There’s No Place like Home – Part 3

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