The city council has soil testing on the agenda next Tuesday. They will decide if soil testing will be the policy for all new subdivisions. This is a needed step in the right direction, but still doesn't completely address the failure at 3008 Clearview. There are still a lot of unanswered questions.
First off, we already had a soil test that said this location had expansive soils which means R403.1.8 of the International Residential Code applies. That sends us to section 1805.8 of the International Building Code. When you get over to Section 1805.8 of the International Building Code list four methods to design foundations for expansive soil. The key word here is “ designed” ie there must be design documents showing that the proposed foundation is suitable for the soil. Documents from someone trained to design foundations as in an engineer.
Bottom line is someone in the city government had to approve the plans for the foundation and that foundation was not suitable for the soil and the area. This should have been caught before the building permit was issued. A foundation designed by a professional engineer should have been required. The proposed policy change is a step in the right direction but needs some fine tuning.
We do have to be careful. We don't want to deal with building codes and related issues in a piecemeal manner. The different codes the city has adopted amount to a few thousand pages that are filled with technical and legal jargon and expansive soil is covered in less than 10. There are lots of potential problems where engineers, architects, and other experts should be involved. The city manager said at the last council meeting “there are things we know and things we don't know”, and that's true but that means they need to get better at doing the research, investigations, reviews, and inspections so they know enough to prevent or at least mitigate problems such as these. The policy should be if in doubt, find out. That's just part of protecting our citizens.
One last point needs to be emphasized: just because a home was properly designed and built for expansive soils doesn't mean there won't be issues in the future. My research has shown that buildings on expansive soil require special attention and handling throughout their life. Simple things like improper lawn watering can shorten the life of a foundation and improper installation and use of irrigation systems, swimming pools, gardens, and guttering can lead to major problems with the foundation and eventual building failure. The city needs to make sure that homeowners know if they are living on expansive soil, and they need to make information available on what to do (and not to do) when dealing with expansive soils.