Author reviewing project work.

As if crumbling foundations weren’t bad enough, along comes the coronavirus.  Well the good news is you can safely read the remainder of this post from the comfort of home, without a mask, and without again encountering the words coronavirus or Covid-19.    

But, before you start here’s a suggestion, read parts one and two about crumbling foundations to better understand the problem with failing concrete in north central Connecticut and south central Massachusetts.  Part one describes the discovery and investigation of my home’s failed foundation; and part two summarizes my experience seeking insurance coverage.  This third and final part is about the reconstruction process.

Now to start, I’ll note that people enjoy talking about improvements they make to their homes.  I certainly understand why.  They’ve installed new kitchens with state-of-the-art built-in appliances; bathrooms with glass walled showers; and welcoming entranceways with imported ceramic tile. We (Mrs. Okun and I) don’t talk about home improvements that way.   Instead we talk about the money we’ve put under our house.  Not because we had a vault with gold in the basement.  No.  It’s because removing and replacing our failed foundation exhausted any prospective home improvement funds and then some!

The Writing on the Walls

Recall from part one that on a trip to my basement in 2006 I discovered mysterious cracks had opened up in the concrete walls.  Soon enough we learned their meaning: “All those cracks in your basement walls? I don’t know exactly what caused them, but I can tell you with certainty that this concrete is toast and needs to be replaced, soon.”  So declared our structural engineer Rob Johnson PE. 

We were among the first of what would become many in north central Connecticut to lose our home’s foundation to bad concrete.  Later testing proved the failure was caused by the mineral pyrrhotite in the concrete.  But upon first discovery it just seemed like extraordinarily bad luck. 

Rob said we needed to immediately hire a contractor to install shoring to support two walls that were already bowing out badly and in the initial stage of collapse.  He sketched up plans for the shoring and told us to give them to the contractor.

This was in 2006, well before the crumbling foundation issue had received much visibility – except for the help we got from our experts, we were on our own.  At that time there were no contractors specializing in foundation replacements the way there are now.  However, thanks to working at OTO I had good contractor connections.  At the suggestion of OTO friend and construction manager, the late Richard Wilke, we hired Kurtz, Inc. of Westfield, MA to install the shoring per Rob’s plan and went on to use them to replace the basement walls, footings and the foundation drainage system. 

In the past few years, as the number of houses with crumbling foundations has grown, support groups have developed, and the state of Connecticut has set up a program to help homeowners pay for foundation replacements.  None of this existed when we were stumbling around trying to understand what was happening and planning what to do next.  We heard stories about a few other families with failed foundations, and tried to reach out to them.  Some were happy to talk about their experiences, but others were quite reluctant.  For them it was like having a disease that they did not want to talk about.

Construction Begins

As more homes and other buildings are found with crumbling foundations the demand for restoration services has grown.  There are now several excellent contractors who specialize in replacing crumbling foundations.  They’ve learned to optimize construction methods, which means getting work done faster and cheaper.  But, this didn’t exist when we did our replacement.  We were “early adopters” of foundation replacement technology, so we and our contractor needed to do on the job learning. 

One factor people overlook when planning foundation replacement work is that you can’t live in a house while the work is going on (figure on 2-4+ months).  In our case we needed to move out for 4.5 months.   All of the utilities need to be turned off and disconnected during the work making the house unlivable.  After we moved out, our contractor Kurtz obtained the building permit and began work by “sistering” all the joists in the basement in accordance with the engineer’s plan.  This meant attaching an additional joist next to all the original joists in the basement.  This added stability and strength to the structure to help it endure what came next.

Kurtz then cut holes through the existing foundation walls and installed big steel I-beams all the way through the basement to support the house.  The weight of the house was effectively now shared between the I-beams and the failing foundation.  A deep trench, resembling a medieval mote, was excavated all the way around the house.  All the soil removed from the trench became giant piles on our once carefully tended lawn. 

Rather than removing the old foundation and then constructing the new one all at once, Kurtz instead removed sections of the foundation and replaced each section one at a time moving methodically around the house.  Big piles of broken concrete now appeared next to the piles of soil on the lawn.  Kurtz also replaced the footings that supported the concrete walls and installed a new storm water drainage system around the house. 

Doorway to nowhere.

At my request, Kurtz installed some steel reinforcing bar into the new concrete walls.  Our engineer, Rob Johnson, told me the rebar was really unnecessary, but I thought I’d sleep better knowing it was there.  Of course we verified that the replacement concrete was from a completely different source than the old concrete.  As shocking as may seem, the supplier of our original concrete was still selling bad concrete batches for use in new homes and other buildings!  Sadly, there are even reported cases of homeowners replacing their bad foundations with concrete from that same bad source and having it fail again!  Now that is bad luck.

Post Construction Stuff

During any construction or renovation work some things inevitably happen that were not planned.  This seems to be as much a law of nature as gravity.  In a way we got off easy in that the only big surprises were the loss of the heating system due to frozen pipes in the boiler and the need to replace some of the clean water distribution piping and valves.  Well then there was also the outdoor lighting that was lost and needed to be replaced.  But overall not too bad.

During our original planning, the foundation of the attached garage looked only slightly deteriorated, so we did not include its replacement as part of the 2006 project.  However, be ten years later in 2016, it was looking much worse.  Since we planned to sell the house in the next few years, we eventually hired a contractor to replace the garage foundation, a similar, but simpler project than the house had been. It went smoothly.

In 2017 we finally did sell the Ellington house and as I walked out the door for the last time I vowed to never again own a house. This is a vow I kept until just this month.  The foundation walls of the “new” house (95 years old) are made of stone, and in addition the structure is supported by two really big steel I-beams.  During the home inspection I noted that one of these beams had a little rust.  When I asked him about it our home inspector told me not to worry, any possible harm from the rust was likely insignificant. 

Oh well, no matter how special the upstairs, my evaluation of a house will always begin in the basement where I can clearly see evidence of the foundation’s soundness

If you haven’t already read Part 1 of this mini-series, please do so before reading this post; what follows will make more sense.

But first, a rant on home owner’s insurance policies.  For your sake, I hope you never need your home owner’s insurance.  You know all those warm fuzzy ads on TV with clever bylines like: “You’re in good hands” or “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Yeah, well good luck with that, because if your foundation is crumbling and your house is starting to collapse, those good hands won’t be writing you any claims checks.  But the companies do come up with clever sales slogans and with creative reasons for denying claims.  And that’s what this post is about.

Discovering the Damage, My First Claim, and Rejection

As you recall from Part 1, on an otherwise normal trip to the basement of my Ellington, Connecticut home in 2005, I discovered the concrete walls were literally disintegrating; this may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not.  Fortunately, working with a bunch of talented engineers at OTO got me going in the right direction.  My co-worker Mike Talbot, PE made an emergency house-call to my basement the next day.  His prognosis was not good.  “I’ve never seen anything like this before.  You better get Rob Johnson, a structural engineer and friend of mine to look at this”.

When Rob saw the basement he was uncertain about the precise cause of the problem, but not about what needed to be done: “You need to immediately install bracing to prevent an imminent collapse of the house and you better start planning for the replacement of the entire foundation … soon. Because whatever the cause, this concrete is toast”.  Getting quick, knowledgeable advice from solid engineers was both depressing and extremely helpful.  At least we didn’t waste time and money with useless attempts at a fix.

As reality sunk in, and I got a sense of just how disruptive and expensive the replacement project was going to be, I called my insurance agent to make a claim.  I sent him photographs of the crumbling concrete, a copy of the Rob’s report, and told him he could visit any time.  He said he would forward the information to the insurance company and they would contact me.

The insurance company assigned an adjuster and retained a consulting engineer to review the information and visit the property.  A couple of weeks later I received the first of what would be three rejection letters.  The letter stated that the failure of the concrete foundation was due to the pressure of groundwater and/or the action of frost against the foundation.  The letter explained that my policy contained an exclusion for damage caused by water, and as much as they would sincerely like to help, they had to deny any liability for my loss.

Picture this – there were eighth to half-inch wide cracks that went clear through the foundation walls to the soil on the other side.  Lots of them. Yet not a drop of water had ever come through those cracks.  The insurer’s engineer had seen these cracks.  How could groundwater with sufficient pressure to crack 12 inch thick hardened concrete walls not also cause water to come gushing through those cracks?  Seemed like a good question to me. Although not one that interested the insurance company.

Since I’m a curious kind of guy I wanted to know the answer (this was before we had the results of the petrographic analysis).  The only way to find out was to do a little groundwater study, so I had monitoring wells installed around the house.  This turned out to be the first of several pricey out-of-pocket research projects to satisfy my curiosity. Mrs. Okun was not wholly enthusiastic about the cost of these projects.

Once the monitoring wells had been installed and water levels were measured, it became apparent that the water table was too deep for groundwater to be pressuring the foundation; the insurer’s engineer readily agreed.  At that point I was still naïve enough to believe that the insurance company would welcome this new information and my claim check would be forthcoming. Hah!!!

Second Claim, and Rejection

So while the insurance company was developing their first rejection letter, we asked our engineer to move ahead with collecting concrete core samples and conducting the petrographic analysis needed to identify the cause of the failure. This was another pricey item, but my curiosity was demanding an answer.  It took a little while to get the results, but they were definitive: the presence of the mineral pyrrhotite in the concrete’s coarse aggregate had caused the concrete to fail.  Part 1 of this mini-series discusses the hazard pyrrhotite poses to concrete in more detail.

I forwarded the petrographic results and the groundwater level measurements to the insurance company and asked them to reconsider my claim.  Their first engineer was not well versed in concrete chemistry, so the insurer retained a concrete specialist to review the petrographic report.  This second engineer concluded that the problem with our foundation was due to sulfate in the groundwater around the house.  In case you are curious, the new engineer did no testing of the groundwater to confirm this hypothesis. It’s a small world of engineers who know concrete chemistry and I had considered hiring this same engineer to do my petrographic analysis; I’m glad I didn’t.

Well, the insurer once again rejected our claim for a bunch of legalistic reasons and because in their opinion the collapse – which to them was not legally a real collapse – was caused by sulfate in the groundwater around our house.

Third and Final Claim Rejection

Fortunately, sampling the monitoring wells that were already installed to test for sulfate was easy and cheap.    So I wasted no time getting this done.  No surprises here, groundwater sulfate concentrations around my house were exactly the same as the published background levels for sulfate in north central Connecticut where the house is located. 

As you would expect, I sent the information on groundwater sulfate concentrations to my insurer with a bunch of legal arguments and asked them to again reconsider our claim.  I broke the claim into seven parts to make it easier for the adjuster to understand, not that this mattered.

Over time the pyrrhotite induced deterioration of the concrete caused the basement walls to expand, which pushed the outer walls of the house upward.  This irregular upward movement causes windows and doors to get stuck in their casings so they will not easily open or close.  This damage symptom was one of the parts of the claim I made.  Here’s the insurer’s response to that part of the claim, verbatim:

The Insurance Company’s Engineer Mr. Smith, PE, has determined that only a portion of the damage to the upper floors resulted from the movement of the foundation.  There has not been any structural impairment of the upper floors and therefore, these portion of the upper floors have not collapsed as that term is defined in Beach v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Company.  Therefore, for the reasons stated above, any portions of the upper floors which have sustained a loss, which loss was not caused by any movement of the foundation is not covered by the additional coverage for “collapse”.  Furthermore, the collapse coverage specifically provides that “collapse does not include settling, cracking, shrinking, bulging or expansion.”  Also, there is no coverage for this loss because exclusion 2.h.(6) quoted above excludes a loss “caused by: … settling, shrinking, bulging or expansion, including resultant cracking of pavements, patios, foundations, walls, floors, roofs or ceilings.”  However, those portions of the upper floors which may have sustained damage because of the collapse to the foundation may be covered as “direct physical loss to covered property involving a collapse of a building or part of a building (the foundation) caused only by one or more of the following…defective materials…”  Therefore, the Insurance Company will cover the repairs to the openings, windows, doors or walls of the upper which are related to the movement of the foundation.

After I read that last sentence, I reread it about ten times.  I thought, “Well I’ll be!” They have finally agreed to cover something, because to fix the damage to the upper floors, it would first be necessary to fix the foundation! Yes!  All this effort is finally going to pay off! 

When I called the insurance adjuster in the morning to coordinate the next step, he explained that I had misunderstood their letter.  That last sentence in the paragraph where it sounded like they were going to cover some of the damage, I got that wrong.  That language was their way of letting me know they weren’t going to cover anything, because as I had surmised, the only way to fix the upper floors was to fix the foundation, and they weren’t going to cover that at all.


Last three thoughts for this post:

  1. In addition to the claim for damage to the upper floors, part of my final claim was for the reimbursement of engineering and testing costs, here’s their response to that: “The policy terms relating to loss payment do not provide coverage for engineering and testing fees to determine the basis for the loss and there are no engineering or testing fees required to determine the nature and extent of the repairs to any upper portions of the structure for which there may be coverage”. That was galling after all the fake technical arguments they had thrown at me.
  2. Ultimately with the help of a good attorney we entered mediation with the insurer and received a settlement for some of our costs, for which we remain grateful.
  3. Having a solid technical background was immensely helpful as was having access to the talented engineers at OTO and in the broader out-of-OTO network.

Stay tuned for Part 3, what it’s like to have your home’s foundation replaced.