Ask the Architect

Deviating from the plan


Q. My contractor didn’t follow the plans for our new house, which replaces the old house, which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. It took us years to get the money, and we started a few weeks ago. I put the contractor on the phone with the architect so he could explain what he told me, and the architect disagreed, saying we need to be below a “frost line.” I didn’t want to get in the middle, but I listened in, and the conversation went like this:

Contractor: “We made the foundation 2-feet-deep grade beams in a single pour and bolted the beams into the top of the pile caps, so that should be enough.”

Architect: “It isn’t what we showed in the plans, and won’t work. Whether you’re telling me or confirming with me that what you did is OK, just understand, I don’t have a say in this matter relative to what science and engineering say or what nature will do to that foundation. It’s going to heave and crack, and needs to be removed and done correctly, minimum 3 feet deep, to plan, to code, and to the laws of nature.”

Do you think the foundation sounds wrong, and should it be replaced? A building inspector looked at it. He wasn’t happy, and said we have to get a letter from an architect or engineer to sign off so it can stay. I can’t afford to pay for this, and it will really delay everything. What do you think?

A. Long before there were building codes, our ancestors observed how buildings heaved when the foundations were too shallow. They didn’t have building departments, they had kings with gallows and big swords to solve such problems. Your contractor may run every stop sign in town and get away with it, but the laws of nature are different. They’re ever-present. Not replacing that foundation is going to be a harmful mistake.

In a recent TV documentary, scientists were stranded in the Arctic. Their ship, a triple-hulled steel Navy vessel, became ice-bound, and millions of your tax dollars were spent to free the vessel after a distress call went out to an ice-breaker 1,000 miles away. They knew that expanding water at low temperature (we’ll call it ice) can tear apart the hull of a ship.

So what do you think might happen this winter? The ground will freeze, expand, and begin forcing your foundation up and out of the ground, but not evenly. So as certain portions wrack more than others, the broadcasting foundation will crack, and the painted wallboard, tile and doorways will be impossible to keep up with and unstoppable. No extra bolts, architect’s or engineer’s letter are going to help. You shouldn’t pay for this. The foundation must be built just as the plan, which is part of your contract with your contract-tor, shows.

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.