A couple of projects I was working on this week got me thinking about old houses, drainage, and spending money wisely when making home improvements. One project involves putting in a retaining wall and doing a fair amout of regrading to turn a client’s long, sloping back yard into a two-tiered, relatively flat back yard. While the project involves a fair amount of work, it’s pretty straightforward, but if I screw up the lot’s drainage when I regrade, I can look forward to getting angry phone calls from the client every time it rains. As a precaution, I plan to install trench drains at the base of the retaining wall to ensure that water will continue to be diverted around the house and towards the street, where it enters a storm drain.
I’ve seen a lot of old houses with wet basements and even foundation problems because when the surrounding land is regraded–usually because of new residential development nearby, not a back yard project–water that used to drain away from the house is suddenly flowing right at it. Old houses are at a disadvantage when new development occurs, because their land is not generally part of the developer’s grading and drainage plan. In theory, existing homeowners should be protected by local construction ordinances, but I’m reminded of something an editor told me when I was a young reporter just starting on the local political beat: “The main responsibility of local government is to remember that water flows downhill. Mostly, they screw it up.”
The other job involved a brick walkway that was laid–badly–over an existing concrete path. The bricks are breaking and coming loose, and making things right will involve, at the least, removing the bricks, forcing the homeowner to spend hundreds of dollars just to end up with the same concrete path he felt compelled to cover in the first place. And all because another contractor apparently was more focused on what was best for him (brick paths, especially ones done shoddily, have a very good profit margin) than what would actually work and last in that location.
Which brings me back to the confluence of drainage, old houses, and money. If your house has recently developed a water problem, particularly on the heels of recent development projects, ignoring it is not an option. In addition to the inconvenience of basement moisture or even flooding, the excessive water can also eventually cause damage to your foundation. Too often, I hear of contractors suggesting solutions inside the basement, such as sealing the walls or installing sump pumps, pricy jobs that treat the symptoms, but ignore the disease. If the problems started after a nearby grading, development, or major landscaping job, then the solution isn’t to fix the basement, it’s to fix the drainage. Installing trench drains near your house is a good first step, because they are easy to install, relatively inexpensive, and can solve the problem by diverting water around your house, not into it. For severe problems, additional drains further away from the house might be required. And if that still doesn’t work, you might need to add some topsoil to raise and regrade your own lot. In many cases, your local building department will compel the developer to make these improvements, if it’s a nearby development that is causing the problem.
Remember, if the problem started with something that happened outside your home, the solution will likewise take place outside–even if installing trench drains is less lucrative to contractors than sealing your basement.