Six Causes of Foundation Failure

What causes foundation failure? What makes foundations weaken and lead to cracks in walls and floors, doors and windows that won’t open, stairs that come away from the front porch and chimneys that separate from the house?

There are six main causes for foundation failure, poor construction is only one of them. Four of the top causes for foundation failure are soil related.

Here are the top six main causes for foundation failure.

1. Soil type, especially expansive clay soil
2. Poorly compacted fill material
3. Slope failure, mass wasting
4. Erosion
5. Poor construction, and
6. Transpiration

Let’s explain each of these six causes.

1. Soil Type – Expansive Clay Soil

The most common kind of expansive clay can absorb so much water that it can swell by several hundred percent. The pressure from this degree of swelling can easily life most residential homes. There’s also an electro-magnetic component that further contributes to the swelling. The technical term for when this expansion pushes foundations upward is “heave”.

Not only do the soils expand with moisture, they also contract with dessication, causing up and down movements known as differential settlement. Foundation underpinning is essential to preserve structural integrity.

2. Poorly Compacted Fill Material

If the fill material on a lot is not sufficiently compacted to support the weight of the structure above it, there will be foundation problems. The problem can be from the mix of odd fill materials, and from poorly compacted fill, or a combination of both. So if you’re choosing a lot to build on, and get to see it before it is built, confirming the fill material and the degree of compact could give you important information for your peace of mind.

3. Slope Failure / Mass Wasting

Geologists use the term “mass wasting” to describe the movement of earth downhill. It could be “creep” which is slow, or “landslides” which are sudden. Slope failure as we use it refers to “creep”.

While underpinnings can act as a barrier to “creep”, the power of gravity is such that unless the underpinnings were specifically designed to stop slope failure, warranties can’t usually cover underpinnings in sites exposed to slope failure. gunite

4. Erosion

Erosion may be the most straightforward cause of settlement issues. It can come from poor drainage, uncontrolled water flow or lack of ground cover. If not identified early, erosion can wear away the soil around foundations, creating a new need for underpinning.

5. Poor Construction

Most towns and cities now have building codes that require soil testing and engineer certification before and during the building process, so poor construction is less and less the cause of foundation failure.

6. Transpiration

We all know what perspiration is, but transpiration is a less commonly known word. It is the word that describes plants removing moisture from the soil. Trees withdrawing moisture from the soil in the summer can accelerate soil shrinkage in hot summer months. It is the expansion and shrinking or contraction of soils that disturb the foundation.

What does this mean for existing homeowners?

It helps to understand what causes foundation failure, for it to make sense.

Understanding the causes of foundation failure can help you identify sources of potential problems. Find out what kind of soil you have. If you are on a hill, learn more about the stability of the hill. If you’re noticing erosion in the soil around your house, it’s not too late to call a landscaper or a soil engineer. There are things you can do about that. If you have trees close to your house you can take measures to ensure they get enough water. If you don’t yet have trees, you can consult a landscaper or do research about planting them sufficiently far away from the house, and choosing a type of tree whose roots do the least damage.


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