The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Finish Grading Around the House!

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From the day of inspection, we knew that there was a list of water-related issues we needed to address in order to protect our foundation. When we moved in to our house back in mid-June, the list looked like this:

1. Replace the leaky roof and gutter
2. Extend the downspouts
3. Getting rid of the front flower bed
4. Correct the sloping issues of the front and back porch
5. Seal the corner foundation cracks
6. Fix faucet leaks
7. Grading around the house

Since then, we have extended the downspouts, removed the front flower bed, demo-ed the sinking patios, and rebuilt a 37-feet long back patio with correct slope, leaving the list looking like this:

1. Replace the leaky roof and gutter
2. Extend the downspouts
3. Getting rid of the front flower bed
4. Correct the sloping issues of the front and back porch 
5. Seal the corner foundation cracks
6. Fix faucet leaks
7. Grading around the house

Coming to September,  we started seeing more rain and the night temperature has dropped to the 50’s. Colorado winter comes quickly! Our goal is to complete this “waterproof” list before winter hits, which in our region is early October. We have scheduled our roof work to be completed this month. This week, our plan is to finish grading around the house.

To achieve proper grading and effectively drain water away from our foundation, we need to pack dirt around the house perimeter, with at least 1 inch per foot slope away from the house. Then, a layer of water-proof membrane (such as this 6-mil poly) will be laid on top of the dirt to prevent water from seeping down around the house, and finished with gravel on top to facilitate drainage. After some research online, we decided to use structural dirt to create the slope, and mountain granite as our top layer.

Slav ordered them from a local company, and both dirt and gravel were delivered next day:

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It might not look like a lot from the picture, but in person they were pretty substantial piles. I’d say that it was about 20 wheel barrels of each.

If you remember our site plan (see our recent video tour of our yard here), our house has a concrete walkway on its southern side and a long patio meets most of the back side.

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The rest of the foundation was left unprotected, including the entire northern side of the house:

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Part of the back side of the house, where the patio did not cover:

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And where the front flower bed and patio used to be:

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Last weekend, before we ordered the dirt and gravel, we have replaced all the rusty and old window wells with brand new ones. When I was at work, Slav transferred all the dirt around the foundation using a wheel barrel:

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Then we packed it down with a significant slope, about 4 feet wide on the side and the back of the house:

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All the dirt with a shade darker is the new structure soil. It is created by filtering all the organic matter out of regular soil and supposedly does not support plant growth. Using it to fill around the house should prevent weed growth around the foundation.

Slav also replaced the soil immediately around the patio and the shed with this structural soil, in order to keep weeds from growing into the slabs:

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We plant to build raised beds around the patio and a green house next to our shed, so we do not need soil around them to be bio-active.

As for the front of the house, Slav packed down the structural dirt where the old patio was:

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It might be difficult to see, but there is also a gentle slope. The pine tree above blocks most of the participation onto this spot, which keeps this place pretty dry. We did consider pouring a new patio here, which might be the best way of protecting water from getting down along the foundation. However, we would love to enlarge the basement window here down the road, and pouring new concrete patio will make any work way more difficult. For now, we are happy with just changing the old, rusty window well to a brand new one and grade the space with structural dirt.

The old patio spot and the front steps are both 5 feet wide, so we made grading on the rest of the front side 5 feet wide as well. You can see how we slopped the old flower bed area so that water should drain away from the house:

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All the dirt work took a whole day. The next day, we put down some 6-mil Poly and Slav started to lay down gravel on the top:

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The northern side:

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The back:

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On the third day, Slav used the mountain granite gravel to cover all the poly and built it up to about 3-inches thick. It is about 3-4 layers of gravel, which not only holds the plastic firmly in place, but also ensures that we can walk on it without damaging the plastic.

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After three days of hard work (and Slav did 99% of it), we have completed grading around the house! This is what the front of the house look like now:

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And this is the back:

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The window wells themselves also have poly layer and gravel in them:

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Slav made sure that water drains properly around the air conditioner as well:

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And this is the northern side of the house. We have decided that this side does not need any window wells since the surface of the gravel is inches below the window sills. Without window wells, these windows let in much more light into the basement bedrooms, and the exterior on this side looks much cleaner:

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Do you remember how it looked like a week ago?

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What a change, right? Now our “waterproof” list looking like this:

1. Replace the leaky roof and gutter (in progress!)
2. Extend the downspouts
3. Getting rid of the front flower bed
4. Correct the sloping issues of the front and back porch 
5. Seal the corner foundation cracks (in progress)
6. Fix faucet leaks
7. Grading around the house

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12 Comments

  1. Emci

    Alison and Slav,

    Thank you so much for this post. It has been extremely helpful as we are going through a similar problem with the home we just purchased.

    I wanted to ask how the grading has been working/behaving and if you have any additional “lessons learned” tips of things you would have done different as it relates to the grading type and process you used to ensure water stays away from the home.

    I will really appreciate any information you could share!

    Thanks!

    EM

    • Alison

      Dear EM,

      Thanks for your kind comment! It has been four years and we have not seen any issues with the grading we did initially. There is no new crack on the foundation, the basement wall stayed dry, no mold, and there is nothing growing underneath the black poly. We renovated the basement in 2019 and had the wall exposed. And at least then, the wall felt bone dry.

      The only thing I noticed is that due to the gravel size, walking on gravel is a bit unstable. We recently painted the side of the house and simply cannot rest the ladder on the gravel/poly surface. I heard that using road base/stone dust underneath gravel keeps the stones in place, but I am not sure if this will work on sloped surface as opposed to flat gravel path. For the purpose we want to achieve, what we did was sufficient. And I hope it works for you too!

      Happy building!
      -Alison

      • Em Vici

        Alison,

        Thank you so much for the quick response and all the additional tips. The added info on how it can be challenging to paint with the rocks was so useful as I just realized it will hinder our ability to clean the gutters! We will make sure we do the grading while considering that point.

        You have no clue how useful your posts are.

        Thank you SO much!

        EM

        • Alison

          You are welcome! My husband usually gets on the roof by resting the ladder on the concrete garage parkway, then walks around on the roof to clean the gutter. If you need to rest the ladder on the gravel to perform any task, it will be safer to have someone holding the ladder just in case.

  2. EM

    Alison,

    Me again bothering you. Do you have any kind (inside/tile drain or outside/perimeter drain) of drain system*?

    As you know, we are trying to waterproof the house as much as posible and the more I research the more I learn and find out of other types of steps (besides grading) that need to/or could be taken to waterproof the home to avoid cracks or leaks into the foundation. However, I worry that I may be overthinking this and maybe just grading should be enough for now. Do you have any kind of system? What are your thoughts about them? Any insight in the subject will be really helpful and much appreciated, Alison.

    EM

    e.g. https://4fs0893rxsil3r8n0j24afu1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Foundation_Drainage4-1-e1472177248720.jpg

    • Alison

      Dear EM,

      There is never too much thinking about the foundation! We do not have other types of drainage setup. However, we live on a pretty steep hill and the highest point of our house is the garage slab, which has no basement underneath. Therefore, the natural slope provides a pretty healthy drainage solution. Many parts of the setup described in your figure, including the gravel and excavation angle below the footing were pre-set when house/basement was built, so there is nothing you can do about those. In my opinion, the best way of judging whether your basement needs additional help is to test the current moisture level inside the basement walls. There are moisture meters you can rent or buy. When you hold it against the finished walls in your basement, you should be able to read the moisture level of the foundation. When we did our house inspection (before closing), the inspector did the test and told us that the basement was “bone-dry”. And that was right after the raining season in our area (April-June). Visual inspection only identified minor cracks around the foundation flower bed, and a sinking patio slab, so we got rid of those and graded around the foundation. A couple years later, when we remodeled the basement, we did not find any cracks or mold behind the drywall. One of our friends brought his moisture meter over and got a near zero reading. That was in the middle of the winter with snow on the ground. Take together, we are very confident that our basement does not need perimeter drains or sump pump. If your basement pass the meter test, I think you got nothing to worry about. In another words, if there has not been a problem, likely there will not be. Basement slab is not structural. So if there are cracks on the floor slab due to plumbing leaks underneath or soil movement, it is a separate issue and usually does not cause foundation problems.

      A couple years ago, our neighbor just cross the street discovered water issues at the lowest corner of the house. He found mold behind the basement walls in the corner bedroom, and the carpet was damp at the very corner too. We were all surprised since we are on the same steep hill and our house are practically mirrored. When he dug down along that corner of the house, he found that the grading was wrong – it sloped towards his house and only at this corner. He corrected the grading and had no problem since.

      I have lived in a house with sump pump before. It was built into a steep hill, with one side of the basement completely under the soil. There is barely any roof overhang on the hill side, and lots of vegetation growing against. During winter, when snow piles up and melts slowly, water has nowhere to go but seeping down the foundation wall. Snow melt here can be on and off over a few months, which meant his foundation wall was wet the entire winter. Plants also keep the moisture in the soil. In this case, installing a perimeter drain pipe with a sump pump was great help. But again, if your basement is relatively dry all around, I do not think you need to take such serious measures.

      I hope it helps. This is just my understanding on how concrete foundation works: it can handle moisture -like getting wet during a pouring rain then dry. It is just not a good idea to have it constantly damp. Have correct grading, keep the gutter clear, repair outdoor faucet leaks, and make sure the lawn sprinklers spray away from the house, then you are safe!

      -Alison

      • EM

        Alison,

        You are just THE BEST! Thank you so much for another detailed response. All the information has been extremely helpful!

        I will retest for moisture because I got “red” reading in all walls. The meter I purchased does not give me a number but instead a bare reading that goes up and down and beeps while turning red when the moisture is above normal levels. I wonder if the ones for rent that you mentioned are more “pro” and provide a different level of reading because you said it gives numbers.

        I question the accuracy of my reading as almost every wall in the basement (not just perimeter but most inside rooms walls) tested red (and that is when my heart sunk with the results). However, I revived when I was able to test the inside exposed wall of a closet, which I know for a fact is dry as I can see the inside and the outside of the same wall. The wall tested red in the outside and also in the dry inside which left me more puzzled as it is bone dry and there is nothing in between (just a plain drywall and studs of the unfinished inside closet wall). Then I went upstairs and started testing the entire house and 90% of all walls tested red. How is that even posible. I wonder if the fresh paint could be a factor.

        The one I purchased was about $45. The walls that are underground are those that face the front, and one side of the house is partially underground. That side has 2 small windows and the house slopes down by that side so both windows are fully exposed but the wall by one of them (the one closer to the front) is more underground than the second. The house is not on a hill but it is in a little slope; driveway slopes up and it is a slope down to go from the front of the house to the backyard. There is also no basement under the garage. It is a finished basement with 100% walkout with french doors and windows facing the backyard so they are fully at ground level and exposed. Therefore, the basement wall that faces the front of the house and one side where it is partially underground as it slopes down, are the only areas covered by soil.

        The more I investigate the more I worry if we should install an exterior perimeter drain. It is just an extremely expensive project (they run from 20k and up) as they have to dig the entire perimeter, reseal walls and fix any cracks (which I hope don’t exist), install the drain and close everything back. That is a lot of money that will drain part of our savings when we have no equity on the home yet. Although I want to do all posible to prevent water from coming in, the reading (and as pure preventive measure) is all I have to back my concern and justify the install. I think before going to that extend I may just budget for removing the drywall and insulation from all the walls that are covered by soil. That way I finally put eyes on what could or could not be going on with the foundation walls. I just never had to deal with basements (used to live in the South) and the red readings have me nervous, although the closed test made me feel better as I can see and touch that the wall was dry but testing red.

        What an endless worry having this basement has become. With climate change rains are getting stronger in the area (live in VA) and just want to make sure we are prepared for all scenarios. Living in a trailer is starting to sound really good to me 🤦🏻‍♀️

        EM

        • Alison

          LOL EM, do not move to a trailer! Your house sounds amazing. I wish our basement were a walk-out; the value would have been much higher.

          It really sounds that the meter was not reading correctly. If you do not see cracks on the exposed foundations on the partially buried wall, there really should not be a problem. I did not personally see the meters which our inspector and friends used. When they said “near-zero”, it might not be an actual number. I suggest you asking some plumbing expert, they should know and they might do the test for little cost.

          Do your immediate neighbors have water issues in their basement, or have installed the drains? If not, I’d say that saving the $20K somewhere else. It will be unlikely the builder made grading mistakes only on your house but not all the neighbors’. We have long known that there is an offset in the clay pipe between our house to the street, which somehow is our responsibility…It will cost an arm and a leg to fix, so we just bought a $250 drain snake (like the ones one can rent in Home Depot) and clean twice a year. I think every house has its own small issues. We just need to manage them. And nothing last forever either.

          We used to live in NC and I know what you meant about the rain. VA is beautiful. Enjoy!

          -Alison

          • Ana

            Hello Alison,
            Thank you for your helpful report.
            I wanted to ask if you glued the plastic to the foundation of the house. When it rains heavily I see sometimes water coming down against the foundation of our house and I was thinking to seal the plastic to the wall somehow so that the water would not enter in between the plastic and the foundation wall.
            What do you think?
            Thanks,
            Ana

          • Alison

            We did not glue it. But we folded the edges up and leaned it against wall (looks like the edge of a shower pan) for an inch or so and the thickness of the gravel covered it. With heavy snow and rain I am sure there will be a bit water coming into the gap, but should be a lot less than an average house foundation will experience, so I am not worry about it. I think this much of water is probably neglectable comparing to the moisture in the soil around the foundation.

  3. Amanda

    Do you have a link to how you fixed the foundation cracks? Would love to compare to what we just did and if we need to do more.

    • Alison

      Hi! We just used the concrete adhesive and caulk from Home Depot and it worked well. The cracks we had was not very wide. It has been holding up well. Thanks for your comment!

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