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More than £1000 million worth of subsidence claims, involving cracking and distortion in homes, were submitted to UK insurance firms during the period 1989 –1991. Much of the damage arose from foundation movement caused by problems such as subsidence and heave of the ground, and landslip. Much of the money was spent on underpinning the foundations of houses and blocks of flats. Underpinning usually involves deepening foundations; it may sometimes involve providing a new, different form of foundation.
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cracked walls, professional fees, redecoration and temporary accommodation while repair work is carried out. Why has this growth in underpinning occurred? What indeed is underpinning and why is it carried out at such expense? To answer these and other questions, the Building Research Establishment commissioned a nation-wide survey of underpinning. The findings of this survey and technical issues concerning underpinning are presented in a BRE Report, Foundation movement and remedial underpinning in low-rise buildings. This Digest presents a more general discussion and is intended to give background information on the causes of foundation movement, and when and why underpinning may be necessary.
Most insurance companies include cover as part of their general building insurance. This was first introduced in 1971, since when there has been a substantial growth in claims. Each year many families will experience the anxiety and disruption of the underpinning process. Unless their home is new Figure 1 Pier-and-beam underpinning and covered by a warranty scheme, they also have to meet the excess on their insurance policy, usually between £500 and £1000, and may incur additional expenses arising from the employment of professional advisers. If they are not insured, they will themselves have to meet the full costs of remedial measures. This could be £20,000 or substantially more in severe cases. Underpinning accounts for about half of this, the rest being the cost of repairs to
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the burden of proving a valid subsidence claim rests with the home owners. This long period can be especially disconcerting when the sale of a property is urgently required. The majority of subsidence insurance policies are very similar. Some loss adjusters have sufficient expertise to investigate and diagnose the cause of the damage. the home owner making the claim will be required to demonstrate that the claim is legitimate by obtaining professional. The ‘Foundation 15’ guarantee scheme. The required expertise is more likely to be available from chartered civil and structural engineers. Some of these professionals will be specialist foundation contractors. with many insurers. in some cases. dealing with a loss adjuster. a solicitor. seek advice. lodge a claim. usually from his insurer and will. more commonly. the conclusion emerges that the degree of movement and consequent cracking that cause concern to home owners is rarely of structural significance. operated by Municipal Mutual. but there can be differences between policies. From examination of underpinning practice reported in the BRE survey and in earlier studies by BRE of damage arising from clay soil shrinkage and swelling during and after severe drought conditions. particularly those of the large insurers. A lengthy process follows: lodging a claim. they must appoint their own adviser to investigate and determine the cause of damage to the home. For example. or the use of defective building materials. or the NHBC directly if discovery is in years 2 to 10. appointing a contractor to carry out remedial work and making good the damage. Most mortgage companies require to be informed when damage has occurred. may be considerably longer. some exclude damage to patios.352 HOW TO RESPOND WHEN DAMAGE IS DISCOVERED Many owners will be unaware of damage to their homes until they try to sell. or chartered building surveyors. the house owner may directly approach an underpinning contractor. The time interval between the first discovery of damage and the completion of the repair to the building is unlikely to be less than a year and. appointing a professional to investigate. 2 . it is useful to have an understanding of why damage occurs and to consider carefully how much repair work to carry out. The vendor will. ultimately. the potential for movement to continue and for damage to worsen substantially is not always fully considered. or more often his mortgage company. others exclude damage caused by structural alterations or faulty workmanship. It is important to appreciate that. technical advice on what has happened. the most common being shrinking and swelling of clay soils. reports a problem with cracks or floor slab subsidence and the purchaser is deterred from buying unless a favourable engineer’s report can be obtained. If a property is covered by a guarantee such as the 10year National House Building Council scheme. having the claim accepted. Then the surveyor for the purchaser. However. the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or similar organisations. therefore. therefore. the owner may approach the registered builder if the damage is discovered during the first two years. Before embarking on a long process of putting right the problems and restoring the building to its condition before the damage occurred. Other sources of advice include the Building Control Officer at the local authority. to decide if the problem is serious and to recommend appropriate remedial measures. in most instances. covers a period of 15 years after construction. Then they pass the case to their nominated insurance company who will normally appoint a loss adjuster. SEVERITY OF MOVEMENT AND CRACKING Foundation movement can result from many causes. drives and floor slabs when external walls are not damaged by the same cause and at the same time.
this may result from several factors. floor slabs have been caused to heave by the swelling of the under-floor filling material. This list is not exhaustive. long-term downhill movements on slopes sometimes cause damage in certain areas. including: G G Mining. Occasionally. It is the differential settlement of one part of a building relative to another that produces distortion and cracking. or to the ingress of water. thereby. VIBRATION Very occasionally. In either case. the formation of sulphates in mortar can crack walls. variations in soil strength or compressibility beneath the building. MOVEMENT DUE TO LOADING Minor cracking can result from increases in load. from the foundations. such as variations in the shape and size of foundations (eg partial basements) or. This cracking is caused by the initial settlement of the extension and is not normally a continuing problem. more commonly. for example when heavy items are stored in lofts causing ceilings to sag. severe vibration from heavy traffic or construction plant may induce small increases in existing cracks. G G G G G Heave: this is upward movement of the ground. the cracks are not significant and may be readily repaired. only a few of these will require significant work to remove the problem.352 WHAT CAUSES CRACKING AND DISTORTION IN WALLS? Cracking and distortion can occur for a wide variety of reasons. such as certain burnt colliery shales that are prone to chemical expansion in the presence of moisture. which can occasionally exacerbate small. 3 . The introduction of central heating in old properties may cause drying shrinkage cracks. inferior quality materials may eventually bring about damage. for example by pumping or. moisture-filled external cracks. or modification of the foundations by underpinning to stop foundation movement. the drying effects of trees on clay soils. are removed. MOISTURE MOVEMENTS Quite noticeable cracks will sometimes appear in new houses as walls dry out. or when structural alterations are made to a house. Removal of water from the ground. that have dried the soil. summer weather. Other documents recommended for further reading also discuss causes of cracking. the soil swells as it becomes wetter. CREEP Many building materials deform slowly under load over many years. Adding an extension can sometimes result in cracks occurring where it joins the original structure. This very slow movement may eventually cause small cracks. Landslip: although major. G THERMAL EFFECTS Differing amounts of expansion and contraction in different building materials may cause small cracks. such as solution cavities in chalk (‘swallow holes’). Compression of loose. Collapse of the ground surface above natural cavities formed below. they are listed at the end of this Digest. Soil erosion owing to natural underground water flow or leaking drains. Except for foundation movement. in particular circumstances and in extremely cold weather. FOUNDATION MOVEMENT G Settlement: downward movement brought about by the pressure from a foundation causing compression of the ground. Very occasionally. The more common causes of cracking are given here. more usually. It is caused either by the removal of load (for example in a deep excavation) or by an increase in the water content of the ground that can occur when trees. POOR DESIGN DETAILING AND WORKMANSHIP This can cause cracking in newly-completed buildings. or start small cracks where high stresses are concentrated. G Subsidence: downward movement of the ground brought about by activity in the ground. Insurance policies usually cover subsidence or heave only of the site and so would not apply to this problem. the causes of cracking all stem from problems in the structure of the building and only extremely rarely do these problems require major repairs. especially in dry. freezing of the ground can cause heave. Very rarely. PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL CHANGES An example is severe frost. severe landslipping is a very rare event in the UK. Excavation that removes lateral support from adjacent ground and. man-made fill owing to its self-weight.
352 WHAT IS UNDERPINNING? Underpinning usually involves the extension of the existing foundations downwards to reach stiffer or more stable ground. including the degree of disturbance to the building occupants. underpinning is applied either to part or to the whole of the foundation. 4 . Figure 2 Mass concrete underpinning This involves excavating systematically in adjoining bays beneath the existing foundation. either just above the existing footing or replacing it. Figure 3 Pier-and-beam underpinning A reinforced-concrete beam is installed in the wall. After filling the pits with concrete to form piers. infilled pond. filling the excavations with concrete and then pinning-up the small gap between the old and new foundation. The sequence is indicated by the numbers on the drawing above. There are several methods: Mass concrete Pier-and-beam Pile-and-beam Pile Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4 Figure 5 Whatever method is used. requiring all foundations to be extended down to stiffer ground. perhaps on soft. The vast bulk of underpinning projects involve partial work only. followed at 30% by pier-and-beam. the nature of the ground and the cost. Partial underpinning is employed when only localised foundation movements have occurred and where the stabilising of only part of the foundation will not have a detrimental influence on the remainder. peaty ground. and discrete pits are excavated at intervals beneath the modified wall. or when an additional storey is to be added to that building. Which is appropriate will depend on the scale of the problem and the ground conditions. The mass concrete method accounts for over 40% of all underpinning work. An example is where a house has been built partly over the site of an old. pinning-up is carried out between the concrete and the base of the beam or existing foundation. Most of the foundation is perfectly stable so that underpinning only the part over the old pond will be satisfactory. Total underpinning may be performed when an entire building is settling. The principal reasons for choosing a particular method of underpinning concern the extent of the underpinning required.
installed through holes drilled in existing foundations. The use of inclined mini-piles. VIEW ‘D’ FLOOR SLAB MINI-PILES 5 .352 Figure 4 Pile-and-beam underpinning Piles are installed beside the walls and beams are inserted. A variant of this type. is becoming more widelyused (View C). Figure 5 VIEW ‘A’ THROUGH THE WALL VIEW ‘B’ CANTILEVERED VIEW ‘C’ INCLINED MINI-PILES Pile underpinning Vertical piles installed either side of the wall are connected at their heads by a needle that passes transversely through the wall (View A). removes the necessity for piling inside the building (View B). See Digest 313 for more details on mini-piling. to join the tops of the piles. vertical mini-piles can be installed through pre-drilled holes to underpin a subsiding floor slab (View D). both within the walls and through them. Small. in which a cantilever is used instead of the needle.
However. A high incidence of cases of floor slab subsidence has been reported in certain areas of the UK. However. the survey revealed that a substantial number of underpinning operations were carried out principally to ensure that a house sale could proceed. The attitudes of insurers to monitoring varies: some will not pay for it unless a valid claim for subsidence is subsequently proved. However. However. in certain. regardless of its severity. this is explained in Difficulties encountered. usually obvious circumstances. an example is where deep-seated movements caused by mining activity are taking place. floors have been completely replaced in order to bring about a house sale. a professional adviser will recommend whether or not underpinning is needed (although the ultimate decision may rest with an insurer) but it is important for the home owner to appreciate that underpinning need not normally be the consequence of the discovery of cracks. underpinning with mini-piles may be appropriate. a decision to underpin can bring about its own problems. underpinning may be required to strengthen a fractured foundation. in some localities it has become ‘common knowledge’ that floors may have moved. this is caused by particular ground conditions. like the presence of a layer of slightly organic soil just below the topsoil layer. It was apparent that many owners expect their house to be underpinned if cracking has occurred. Deciding if damage is likely to get worse may be difficult. If continuous floor movement is evident. In some cases. In certain. In the majority of cases. For higher levels of damage. when all that has actually occurred is minor movement that has since stopped. cause and whether or not it is worsening. Guidance on the likelihood of progressive foundation movements is given in Digest 251. it is not surprising that underpinning is often chosen as the easiest. In these circumstances. it suggests that underpinning is necessary only beyond a certain level of damage (Category 2) and where there is evidence of continuing movement. Demonstrating that movement is continuing will involve time-consuming monitoring. In part. quickest and safest option when doubt exits. 6 . rather than to eliminate continuing movement. Establishing the exact cause of movement may require expensive exploration and soil testing. even if the primary cause of damage has ceased or been removed. rare circumstances underpinning may be inappropriate despite continuing subsidence. arguing that by so doing they reduce the chances of paying for unnecessary underpinning. It is therefore important to find out if movement is continuing. the anticipated worsening of damage to Category 2 and beyond may warrant underpinning to arrest movement. This also contains advice on determining the severity of a case of damage.352 WHEN IS UNDERPINNING NEEDED? Underpinning is usually necessary only if further damaging foundation movements need to be stopped. others offer to pay even if no valid claim results. so that some surveyors have become particularly diligent in looking for gaps below skirting boards or for evidence of hollowness beneath the slab.
The clay soils that are most prone to volume changes are found in south-east England where there is also a high density of major tree-cover. Figure 7 Annual value of insurance claims for subsidence and heave damage to dwellings. this is reflected in the enormous increase in claims shown in the figure. to appoint an engineer or building surveyor to ascertain that the underpinning is strictly necessary and. though it is advisable. to ensure it is sufficiently extensive and correctly applied. Figure 6 shows the distribution with the UK divided into 12 arbitrary areas. design and supervise underpinning work. 7 . mass concrete underpinning can be carried out by builders. Directly from a specialist underpinning contractor: there are many of these currently in operation and most offer a variety of methods to fit individual circumstances. Based on payments made by the major insurance companies following the mild drought of 1984. with expertise in foundation engineering. the very prolonged drought from 1989 to 1992 produced many cases of subsidence damage. G Figure 6 Distribution of underpinning projects in 12 areas throughout the UK WHO DESIGNS AND CONSTRUCTS UNDERPINNING? Underpinning can be obtained in several ways: G From a chartered civil or structural engineer who will design a suitable scheme and supervise the contractor who performs the underpinning.352 WHERE IS UNDERPINNING MOST CARRIED OUT? The nation-wide survey commissioned by BRE found that about 50% of all underpinning is carried out in London and the Home Counties. including street trees. the major cause of damaging foundation movement in houses and other low-rise buildings is found to be shrinking and swelling of clay soils. firstly. This has led to better assessments of the need for underpinning and is a contributing factor in the fall in the total cost of underpinning throughout the UK (Figure 7). There are two main reasons for this distribution: G In the UK. The south-east generally experiences less rainfall than other areas. much partial. G G There has recently been an increasing trend for insurance companies and their loss adjusters to employ consulting engineers. exacerbated by the presence of large trees. However. A valuable source of information on foundation specialists who will be able to advise on underpinning matters is the Geotechnical Directory of the United Kingdom. secondly. There has been a discernible heightening in awareness of minor cracking in houses throughout the UK. From a normal building contractor. to investigate claims and. People take a more serious view of cracking the more valuable is their home. where appropriate.
Remedial measures that do not constitute a ‘material alteration’ do not require Building Control approval. For example. WD2 7JR Telephone 01923 664664 Facsimile 01923 664098 8 . London. WD2 7QG Anyone wishing to use the information given in this publication should satisfy themselves that it is not out of date. require more information on underpinning proposals than others. some liability may attach to the approving authority. Some local authorities. EC1R 4QX Applications to republish all or any part of this publication should be made to Construction Research Communications Ltd. therefore. for example with reference to the Building Regulations Technical enquiries to: BRE Advisory Service Garston. the nature of the movements has been wrongly diagnosed or an insufficient length of the building has been underpinned. In these cases. Such measures would include the repair of drains. Watford. the matter is usually resolved only by calling in geotechnical experts to assess the risks. constitutes a ‘material alteration’ and is subject to control under the Building Regulations. particularly in the south of England. heave and out-of-plumb 359 Repairing brick and block masonry 361 Why do buildings crack? ISBN 0 85125 576 0 © Copyright BRE 1993 Republished on CD-ROM 1997. Advice on repairing cracked brickwork is given under Further reading. Herts. as will impair the stability of any part of another building. forms of structural tying above foundation level and the removal of trees held to be responsible for subsidence damage. It.. PO Box 202. FURTHER READING Foundation movement and remedial underpinning in low-rise buildings. 1991. British Geotechnical Society. the underpinning has not been taken to a sufficient depth. movement of the ground. by Construction Research Communications Ltd. BRE Report. with permission of Building Research Establishment Ltd. Underpinning has. Part 2 242 Low-rise buildings on shrinkable clay soils: Part 3 251 Assessment of damage in low-rise buildings 276 Hardcore 298 The influence of trees on house foundations in clay soils 313 Mini-piling for low-rise buildings 343 Simple measuring and monitoring of movement in low-rise buildings. local authority building control staff have been known to reject applications because they perceive a significant risk that damage will occur in the adjoining property as a result of the underpinning. construction practice has been poor. It is perceived that. making good cracks or repairing other damage should not be attempted until these measures are complete. Westminster.. Watford. It has. Having the underpinning designed and supervised by a suitably qualified professional should provide assurance of satisfactory performance. without causing . Since the Building Regulations state that: The building shall be so constructed .. GUARANTEES OF UNDERPINNING WORKS Many specialist underpinning contractors offer guarantees lasting for 20 or 25 years. to be satisfied the work will prevent any recurrence of damage that constitutes a threat to the health and safety of the building occupants and will not cause instability to any other building such as to threaten the health or safety of its occupants. Mass concrete underpinning work carried out by local builders is probably not covered by any form of guarantee. Digest 298 deals with the influence of trees on foundations in clay soils. DIFFICULTIES ENCOUNTERED A particularly difficult problem sometimes arises when substantial underpinning is deemed necessary to one of a pair of semi-detached houses or to one of a terrace of houses.. bonding of cracked brickwork. Part 1: cracks 344 Simple measuring and monitoring of movements in low-rise buildings. in giving approval. 151 Rosebery Avenue London. The reason for this ‘failure’ of the underpinning is usually poor design. not prevented the recurrence of movements or the reappearance of small cracks. Part 2: settlement. REINSTATEMENT OF DAMAGE If underpinning or other remedial measures are necessary to arrest a case of foundation movement. occasionally.352 THE ROLE OF BUILDING REGULATIONS IN UNDERPINNING Lord Denning defined underpinning as “an extension of a building in a vertical downward direction”. Institution of Civil Engineers. Geotechnical Directory of the United Kingdom. BRE Digests 240 Low-rise buildings on shrinkable clay soils: Part 1 241 Low-rise buildings on shrinkable clay soils. therefore. Complications may arise with tree removal if the tree is protected by a preservation order. Applications to underpin must be submitted for approval and inspection of the work.