Kent Foundation Repair News

A Brief History Of Foundations

When you hear the term “foundation,” what do you think of? It’s undeniable that the word has crept into popular culture as a way of describing character, morals, and core values, at both the individual and institutional level.

Of course, for basement foundation companies, the term has a much more literal meaning. As the base of the entire structure of your home, there’s a reason why your foundation is the most important aspect of your residence. If your foundation is weak, everything else built upon it suffers.

The definition of the term’s root words points to its archeological origins. The word “foundation” comes from the Latin word fundatio or fundare, which means “to lay a base for,” “confirm,” or “establish.” Fundare can also mean bottom or base.

Fonder and fondation arose as Old French words, and merged with the English word “found” to create “foundation” in late Middle English. The word “foundation” has declined in use since the 1760s. Here’s a graph showing the popularity of the word foundation in print media since the 1500s.

Foundations in America and Worldwide

Without a solid foundation, what would your home look like? In modern-day America, it is rare to find a home with a truly weak and dangerous foundation. But globally, there are millions of homes built without solid foundations. We can look to these for examples of what not to do—and why a foundational structure is the key to keeping yourself and your family safe for the long term.

If you head over to areas of South America, you are likely to see a wide array of what are known as stilt houses. A stilt house is built upon raised piles, typically over a body of water. They help to prevent flooding in low-lying areas. More and more houses along the Gulf Coast are being constructed or converted into stilt houses.

This is not to say that the stilt house is necessarily all bad. Modern stilt houses use sturdy steel materials, in order to ensure longevity. However, the old-fashioned wood stilt house may not provide the most solid foundation over the years.

Two other common examples are the pithouse, which typically consists of a hole dug in the ground surrounded by wood and mud, and the house built upon a saddle stone foundation: a structure resting only a few solid rocks. We’ll touch on all of these as we continue down the path of foundation history.

Home Foundations of the Past and Present

We probably take our foundations for granted. It is assumed that most American homes have a solid foundation. Why wouldn’t they, when we live in a developed nation with safe and secure residential structures, as opposed to an impoverished community where grass and straw huts make up the majority of built homes?

It is important to remember that even in contemporary America, foundations were not always as solid as they use to be. Foundations, and the methods of repairing them, have come a long way. The history of foundation repair methods is actually quite fascinating.

Roughly 15,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic age, the earliest remains of “pit dwellings” were discovered. Typically, pit dwellings relied on a dug-out area in the ground surrounded by a structure of wood, animal hide, or even bone. It is still debated whether these pit dwellings were used as homes or storage pits.

Either way, postholes were later added to pit dwellings to provide additional support for a roof. This is our first early example of post in-ground construction. Early postholes were dug to support wood or stone protruding from the ground. This is the earliest type of “foundation” used. The process involved digging out of the ground, or simply placing a post within the ground, to stabilize the structure.

The earliest known use of primitive concrete appeared in 6500 BCE. These solid structures were popularized by Nabataea traders in ancient Syria and Jordan. They were able to construct simple concrete foundations and floors, as well as rubble houses. Some of these structures still exist today.

The Roman Empire

Possibly the most famous example of concrete use was by the Romans. In fact, the Romans may have been one of the first civilizations to utilize concrete foundation repair. They would add horsehair to concrete to reduce the liability of cracks when the concrete hardened. The Romans also discovered that adding blood would make concrete more resistant to frost.

While this understandably sounds archaic to modern homeowners, the Romans’ sophisticated understanding of foundation repair is nonetheless an indication of how this massive, powerful empire used the resources of a flourishing industrial revolution to construct buildings that remain standing to this day.

For the next 700 years, the Romans used concrete extensively. It allowed them to make more complex structures such as domes, arches, and vaults. After the fall of the Roman Empire, knowledge of concrete was lost—until around the 14th century, when it gradually began to make a resurgence.

It wasn’t until hundreds of years later, in 1849, when reinforced concrete was invented, along with massive structures like the Hoover Dam.

The Early Bronze Age and Beyond

Around the Early Bronze Age in the 21st century BCE, the earliest large-scale buildings started to appear. These buildings appeared to have been constructed with even more advanced techniques involving stone and brick. The larger buildings and temples were built with stone foundations.

From this point onwards, foundations split into multiple techniques all over the world. In England and Northern Spain, padstones were commonplace. In Germany, German fachwerkhaus was a popular housing design. Additionally, Poteaux-sur-sol (“post on a sill”) construction was a type of post in ground construction used by the early French settlers of North America between 1534 – 1763.

Rubble trench foundations, an ancient style of construction, was brought back to life and popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rubble trench foundations utilized rubble and loose stone to improve drainage and reduce the use of concrete.

To properly create a rubble trench foundation, a hole was dug below the frost line. The frost line is used to describe the depth at which groundwater in the soil freezes, and it varies slightly depending on the climate. It ranges from zero to six feet in the United States alone. Most building codes require foundations to meet the frost depth requirement, since frost heaving can cause significant damage to a building’s foundation.

Evolution of the Modern Foundation

Of course, with the advancement of foundation technology, foundation repair techniques also changed. Unfortunately, before the technology had caught up with foundations, there was typically not much that could be done for older foundations in need of repair.

Minor repairs, like cracked plaster in stone foundations, could possibly be repaired, but major repairs like crumbly mortar or gaps in the joints may have required a professional mason to resolve.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that technology advanced enough to allow contractors to dig deep foundation holes. This allowed for the rise of taller buildings, and eventually skyscrapers, now common to every major industrialized city in the Western world. Deep foundations allowed for larger design loads using excavation and drilling. Experts found that timber could be used for deep foundations, as well as the old standards: concrete and steel.

Foundation Repair Tools and Methods

Deep foundations are typically installed using a pile driver. Pile drivers have a unique history of their own. The earliest known pile drivers were used around 55 BC by the Romans, and the earliest known drawing of a pile driver appeared in 1475. Modern pile drivers use hydraulic motors, counter-rotating weights and vibrations to install foundations more than one hundred feet into the ground.

The other type of modern foundation is the shallow foundation. Shallow foundations transfer soil loads to the surface rather than a range of depths like a deep foundation. Typically, shallow foundations include earthbag foundations, slab-on-grade foundations, and rubble trench foundations.

Today, foundations can be repaired with advanced machinery. Techniques that were technically impossible in generations past can now be easily resolved by basement foundation companies with expertise in foundation repair. Foundations can be repaired and even strengthened, adding durability to the building.

Some of the tools used for modern day foundation repair include screw-piles (or helical piles), earth anchors, and retaining walls. Helical piles themselves are not a new technology. Screw foundations appeared as early as the 1800s, primarily used as pile foundations for lighthouses as well as piers for harbors. The wrought-iron screw-pile was created by Alexander Mitchell in 1833, allowing for improved construction over the standard straight-pile method.

However, helical piles had existed for over a decade by the time Mitchell introduced his new screw-pile design. Screw-pile lighthouses and piers stand on piles that screwed into sandy river and ocean bottoms. Over one hundred screw-pile lighthouses were placed along the United States east coast between the 1850s and 1890s.

The original helical piers had limited load-bearing capacity. Modern-day helical piers can hold a weight exceeding 200 metric tons. Modern helical piers also offer a variety of designs for different concrete and steel structures. They are still used today for roads, rails, lighthouses, and telecommunications.

They are heavily favored for their ability to be used on pre-existing structures as well as their fast installation. Helical piers offer a number of benefits, including easier installation, shorten project times, reduced costs and risk, and a smaller carbon footprint.

Retaining Walls: Earth Anchors & Helical Tiebacks

Retaining walls are another design in the foundation family that have existed for some time in history. Retaining walls are designed specifically to prevent sloped soil from naturally falling off. They are especially useful on hills and steep slopes, and they allow for two different elevations in areas that would typically be surrounded by hills.

The most recognizable type of retaining wall that you may be familiar with is a basement wall. A basement wall allows for a flat elevation, such as a basement, where the surrounding soil is uneven or sloped. Basement walls are built to resist pressures and pushes from the surrounding soil, but sometimes they need extra support.

Earth anchors are another modern form of basemernt repair that have proven to be highly effective. They are also known as ground anchors or mechanical anchors. Earth anchors can be used to support retaining walls.

Similarly, helical tiebacks can also be used to provide additional support for retaining walls. Unlike an earth anchor, helical tiebacks are horizontal wires or rods that are used to reinforce and stabilize retaining walls. One end of the helical tieback is anchored into the surrounding soil, while the other end is attached and secured to the wall. Helical tiebacks also work hand-in-hand with helical anchors.

As you can see, foundations and foundation repair methods have a long and interesting history. Some knowledge was lost, some was improved upon, and who knows what we will discover about foundation technology in the future?

Kent Foundation Repair has even worked on repairing historic homes. We completed a foundation repair job on a 150-year-old house that required commission approval. In the process of repairing the support for the historic home, we wanted to be as unintrusive as possible.

This particular home had a Michigan basement, meaning that it has shallow footing. However, that shallow footing consisted of a single rock layer with weak mortar. After consulting with a professional architect, we were able to install helical piers without extra pressure or vibrations to ensure the structural integrity of the house. We are proud to say that site disruption was kept to a minimum.

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