Heads up, contractors!
For the last 10 years or so I have been doing quite well employing the simplest and most passive of business strategies: sitting and waiting. I have occasionally noted in this space that one of the reasons my underpinning business thrives is that years ago the city of Santa Fe ran out of good building sites and started permitting construction where it shouldn't. The eventual result of such policy is that buildings on hillsides, rock ledges and floodplains move, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, and that turns out to be a marvelous business opportunity.
It used to be that I specialized in the stabilization of older adobe buildings. Those often have rubble footings, sometimes shallow concrete footings, and sometimes no footings at all. By working those complicated issues, and developing hardware to treat them, I became fairly proficient at solving settlement problems; that predictably led to an expanded model that includes houses of much younger vintage and built of any material.
You may be interested to know that today at least 80 percent of our underpinning volume is applied to houses built less than 10 years ago. Why would that be? Simple: bad sites, poor design, negligent construction practices, and, in my view, actionable lapses in inspections by the city. When a house heads south, the architect usually has little exposure to claims and the city, alas, seems unassailable, and so the hit comes for the guy who underbid the building of the project and, of course, the hapless owner.
It is remarkable to me that in the era of regulation and governmental mandates there is no requirement for soils testing before construction begins on a residential project. I'm fine with that because I think the wise homeowner and the self-defensive contractor need to do their own thinking.
When they elide that process, however, they set up a scenario that usually plays out like this: upon breaking ground, the contractor realizes that he underbid the earthwork and he either begins looking for shortcuts or bends the owner entirely out of shape by asking for a sizable change order during the first two weeks of construction. Whichever course is taken, the project is already soured. Looking to overcome a sure loss, the contractor or his sub do strange things like importing non-compactable rubble fill from another site or using the backdirt that was excavated from the footings (complete with tree branches, cement sacks and Taco Bell wrappings) as the surface upon which the slab is poured. Within two years of completion, slabs crack and walls move -- although sometimes failure begins before the roof is on.
It is at this moment that I am summoned from my slothful reveries. That invariably leads to a recommendation from me that money be spent on an engineer and a lawyer. I needn't insert a cliché to make the point that had a small investment in soils testing been performed, likely followed by proactive installation of micropiles or helical piers, vast amounts of money and blood-pressure medicine would have been saved.
Despite it all, I have to admit that I don't have a dog in this fight. Whether the action is proactive or reactive, I stay busy. What does bother me is that the industry is damaged every time a contractor, whether through laziness or just struggling to be competitive, builds a house on a false footing.