally, a basement is always going to be cooler and more damp than an above-grade floor, but nonetheless. For the occassional flood, many people have sump pumps.

Our basement was poured with the house, presumably, in 1910, and it's still giong strong. There is a little water intrusion due to improper grading outside that we cannot change, but it is more than acceptable.

Our old house (which we will eventually move back to) here in the metro area farther out has a basement. It doesn't have significant water intrusion but is damp sometimes.

I looked at the Township's zoning ordinances and soil studies and they strongly discourage slab foundations for soil reasons. Apparently the clay soil makes it much more likely for heaving and various other issues. Conditions for basements are rated "moderate to severe" and conditions for slabs are rated as "severe to extremely severe".

I mean where the heck do you put all your crap when you have no basement?!?!?!

    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 6:14PM
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Well as stated before we did not have any trouble with the slab foundation house we had. Our garage here is a monolithic pour. Slab with deeper edges under. It is only two years old. There has not been any cracking yet and it is an unheated space.

I do know we are on gravel and when the septic tank perk test was done. The hole was dug over 6 foot deep and not a hint of water in the hole and this was done as soon as they could get to the ground from having over 3 foot of snow in it. There was still snow melting on the property.

The neighbors have root cellars and it appears they stay dry. There has been a root cellar here dug into the base of the hillside as we hit is when grading for our house.

NOW we are on the usual foundation with a center flat area where they set block to set the center of the house on. It is a manufactured home. It feels as solid as can be. There is a good crawl space under it.

I guess it depends on what area you live in as the the best foundation.

As far as where to put all the crap. Well DH built me an 8 by 12 storage loft in the garage. If I need more then that something has to go away. It has worked out fine. I keep the animal carriers up there and some some day projects and the christmas lights. Stuff.


    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 10:34PM
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For my two cents worth, although I understand the concerns about cracking and cold-to-the-feet, I still prefer the look of having the floor level of the house being the same level as the covered porch (loggia, whichever) which then extends out to the non-covered patio/pool deck like so many Florida or Hawaiian homes featured in the architectural porn magazines. This concept visually extends the site lines making the space seem much larger.

Here in SC the older homes are mostly built on a crawlspace foundation (piers). Some of the newer homes are on a slab but it is an elevevated slab starting with a stemwall two feet high or higher, then they add fill dirt inside the perimeter and top that with a concrete slab so you still have to come up steps to enter the home and go down about two steps to access the porch/patio. That can be tricky when you are balancing a plate of meat heading for the grill.

I have a house on a crawlspace now and I have old fashioned hardwood floors and I do like that feel on my feet but I don't like negotiating steps to transition from inside to outside. I don't see how you can merge the two methods.

Just my two cents worth.


    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 8:36AM
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"Where do you put all your crap?"

Here's a hint- In FL, VERY few people keep their cars in the garage.....

Another thing I don't like about slabs- they often run plumbing under the slab. If a pipe fails, or if you want to make a change that involves plumbing, out comes the concrete saw and jackhammer. In other words- it ain't easy.

In all fairness, there are ways to improve living on a slab. They've come out with new techniques now to insulate the slab in cold climates. You can always put suspended floors over the slab, and there's always carpet.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 9:23AM
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I have lived in...
A cheap Michigan home on a slab that I don't remember well, but my mom said it had ants, "They built it on an anthill."

An old MI farmhouse on a dirt-floored smelly basement. Smelled like mice. Our furnace, water heater, and oil tank were down there and when a storm came that threatened to turn into a tornado, none of us kids would go down there because none of us could find our shoes. We were barefoot all summer unless we were going to town with a parent.

An 1955 NJ ranch home on a dry basement that had a noisy sub pump that came on when it rained.

A 1955 Baton Rouge ranch-style house with large overhangs and no gutters. "Gutters don't work down here," we were told. The rain came so fast that the gutters would have overflowed. Insisted on a pier-and-beam construction on this house because I knew that my knees would not allow me to stand or walk for long on concrete. When I was 13 I played the role of a runner for my great aunt at a ceramic show, and was on my crutches again for a week afterward. So we only looked at old houses in BR. In town, all the newer houses were on slabs. Our house smelled musty some times. Then we learned that the guest bathtub drained to the ground under the house!

My 1950 MI house on Chippewa had a basement that was too humid. That had to do with the gutters. They were no good - rusted and not leveled right. They leaked like crazy above the front door. The front porch was wood. But all the identical houses in the neighborhood had concrete porches. Turns out there was a root cellar (like a closet with a dirt floor and concrete walls and top that is "outside" the basement - a door in the basement wall opens up to this dirt-floored closet. It stays cooler than the rest of the basement. Turns out that the concrete porch is the top of the "root cellar" and when somebody took it out, they took out the roof of the cellar! Smart-a$$ then used plywood to make a "ceiling" to the root cellar. Plywood under dirt that is above the cellar. By the time I bought the house, it was rotted. When it rained, a flood of water from the roof went onto the porch because of the improper slant of the gutter. Stream of water went to root cellar, then across the basement floor to the floor drain near the furnace and water heater! I had my own little river in the basement. New concrete porch fixed that snafu! Still needed dehumidification.

Our current 1978 house (goodby 1950s!)has a dry concrete basement with a sump pump. Smells fine. At the front of the house, the garage, laundry room, foyer, and living room are all on a slab. There are cracks in the corners of some walls due to uneven settling of the slab. The previous owner spent several thousand dollars on "Ram Jacks" TM to stabilize the living room.

That is my tour through the basements of my life!

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 1:34PM
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Nancy, your 1955 Baton Rouge house with the tub draining into the crawl space....that is EXACTLY what we had in this house. As well as no flooring underneath the tub.

That situation, plus the bad plumbing at the bathroom sink and the rotted out flooring and mold behind the toilet, well, that is when I picked up my crowbar and started the demo. I was horrified that any ONE of those conditions existed, but the absolute KILLER was the tub draining straight to the ground.

I think crawl spaces of one height or another have been in use around areas which are flood plains. On my drive to/from Iowa this past week, I saw the obvious plain that the river had built along the Mississippi. All flat, and all rich soil, and you can imagine how the mighty rivers have contributed to agricultural lands across the country.
But these days, we are seeing more urban sprawl and more houses built in places which nature intended for the water, which will sooner or later claim its spaces. That's when I'd like to be a little bit above the ground.

And Scott, there are options to eliminate steps. Like low ramps. The added benefit is that such access methods make your home more "handicap ready." Two steps is an easy one to deal with. A friend of mine who owned a nursery built such low ramps coming out of her store into the garden spaces outside. She used dollies to cart big flower pots and customers brought their carts of purchases up the ramp to the cash register. What I liked about the ramps, she also made some borders of flat lumber wide enough to set flowerpots, then kept them level with bricks or short, the real STEPS were only at the edges and were used for flowerpots, and to keep folks from accidentally walking off the edges. I loved the way she did this. And from the end of the ramp, she put a series of arbors or covered arches with vines on them, all in a row, leading to the further part of the yard. It looked like some European formal garden with a birdbath or a covered seating area at the far end. It was a magical place to look at from inside through the french doors. I'd love to be able to do this to a house. Maybe will do it with my old garage!

    Bookmark   August 9, 2010 at 2:18PM
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ML was right, Scott. Take a look at my house:

and in a close-up:

This house is on a slab at the front, then there is another 4" step up from the foyer to the rest of the house. I have a small aluminum ramp there, like this:

    Bookmark   August 9, 2010 at 10:18PM
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Nancy, what a lovely green lawn you have. Sort of reminds me of DH's lawn in MA, definitely does not look like our lawn here in Alabama.

Did you have the ramps built already when you bought your house? Or have you done them since you moved in?

Do you also have a ramp from your kitchen to your family room? I think it is your kitchen with "ramp" written on the floor plan. You apparently know all about ramps.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2010 at 3:15PM
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No ramps were here, we added them all. I bought the aluminum ramps before we even moved in. I knew that the 6" ramp down to the family room was too much for my knees, and I wanted total mobility here, so I bought two 6" ramps - one for the front door and one for the FR, two 4" ramps - one for the foyer to main hall and one for the laundry room to the short hall, and even one for the little 1" step down to the LR (which we use as library and music room). When D F-in-L became wheelchair-bound, we learned that the little aluminum ramp was impractical for the front door, so Jim built us this one. I cannot count the number of times i was grateful to have the ramps!

I do not expect to always be able to walk. My second knee surgeon told me I would not be walking much past 30. I am 21 years past that prediction!

The lawn pic was taken in the spring, that is why it is so green. It is usually brown here by now, but we have had some wet summers recently.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2010 at 11:20PM
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