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! 

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.