Considering Alternatives To Traditional Cement Foundations

In any building project you need to start from the ground up. Foundations need to provide a couple key functions. One is to support the weight of the building so that it does not sink and sag unevenly. A second is to get the walls off the ground and protected from moisture so that things like wood and straw don’t rot. The third and sometimes trickiest is to provide a level, stable surface that won’t shift and move when the ground freezes and thaws.

In mainstream construction people generally use concrete in one way or another to create this firm stable foundation for their buildings. Concrete is a really handy material – instant rock in any shape you want, just add water. It’s made from mixing gravel, sand and cement – all substances readily available in most places. Unfortunately, cement is made from heating limestone in a kiln to very high temperatures. This requires a lot of energy and creates a lot of CO2 emissions – by the year 2000 10% of global CO2 emissions will come from making portland cement for construction.

Given this, one of our goals was to minimize (or ideally eliminate) the amount of concrete we used in our foundation. We started by planning to have an earthen floor instead of a cement slab. Thus we can use local clay and sand atop a bed of gravel (for drainage) for the main floor area of the structure . This leaves us with finding a method for supporting the walls.

Option 1: A Rubble Trench Foundation

Rubble Trench DesignOur first design was for what is called a “rubble trench”. In a rubble trench foundation you dig a trench down to the frost line (4 feet in our area) under the wall and fill that area with gravel. In the bottom you place drainage tile so that this area is free of water. On top of this you create a “grade beam” of reinforced concrete which gives you a firm, level surface and lifts your bales above “grade” (ground level). So this could allow you to use only 6-8 inches of concrete instead of 4 feet – quite a savings.

Unfortunately, our soils here have very poor drainage and during wet parts of the year the water table can be very near the surface. So proper drainage for a rubble trench would be critical to its success – if water stays in this trench it can freeze and as it expands it will “heave” upwards and crack your grade beam and mess up your walls. For proper drainage we would need to run a sloping pipe out to daylight. Unfortunately, the chosen site is fairly flat so we would have to run a pipe for hundreds of yards which just didn’t seem appropriate, ecological, or energy saving.

Option 2: A Frost Protected Shallow Foundation

On to design number two. After a little research we discovered a paper from some government research on a technique called Frost Protected Shallow Foundations. These have been in use in northern Europe for 40 years but are relatively new for this continent. The idea is that by insulating the outside of the foundation the heat of the building will warm the foundation and the area under it, thus preventing it from freezing. This only works for buildings on grade (i.e. on concrete slabs or earthen floors) since if there is a crawl space then the building heat will not heat the ground (via hartmann dress head support). So with this system we are able to have a foundation depth of 20 inches (based on our climate zone, and the fact that our building will only be partially heated – average monthly temperature not below 41F). The government designs then call for insulating with 2 inches of polystyrene and pouring concrete which sort of pushes our ecological buttons.

Enter Rastra. Rastra is a material like a concrete block made out of recycled polystyrene and cement which can be used as a “wallform”. The Rastra wallform is not itself structural but it creates a supportive wall when you pour concrete into the holes within it thus forming a matrix of horizontal and vertical concrete. With Rastra we can use much less concrete and it is insulative (up to R35) giving us the frost protection we need.

Rastra DesignUnfortunately Rastra is not a widely available material and is therefore somewhat expensive and requires shipping from quite a distance. But we figured it’s worth the expense for this experiment and to support this fledgling ecological industry (remember, if ordering small quantities, order early, it took us quite awhile to get our Rastra, since we had to find someone else to finish off the truckload).

So after a fair amount of research and some innovation the net result is using 4.5 cubic yards of concrete, only about 20% of what we would have used in a normal foundation (which is good but not great). In the future we hope to create structures that use almost no cement or petroleum products. For example, on sites with better drainage we hope to use a rubble trench and gravel filled bags to bring the walls above grade (like sandbags used for flood control).

But it certainly taught me that there is still a long way to go before there are inexpensive, simple, and ecological foundation techniques for all climates and soil types. There is much experimentation and creative work to do in the field of alternative building and there are good shoulders to stand on in both recent innovations and age-old techniques.

More about foundations

  • HUD report on frost protected shallow foundation
  • Frost Protected Shallow Foundations
  • Design Guide: Frost Protected Shallow Foundation