By Keith Brannon Photographed by Cheryl GerberThe back corner of my house was never exactly level. It had a gentle dip that was noticeable, but not jarring. Then came Hurricane Katrina. The three- to four-inch slope became an alarming eight-inch drop. The change was so dramatic that I
think the floodwaters shifted the back of the house off its foundation, crumbling one pier and pressing another deep into the ground.
A home in Claiborne/University section of town during the shoring process.
Turns out my experience isn’t uncommon after the storm. The flood’s impact on clay soil under some foundations was like mashing down a tube of toothpaste. The saturated ground gave way under the weight of the house, causing everything to shift, says Alphonse Fabre, who has been shoring homes in the area for more than two decades.
“Two things affect a foundation—extreme dryness and extreme wetness. With the water sitting around the foundations two to three weeks, it super-saturated the soil,” Fabre says. “It really affected foundations. We have work on foundations for the next 10 years.”
Fabre’s company Fabre Inc. has repaired at least 70 foundations since the storm and raised another 30. James Holcomb, owner of Holcomb Bros. Inc. in New Orleans, is equally busy. He says the most common foundation problems he is seeing after the storm include sinking piers, soil subsidence and rotten sills, which are the large wooden beams that support a home’s framing. “[Katrina] affected every house differently. The water was under the houses for so long … I think the story is still out on the long-term effect.”
Blocks of oak wood called “crib piles” or “cribbing” build a strong base and hold the house in place while the concrete foundation is rebuilt. Photo by Davie Shoring
Signs and Solutions
There are several telltale signs of foundation problems: Doors and windows stick when opened or closed; recurring cracks form in the wall around door jams, floors bow and dip.
You can call in the experts and get estimates to fix the problem. Most shoring companies will come out for free, examine the house and draw up a detailed plan of action depending on the type of foundation. Pier homes are generally cheaper to fix than slab houses because the foundations are more easily accessible. It can cost anywhere from several thousand to more than $100,000 depending on the size of the house and complexity of the job, Holcomb says. “Every job is different.”
The least expensive fix for a pier house is to level the piers by adding steel shims between the piers and the sill. Crews use small hydraulic jacks to lift portions of the house a little at a time until sections are level. A more permanent solution is to rebuild the pier using filled concrete blocks re-enforced with steel bars. Some companies will also pour a continuous concrete chainwall to tie the piers together so the foundation sits like a snowshoe over the soil.
The concrete foundation serves as a sturdy wall under the house, which will be 32 inches off the ground upon shoring completion. Photo by Davie Shoring
Warren Davie, owner of Davie Shoring, says that the best solution for a slab foundation is to drive pilings deep into the ground to prevent the slab from shifting. His company uses a Permalock system of segmented concrete pilings that come with a lifetime guarantee. Olshan Foundation Repair is a regional company with another patented piling system called Cablelock that comes with a similar guarantee. Aaron Goucher, Olshan’s vice president of sales, says his crews have to drive pilings as deep as 80 feet down. “We have to press them deeper to get to soil that doesn’t move,” he says.
Maintaining a Level
How can you tell if a foundation needs major or minor repair? That’s tricky because estimates can vary widely. Before the storm, bids to fix my relatively minor pier issue ranged from $3,000 to $25,000. After Katrina, the job grew to a minimum estimate of $16,000 to fix.
For homeowners, the frustrating part is that it can cost a bundle to fix a foundation, and you don’t get much of that back in resale. If you spend $15,000 on a bathroom renovation, at least you get to enjoy the new amenities and hope for a return once you’re ready to sell. Not so with house leveling, says RE/MAX realtor Joe Ory. “Shoring is more of a maintenance issue rather than an improvement issue,” he says. He says that few old homes are level in the city and most buyers will tolerate a floor level differential less than four inches. It is rarely an issue in home sales unless the problem is severe, he says. It is more common for buyers to ask for price concessions to fix rotten sills rather than leveling piers. This can generally be fixed for less than a few thousand dollars depending on the size of the sill needed to be replaced.
Masonry units have holes filled with concrete to hold them together and are reinforced with rebar. Photo by Davie Shoring
While some fearless do-it-yourselfers will tackle any project, house leveling is dangerous and best left to experts. Earlier this year a worker was killed in Kenner when a slab home fell during shoring work.
“Shoring is a very dangerous profession. I see some nightmarish house raising going on in New Orleans and it just gives me the shivers,” Fabre says.
Before hiring a firm, make sure the company has references and no complaints with the Better Business Bureau. Local firms say it is also important to ask how much experience a company has in the New Orleans area.