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What are Concrete Footings

Concrete Footing Fundamentals

Under every house is a foundation, and under most foundations are footings. Most of the time we take footings for granted, and usually we can: For typical soils, a common 16- or 20-inch-wide footing can more than handle the relatively light weight of an ordinary house.

On the other hand, if you build on soft clay soil or if there's a soft zone under part of your foundation, there can be trouble. A footing that performs well in good soil may not do so well in weak bearing conditions. We don't often see outright failure, but it's not uncommon to see excessive settlement when soil bearing capacity is low.

If the whole house settles slowly and evenly, some additional settlement is no big deal; but if settlement is uneven (differential settlement), there could be damage. A frame house with wood siding and drywall interiors can probably handle up to 1/2 an inch of differential foundation movement, but even 1/4 of an inch of uneven settling is enough to cause cracks in masonry, tile, or plaster.

It's the unusual situations that cause the most trouble. When the footing is laid out off-center so the wall misses its bearing, when you encounter a soft zone on site, or when the footing is undersized, the builder faces a judgment call. If you think there's a problem ahead, you know you should stop and call an engineer. But if the risk is low, you'd like to keep the job moving.

In these tough cases, it's helpful to understand the bearing strength of soil and the reasons behind footing design rules. In very strong soils, minor mistakes probably aren't a big deal. In weak or marginal soils, however, it's best to be very cautious some of the solutions contractors think up may not really work.

I'm a consulting engineer as well as a contractor, and I get called in to a lot of problem situations. I find that people understand the problems better if they have some background knowledge. For the benefit of builders in the field and at the risk of oversimplifying, I'm going to use non-technical language in this article to briefly explain a little about how footings work and to present some ideas for dealing with special situations. As you look at the solutions I recommend, however, keep in mind that high-bearing-capacity soil is assumed. Any time you're in doubt about the soil under your foundation, you'd be wise to get professional help.

Why Soils Matter

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