In modern construction, concrete perimeter foundations are generally poured in such a way that the top of the foundation wall (where the “mudsill” is placed), is at least 8 to 10 inches above “grade.” This allows for an adequate amount of space from both any surrounding soil, and from any ground water. But in older construction, it was common to pour foundation walls that were level with the surrounding soil (on grade), and sometimes even lower than the surrounding soil.
This condition leads to both potential termite problems and water damage. When the mudsill (which is the horizontal framing atop the foundation that the ground floor studs are fastened to) comes into contact with the surrounding soil, it provides a clear path for termites to move from the soil into the framing. And any surrounding ground water can also be easily “wicked” into the mudsill, where it can then be transferred to the other framing.
Both of these conditions are potentially very problematic. The “quick fix” for this problem is to simply pull the soil away from the structure, crating as much distance from grade to the mudsill as possible. When this can’t be done, it is sometimes necessary to extend the foundation up to provide the necessary space between the framing and grade.
In the attached photo, the foundation vent is seen almost directly “on grade.” Foundation vents are commonly placed directly above the mud-sill, so it is fairly easy to determine the spacing between grade and framing by simply looking at how close these vents are to the surrounding soil. When these vents are placed as depicted in the photo, they are generally indicative of potential termite and water-intrusion problems.
Many older homes have a white powder visible on foundation walls and concrete slabs. This powder is actually salt, which makes its way to the surface of the concrete when it becomes saturated with water. This process, known as “efflorescence,” (which means to “flower out” in French) is strong evidence for the homeowners that they have water problems that they probably need to address.
In the below photo, the efflorescence appears along the lower 12″ of the perimeter foundation. This part of the foundation is completely “below grade,” meaning that the level of the soil on the outside of the foundation is higher than section of the foundation wall where the efflorescence is prominent.
In older homes, there was rarely any waterproofing applied to these foundation walls prior to the “back-filling” of the soil against the foundation wall. Additionally, there were rarely any drain lines (French drains) or gravel placed against the foundation prior to the back-filling. This lack of drainage, combined with a lack of waterproofing, often leads to the water intrusion issues that result in efflorescence.
This efflorescence itself is rarely a problem, but it signals to the homeowner that moisture is likely getting into the crawl space of the home. And this moisture often creates mold problems both within the crawl space, and in the living space directly above.
To deal with this moisture, homeowners are encouraged to speak with both drainage specialists in order to try to prevent the naturally occurring ground water from making its way into the crawl space, and also, vapor barrier specialists, who can install their barriers directly over the exposed soil (or concrete rat-proofing) of a crawl space. These barriers are very effective at reducing both the humidity and water vapor that are common in crawl spaces. And these measures go a long toward dealing with mold growth issues within the home.