I think crawl spaces and slab foundations are both evil.
But I'd say that crawl spaces
are the lesser of two evils.
In a similar vein, I often
rant about the basement versus crawl space debate. Here in
Michigan the climate requires foundations as deep as 4 feet
below ground, though in some areas the soil is so sandy, so
well drained, that slab foundations are allowed. I've seen
slab foundations on some really old cottages, some
"economy" houses, and on garages.
Quite frankly, you couldn't give
me a house built on a slab foundation. With no easy access to
any of the "environmental systems" (electrical,
plumbing, HVAC) maintaining these structures is a nuisance at
best, and a nightmare at worst.
Yet I understand that in
some parts of the country, such as most of the Southern
states, slab foundations are standard practice.
My girlfriend bought a second
house in 2001, a tiny place slapped together in 1958.
Technically it has a crawl space, but being only about 2"
to 3" high I would equate it with a slab foundation. The
wiring and supply piping are all in the attic. Working on
wiring is no big deal, it's more of a nuisance because you
need to move insulation around to find things. But the
plumbing is something else.
Somebody covered up the pipes
with insulation to keep them from freezing. Okay, no real
problem. So far. Then I discovered that the bathtub drain was
not connected. The water was just draining into the soil. Not
a big problem, but a source for moisture and all its troubles.
I like basements because you can tell right away when
something is broken. With both crawl spaces and slabs you
probably won't notice quite a few problems, but at least with
a crawl space you can fix them.
The overhead pipes make me
nervous. I've had plenty of experience with overhead pipes.
When I worked in hotel maintenance I saw some unbelievable
fiascos when ordinary pipes leaked... pipes that were in the
ceiling, above the drywall. Imagine a nice hotel lobby with
drywall chunks scattered all over as some fool tries to fix a
leak, or imagine paying $175 a night and having the ceiling
fall down because some pipe leaked.
Like I say: Pipes Behind
Plaster, Recipe For Disaster.
This hotel was about 40 years
old. As far as I'm concerned, every pipe is going to leak,
especially metal pipes. All metals used in plumbing will
corrode with time. Plastic pipes won't, but they have a
reputation as being "cheap".
Anyway, imagine owning one of
these big fancy new houses with a slab foundation. In 30 to 40
years I can almost guarantee that some pipe in the attic will
leak. Nice mess.
Sometimes they put the supply
pipes below ground. Oh, great. So when the pipes leak, the
water just goes into the soil. And will anybody notice? No.
Until the next water bill arrives and it's 100 times the usual
amount. Good luck fighting that billing mistake. I can't
imagine why anybody would bury a pipe that is on the
homeowner's side of the water meter, because any water leakage
could go unnoticed for weeks. But they do it.
Builders will say that slab
foundations are cheaper. Around here some builders say that
building a house on a crawl space saves money compared to a
full basement. I don't buy
into that argument. It only saves money up front, and almost
certainly adds costs later, costs in maintenance and repair.
With a basement or crawl space, many
maintenance and repair issues are much simpler than a slab
foundation. Even more important, making changes is much
easier. If the homeowner wants to build an addition,
connecting to existing supply pipes, drain pipes, HVAC
ducting, and wiring is much simpler. I don't know about most
people, but I prefer a house that allows for some future
changes. When it comes to remodeling, I can't imagine trying
to work on a slab house. I can imagine charging a lot extra,
Another issue that nobody
talks about is structural longevity. Long ago I heard a
rule-of-thumb for carpentry: keep all wood at least 6 inches
above the soil so the splashing water doesn't get on the house
and cause decay of the wood. In the Southern states, it's
common to build a house on a slab and use stucco over foam
insulation as exterior sheathing. The stucco (which is made
from cement, not gypsum plaster) extends below the soil, and
provides good protection from splashing rain water. But not
all slab-foundation homes are built this way.
Around here most houses are
plenty high off the ground, but many garages and sheds are
built low. And I've seen many of these buildings get
structural damage, typically rot but also termite
infestations, from rain dripping off the roof, onto the
ground, and splashing onto the building. The houses around
here with basements usually have 18" to 24" of
masonry directly above the soil, and no problem with rotting
sill plates. Crawl spaces tend to be lower to the ground, but
(from my experience) a lot higher than slab foundations. I
have absolutely no confidence in the long-term
structural integrity of slab-foundation houses. I have to
wonder what all these fancy slab houses will be like in 30 or
40 years. I won't be doing repairs on them, that's for sure.
Maybe they'll be knocked down to return the land to farming.
I have a cheaply-built garage
that, like many slab houses, is very close to the ground.
Well, a squirrel got inside, and the little varmint couldn't
get out. It chewed holes in the fiber-board sheathing in at
least 20 places! Unbelievable. After it turned the walls into
Swiss cheese it made a nest in the attic above the insulated
ceiling. The squirrel moved out by its own motivation, but now
there are 20 holes that mice find plenty inviting. Now I need
to remove the aluminum siding, replace the sheathing with
something sturdier and install new siding. At least it's only
the garage! No wonder I can't stand the idea of a slab
foundation. But this is the type of thing that can happen with
a low-slung house, and is very unlikely with a house that sits
a good foot-and-a-half above the soil.
I suppose you could look at a
slab foundation as an elaborate form of camping... living
really close to the ground and all the creepy-crawly critters.
I would rather be above all that, thanks.
There is a web
site from Texas that shows the steps involved in building
a slab-foundation house. There is a lot of really involved
work just to bury the pipes in concrete and render them
impossible to repair.
Bruce W. Maki, Editor.