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Under designed foundations and wasted water
Saturday, 06 June 2009

In the last article I talked about residential foundation problems in Texas. A study conducted by an insurance research institute concluded that 20% of all structural failures that occur in the United States occur in Texas.
That's 1 in 5, folks.

First, let's talk about the foundations for roadway bridge overpasses. I should start with how many bridges there are. Suffice it to say, there are thousands and thousands. Ask yourself how many of the foundations that support these thousands of overpasses have failed. Next, ask yourself how many times you have seen TX Dot employees laying out soaker hoses at the base of the foundations for these overpasses. You know, for the sake of preventing foundation failures.

In fairness to everyone, let's begin by talking about what a residential foundation is designed to accomplish. The purpose of a home's foundation is to adequately support the 'superstructure' of the home. What is the superstructure? Generally speaking, the superstructure is everything above the slab. This includes floors, walls, ceilings, roof structure, stairwells, and the other structural systems in the home. How well does the slab have to perform? Should the exterior cladding (I.e. stone, brick, and stucco) develop stress cracks from differential foundation movement? Should the walls and ceilings crack and/or separate from one another? Is it 'OK' for the doors in the house to swing closed or swing open? Should a door 'stick' or not latch? Should you, as the homeowner, be expected to by happy with a home that is sloping, cracking, separating from itself? Or, should you upset with the fact that when it comes time to sell your home, you may not be able to until you spend thousands upon thousands of dollars leveling your home and repairing the damage caused by an underperforming foundation?

How does this happen? How can we put a man on the moon in 1969, essentially eradicate smallpox, build millions of homes that don't have foundation deficiencies and failures, yet let so many engineers and homebuilders continually plague homeowners with substandard foundations? The answer is simple. Money. Let's follow the money.

First of all, the following observations and comments don't apply to the Quality Homebuilders in Texas who, decade after decade produce a safe, structurally sound, reliable investment for the clients.

No related education and no practical experience are needed to build homes in Texas. Texas is a very low cost environment (time, education, and labor force) for homebuilders. However, the costs can be high for those who are unfortunate enough to buy a home from an inexperienced or dishonest homebuilder. Now, let's follow the money and the chain of events that occur as a result of putting profits ahead of pride in workmanship.

Potential builders, it doesn't matter what 'your' education level is, what your current occupation is, with few constraints, you can become a builder. As a new builder, you don't have to know what you are doing. There are no bonding requirements, no insurance requirements, and no tests. Next you can hire untrained 'tradesman' to piece together the various components of a home. Relax; even if your untrained workers make mistakes, you're off the hook. Texas laws have been constructed in a manner to protect the shoddy builder. That's right, from the Real Estate Construction Liability Act (RECLA) to the formation and operation of the Texas Residential Construction Commission (TRCC); you're in the driver's seat. You see, you can hire a Professional Engineer with the understanding he/she had better design a slab foundation that costs very little to construct, or you won't hire him again. He knows this, so he/she designs a foundation that has been proven to fail when constructed on clay soils or on a lot where much fill dirt has been brought in to 'level' the lot (to save on concrete costs).

Wait, it gets better. The city of San Antonio doesn't challenge engineered plans. If the plans have an engineer's 'seal' on them, the builder is allowed to build, unimpeded by any dastardly second guessing by the city Inspectors. When the foundation does fail, or at the very least allows dozens of cracks and gaps to form in walls and ceilings of the house guess whose fault it is? It is the homeowner's fault, of course. "You didn't water enough around your foundation." "What, you did water around your foundation? Well then, you watered too much."

Let's look at what it would cost to build a foundation that will adequately resist movement/deflection when constructed on clay soils or constructed on a typical lot that has not been properly prepared for building a house. The 'experts' will tell you that for a 5000 square foot two story home that the added cost to take what is a typical, inadequately designed slab and construct it so it has very little chance of failing ranges from six hundred dollars ($600) to five thousand dollars ($5,000). The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Imagine this, homeowners... For less than $5K on a large home (for those of you who have smaller homes, my guess is that you are already doing the math) you don't have to water around your foundation, you don't have to have the TRCC tell you "your cracks aren't wide enough to make the builder repair them. Oh wait, we can't make the builder do anything, the Texas Legislature hasn't yet given us any real enforcement authority. The current laws make it look like we have enforcement capabilities, but only after the builder commits multiple offenses.

As homeowners, you wouldn't have to live with up to hundreds of cracks in your home, you wouldn't have the expense of foundation repairs that occur in times of drought or excess rainfall, if there were substantial punitive measures for rogue engineers and builders who continually design and construct substandard foundations.

Now, how does this relate to water restrictions? At some point, with new businesses and government contracts & initiatives coming to San Antonio, climate changes, and irresponsible use of our water source, we are going to have to make more changes. Now, let's see...Do we want to (A) chase away companies like USAA or the AF Cyber Command, (B) expect to control the weather, or (C) we can we take action to make sure water waste is minimized. My guess is that most of you already eliminated both choices (A) & (B).

So where do we go from here? Let's start by not sitting on our rear ends and doing nothing. We have a new mayor in town. Let's see what he is made of. Will he listen to the quality builders and homeowners who want to see the shoddy builders be made to design and construct foundations that don't need artificial hydration (watering around the foundation), or will he be the new puppet in town whose strings are pulled by the developers and builders?
Will Mayor Castro be responsible for implementing a city ordinance that can save millions of gallons of water that would otherwise be dumped into the ground in an effort to keep a homeowner's slab foundation from failing?

This is really simple, if we continue to allow shoddy builders to construct homes that require artificial hydration of the soils in the attempt to reduce foundation movement, we are looking at the continued waste of millions of gallons of our drinking water. Or, we are looking at thousands of 'failed' foundations.

As a reminder, we have watering restrictions for our lawns, car washing restrictions, low-flush commodes, low flow showerheads, and we are fined for at least some forms of water waste. Why on earth do we continue to allow rogue engineers and shoddy homebuilders to operate unfettered when we have a limited amount of the precious resource known as water?

For those homebuilders who take pride in their work, who refuse to build a home that is unlevel, bends, and develops cracks and gaps all over the home, the next time you lose a bid to a competitor who hides behind state laws designed to protect shoddy builders, ask yourself what you are doing to correct the situation. Are you communicating with your Senator or Representative, your Mayor or city council representative? Are you taking any steps to ensure that the next time you bid to construct a home your competitor isn't able to bid the 'same' home for 20, 50, or a 100 thousand dollars less because they are able to build a shoddy product and hide behind state laws designed to protect shoddy builders?

As many of you know, you can dump thousands of gallons of water into the ground around your home and you will still experience foundation movement that results in damage to your home.

The availability of water, water restrictions and water costs are all sure to impact homeowners. Do we continue to allow homes to be built that require the homeowner to waste precious drinking water by dumping the water into the ground around the house slab in an ATTEMPT to prevent foundation failure?

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