Why Your Front Porch Is Failing (and What to Do About It)

stairs after collapsing
We see a LOT of these in Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, and Alameda!

If you own an older home in the Bay Area, your front porch porch should be a big area of concern.

Here’s why … 

Porches can look okay from our normal vantage point (up above) and not appear to be in distress.

However, when viewed from below (in other words, from a structural perspective), we find that many are close to failing. 

Given the health and safety ramifications of a porch that’s in bad shape, it makes sense to figure out if there are any issues during any visit to the crawlspace and to come up with a plan of action for any needed repairs.

In this article, we’ll tell you what to look out for and how to choose a contractor that does the job right the first time. 

If Your Front Porch Is Falling Apart, This Is Probably Why

As is the case with drainage and foundation issues, water is usually the primary culprit in porch deterioration and failure

The waterproofing between the framing and concrete was only tar paper back in the day, with a limited life span. And since concrete becomes somewhat porous over time, along with minor cracks and voids in the concrete and stucco that allow water in, moisture can cause the tar paper to deteriorate, leading to damage to the framing and sheathing underneath. 

Since old framing was typically redwood, there’s limited moisture resistance, which leads to dry-rot.  Damaged framing can then lead to settlement of the unreinforced concrete slab and steps above, leading to cracks, and then causing further moisture infiltration and ongoing damage.

The extent of damage will often determine the suggested solution to the problem. If the structural damage is minor and the concrete above is still in reasonable condition, we can sometimes get away with adding additional pressure-treated (AKA moisture-resistant) framing under the porch landing and stairs to stabilize things and prevent further movement. If the concrete is badly cracked, with no remaining waterproofing and significant framing damage, there becomes a point where total replacement is warranted.

How to (Properly) Replace a Front Porch That’s Failing

In a replacement scenario, there are many complex steps involved (most contractors will skip one or more of these):

  1. We remove all of the old concrete, waterproofing and framing.  If the porch foundation is deteriorated, settled badly and is in poor condition it should be replaced as well. 
  2. We install new upgraded pressure-treated framing, generally a lot beefier than what was there originally. 
  3. We then install pressure-treated plywood sheathing, and on top of that we install a bituthene waterproof membrane, a major improvement over the prior tar paper. 
  4. Metal flashing is installed where the porch meets the house and where the stairs meet the sidewalls, prior to new lath and stucco repairs. 
  5. Rebar is added to the new concrete for additional strength and stability.

Current code dictates that any areas on the stairs or landings with drop-offs of 30 inches or more requires 42-inch guardrails with maximum 4” spacing between members. This is generally achieved with metal railings or reconstructed stucco sidewalls, but this can be a design challenge given the fact that the original guardrails were often non-existent and stucco walls were often very low. 

Fortunately, we have several solutions to meet current code that are aesthetically pleasing.

The combination of new foundations, new pressure-treated framing, waterproofing and reinforced concrete and upgraded railings will provide the proper safety and longevity to the porch and stairs that was previously lacking.

If you’re a homeowner in Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, or Alameda and you need your front porch repaired or replaced, fill out our estimate request form and we’ll get back to you right away if we feel we’re the right fit for you job! 

Do I Need a New Foundation?

Most clients have no knowledge about their foundation and its condition until they begin to notice problems inside their homes- generally settlement cracks, sticking doors and sloping floors are indicators that something is amiss.

Though there is no cut and dry formula to show when a foundation needs to be replaced, there are a number of indicators which when looked at together should point the direction one way or another.

1. Are there drainage issues?

Drainage is the #1 culprit, and leads to settlement, cracking, and deterioration of concrete. Older concrete is somewhat porous, and water will soak into the material causing it to deteriorate. Since most older homes have nonexistent or improperly installed drainage systems, it is important to have the drainage issues addressed- either as part of the foundation work, or if the foundation is in decent condition to avoid an expensive foundation replacement project in the short term.

2. Is the concrete deteriorating?

By poking around with a screwdriver, we can see how intact the concrete is. Often concrete with lots of sand in the mix that has been subjected to drainage issues will be so soft it can be pulled apart with your fingers. This condition can be of major concern, as this concrete has very little strength and could liquefy in an earthquake. The harder the material the better. Appearances can be deceiving. Some of the ugliest concrete with lots of rocks and voids can be quite strong and is less of a concern.

3. Are there cracks?

A few cracks in older foundations is expected, but lots of cracks, especially one’s that are ¼” or larger can be problematic. Since older foundations typically do not have rebar in them, once large cracks occur the concrete can separate into sections that can rotate or settle independently from one another, causing settlement or shifting in the house above.

4. Is there rebar?

Most homes built before 1930 or so do not have steel reinforcement in them. Rebar helps to strengthen the concrete and hold it together in the event of cracking from settlement or earthquakes- cracks can still develop, but they remain hairline and don’t pull apart. The modern foundations we build have at least 5 pieces of rebar running horizontally, and verticals every 12” so they are heavily reinforced.

5. Depth and location of the concrete.

Often older foundations are not of sufficient dimensions to work effectively. If the footings are not at least a foot or more below the grade level they will be subject more to movement in expansive soils and drainage issues. If they are not 6” or more above grade there can be water issues at the framing level causing dry rot issues above. And if the soil is excavated on the interior of the basement or crawlspace too close to the foundations or if the footings are functioning as retaining walls and they are not designed properly they may settle or move, and they may create drainage issues leading to more settlement.

6. How old is the concrete?

Concrete from the early 1900’s that is still in place in older foundations is often in poor condition. Since most of the homes we work on in the East Bay were built between 1900 and 1930 this would definitely apply to them. Again, drainage, lack of rebar, improper dimensions, cracks etc. are much more pronounced in older foundations.

When all of these elements are looked at together, it is easier to get a sense of how your foundation is performing in these key areas. In many situations, where I give the foundation an overall score of 1-3 on a scale of 1-10 the need to replace is fairly obvious. In the 4-5 area it often becomes a more difficult question, where the client needs to consider their resources, how long they plan on remaining in the home, etc. If the foundation is in fair condition but in need of drainage work which might add another 20-30 years to its lifespan, that is often a reasonable alternative course of work. When the condition is poor, however, it generally does not make sense to do a drainage only project, since that work would need to be torn out and redone sooner rather than later as part of an inevitable foundation replacement.

Water is the REAL ENEMY for most homeowners!

The bottom line is that water is the main culprit implicated in most of the damage created to the exterior of your home, and can lead to interior damage as well. Maintenance problems such as chipping paint and damaged trim, poor flashing details around windows, decks, porches and doors, a roof which is leaking or needs replacement, or the lack of a proper drainage system around the home will all lead to potential problems when water comes into contact with your residence. Rainfall and underground water sources such as creeks and springs, a high water table, irrigation systems, leaking water lines or broken or disconnected drain lines- all of these water sources can wreck havoc on your home. Lets discuss how the different components of your homes exterior are affected. Read More

Hidden Structural Damage – When your front stairs may no longer be supportive

We were recently doing some minor repairs to a set of front concrete stairs when they suddenly and inexplicably collapsed into a pile of rubble in front of the home. After overcoming my initial dismay, I began to consider what might have caused this dramatic event. If this were to have happened when the homeowner was entering the house they could have been seriously injured. From above and below the stairs appeared to be in reasonable condition.

stairs after collapsing
Stairs After Collapsing
On closer inspection it was clear the concrete steps had been patched in the past, allowing water to get into the support framing. The only waterproofing under the old concrete protecting the framing was building paper (tar paper), which has a limited lifespan when it is in frequent contact with moisture. Since the old concrete had no steel reinforcing (rebar), once it settled due to the poor support framing it actually broke up into several smaller pieces. The wood form material underneath the stairs concealed this cracking. Because of a lack of proper flashing where the steps met the stucco sidewalls, water got into the walls and rotted the studs. This framing made up the structure supporting the steps, but it was also concealed by the stucco. All it took was the removal of one 2×4 and the whole thing came crashing down. If you figure at least a couple of cubic yards of material you are looking at approximately 10,000 pounds of concrete!!!!

New Stair Installation by Jim Gardner
New Stairs
Front stair and landing replacements are becoming a significant part of our work, and with good reason. This dramatic collapse shows what can happen when the damage is severe, and why it might go unnoticed. With older concrete structures that show signs distress one should make test openings in the stucco and the support framing to look closely at their condition. If they are in poor shape it might make sense to consider replacing the whole structure. Sometimes new foundation work is required, but not necessarily. We would demo the existing concrete steps and support framing and replace the wood with new pressure-treated material, usually of a bigger dimension and with narrower spacing. This usually requires some detailing from our structural engineer to design the supports to modern engineering standards. On top of the framing we use pressure-treated plywood and then a bituthene roofing membrane for waterproofing, along with metal flashing at the sides adjacent to the wall framing. The final step is the steel-reinforcing for the new concrete. The end product is a much more supportive structure which will provide a safe entrance to your home for many more years to come.

All Drainage Systems Are Not Created Equal

Why A Watered Down Solution Can Do You More Harm Than Good

Having spent a lot of time in recent years reconstructing a number of ill-conceived drainage projects, it has become fairly obvious that there is a serious lack of knowledge on the part of both the installers and homeowners as to the ABC’s of a good drainage system. Unfortunately, putting in a poorly designed (and often inexpensive) system can create problems that weren’t there to begin with, leading to extensive repairs down the road. Read More

Earthquake Retrofitting Products and Services

Earthquake (or seismic) retrofitting involves stabilizing your house to help minimize any potential damage in the event of an earthquake.

It is not an all or nothing proposition. There are certain retrofitting basics that relate to most homes. These usually involve doing work in the accessible areas of the basement or crawlspace. More advanced projects often included strengthening the upper levels of your home, areas around openings such as garages or porches, or addressing other structural weaknesses. Basic retrofitting can often be done using standard details that Jim Gardner Construction- Structural Contractor can show you. These projects are often referred to as “voluntary sub structural strengthening “. We also work closely with a local structural engineer to provide low cost structural details so you can avoid costly engineering fees and over-designed projects in more complex retrofits.

  • Foundation Bolting
  • Earthquake Retrofitting
  • Seismic Retrofitting Earthquake Repairs
  • Seismic Repairs
  • Sheer walls
  • Hurricane Ties
  • L70
  • Foundation Anchor Plates
  • Holdowns
  • HD5 or PHD5A
  • Strong Walls
  • Anchor bolts
  • T- Straps
  • A35
  • Epoxy
  • Post base brackets
  • Sub-structural Strengthening

Jim Gardner Construction- Structural Contractor can provide you with an expert consultation, and help you make an informed decision about your retrofitting options and their relative costs. Jim Gardner will make sure your home has the best protection available against the potential devastation of the next earthquake, and that you and your family will be safe.

The Homeowner’s Guide to Earthquake Safety contains many internet based resources. Jim Gardner Construction is providing this information to homeowners interested in improving the earthquake safety of their homes. The content provided is intended to provide a quick reference to these web sites and files.

Basement Home Additions – Can You Dig It?

Now that the real estate boom in the Bay Area has subsided, more people are focusing on making long-term repairs and improvements to their existing homes. When these projects involve the creation of more living space, the standard approach has been to build an addition. These are either second-story additions, additions behind the existing residence, or a combination of the two.

Another way to create new space which is becoming increasingly popular is to add space underneath your home, which for lack of a better term we will call the Basement Addition. This can involve the use of an existing basement, or the excavation of a portion or all of the crawlspace to create an entirely new area. There are advantages and disadvantages to either type of improvement.

The Traditional Home Addition

Adding a second-story addition allows one to take advantage of natural light and visibility. Architecturally, these spaces can be very appealing. By going up, you are not removing yard space from Piedmont’s typically small lots. On the other hand, the increased visibility may be an issue for your neighbors. In a community where zoning regulations and neighbor input are looked at carefully, these projects can be difficult to get approved.

Second-story additions almost always require additional foundation and structural work to support the upper level, especially in older homes. The need for a stairway usually requires altering floor space at the lower level. And the rear addition requires using yard space which is not always available in smaller properties, due to limitations on the percentage of structure allowed on the lot or setback issues.

We Come From the Land Down Under

And I’m not talking about Australia! When exterior additions are not a feasible alternative, you can consider using the space under your home. The cost of such a project and the quality of the space developed depend on several factors. In general, the greater the slope your house is on and the more dirt you have to remove, the larger new foundation retaining walls become and the higher the cost. Taller foundations may limit the dimension of windows and will require more creative solutions to build a comfortable space while meeting habitability requirements.

Habitable space (aka living space) must fulfill certain building requirments and is significantly more valuable than non-habitable space (aka storage space) since it increases the total square footage of the living space in your home. In order for a basement addition to be considered living space it must be at least 7′-6′ in height, heated, properly insulated, with enough windows to meet glazing requirerments (around 10% of floor area).

Non-habitable space does not have the same monetary value, but it can be an important part of a basement project. Media rooms, mechanical rooms, wine cellars, laundry rooms, and bathrooms are spaces which do not necessarily require windows (or for which small windows are sufficient). They can be created in the portion of the addition which is mostly below grade (underground), reserving walls with larger window spaces for family rooms, bedrooms, home offices, recreation rooms, playrooms, and so on.

Aren’t Basements Cold, Wet, and Nasty?

Absolutely not, if they are built or remodeled properly. With proper heat, insulation, light, ventilation, and appropriate finishes the basement addition should be similiar to the rest of the living space. Concrete retaining walls tend to make basements quiet, cool, and pleasant during warm weather.

The key to basement projects is the integration of structural and mechanical elements with the remodeling of the new space. Most basement additions require the removal and replacement of older foundations and the installation of a modern drainage system as part of the work. Since most of the house is affected by the structures underneath it, there is more going on in a basement addition than in a traditional remodel. The plumbing, heating, and electrical systems for the house may have to be modified or relocated. Since existing basements are not designed as finished spaces, their framing is often irregular and needs to be modified. Properly addressing all of these elements is crucial in planning this type of work.

The Bigger Picture

At a time when habitable space in Piedmont is valued at approximately $600 per square foot, it is easy to see how a large basement addition can add value to your home. Basement additions will generally address existing structural problems as a part of the work. A full discussion at the beginning of such a project of the issues and alternatives outlined above will lead to the best design decisions and allow the homeowner to compare the cost and benefits of the work as part of that process.

Jim Gardner is a Piedmont resident and contractor whose company, Jim Gardner Construction Inc., specializes in basement additions and structural repair. He can be reached at (510) 655-3409.

Solving Residential Drainage Problems

Drainage problems are quite a nuisance for many homeowners in the Bay Area. Flooded basements, garages, and water in crawlspaces and in finished spaces under homes are commonplace. Most people don’t know where to start to solve these problems, or worse yet may have had prior drainage work done that was either inadequate or in some cases actually made their problems worse. A basic understanding of drainage fundamentals may help homeowners make better decisions regarding future drainage work. Read More

Design-Build Remodeling: An Affordable and Creative Construction Alternative

The consumer in the residential remodeling market can find it difficult to know where to start when they are ready to embark on a home improvement project. The bidding process and the hiring of contractors, architects, or designers can often be intimidating and confusing. What most clients don’t know is that there are alternatives to the standard approach of hiring an architect and getting three estimates. For those individuals who are looking for more of an integrated approach to their project, Design-Build may be the way to go.

The Budget-Driven Approach

Shawn McCadden, a pioneer in the field of Design-Build describes it as follows: “Design-Build is a process whereby the homeowner selects a building and design team to assist with the new construction or remodeling project from conception. The contractor, designer(s) and engineer work together from the onset with the homeowner to manage cost and guide the project design based upon a predetermined budget range.”

In Design-Build cost is a part of the decision making process from the beginning. Alternatives can be presented so that the client can decide on what level of project to proceed with based upon what they can afford (or what they would like to spend). In a competitive-bidding scenario the design has already been determined. However, the actual project cost remains a mystery until the bids come in – sometimes significantly above what the client expected.

Why Design-Build Works

Integrating budget and design create fewer cost surprises. When a client decides to make decisions that impact the project cost, alternatives can be considered to keep the project within budget before the design work is completed and before a construction contract is signed. Since the Design-Build Team is brought together early on, the design and budgeting process can be more efficient since everyone will be working together toward a common goal.

The Process

The first step is the initial meeting between the client and the Design-Builder (usually a General Contractor) to define the scope of the work and the budget. When the client agrees to move forward, they sign a Design-Build agreement. This agreement establishes a cost for the design, which is generally a flat fee based upon the project budget, or it may be an hourly cost. Some projects may be simple, involving only the owner and Design-Builder. On larger remodeling projects, there may be several meetings with various team members prior to construction. The design team works with the owner to make the best decisions and materials selections that fit the budget. Once the design is completed and the price is finalized, the construction agreement is drafted and work will begin.

The goal of Design-Build is to create an integrated process for construction projects. The client is part of the creative work, helping make decisions that affect the project cost. By working together as a team towards a common creative and budget goal, we feel that Design-Build provides opportunities for a more enjoyable and affordable construction experience for everyone involved.

Written by Jim Gardner. Jim is a Piedmont resident and President of Jim Gardner Construction Inc.
You can contact him at (510) 655-3409.