Foundation Types

A Foundation Supports a House While Holding Back Moisture


A slab can be built on a level site with little excavation and a modest amount of materials. With the right insulation details, a slab can be a useful thermal massHeavy, high-heat-capacity material that can absorb and store a significant amount of heat; used in passive solar heating to keep the house warm at night. — especially when using in-floor radiant heat.

Crawl Space

Crawl spaces are not living spaces, but they can be great places to run ducts, pipes, and wires. They're most valuable when included as conditioned parts of a house — especially to prevent heat loss from HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. equipment.


Basements can provide a lot of living space cheaply. Good water-management and insulation/air-sealing strategies will keep them warm and dry.


Pier foundations support loads at a number of distinct points rather than continuously. Compared to basements or slabs, piers require much less material and excavation, reducing demands on and off the site. Because of their small footprint, they need to sit on stable ground.



Strategic capillaryForces that lift water or pull it through porous materials, such as concrete. The tendency of a material to wick water due to the surface tension of the water molecules. breaks:

  • Between footer and foundation wall
  • Under the slab
  • Outside the foundation wall below-grade
  • Between the foundation wall and the mud sill

Manage radonColorless, odorless, short-lived radioactive gas that can seep into homes and result in lung cancer risk. Radon and its decay products emit cancer-causing alpha, beta, and gamma particles.You can't tell ahead of time, even with good radon soil mapping, what radon levels will be in any home. It's best to install a subslab radon venting system.

Boost the insulation
Almost all new homes have durable foundations, but many of these foundations are energy sieves. To green up a conventional foundation, consider adding significantly more insulation than required by code.

Termites are a threat in some regions
Insulating a foundation on the outside makes the most sense from a performance standpoint, but rigid foam insulation can provide cover for destructive insects such as termites and carpenter ants. Because of this, exterior foam insulation below grade is prohibited by code in some areas. An alternative is to insulate on the inside of the foundation wall. Termite barriers and termite bait systems are prudent in parts of the country where the risk of infestation is high.

Consider release agents made from vegetable oil rather than conventional petroleum-based agents. They're less likely to cause environmental problems.


Foundation Details


Foundations should be well insulated and keep water at bay

Depending on where you're building, a conventional foundation could be made from poured concrete, brick, block, or stone. Because the foundation is buffered by the earth, temperature swings are less extreme than at the roof, but moisture issues are very important: Every drop of water that hits the roof and walls runs off to the ground.

Footing drains help a foundation stave off groundwater. And foundations also have to disrupt capillarity, the tendency of concrete walls and floors to wick water inside. A foundation is a bad place to cut corners because problems are expensive and complicated to fix after a house is finished.

Except in the mildest climates, insulation should always be installed under slabs, at slab perimeters, and at basement and crawl space walls.

Foundation preferences differ around the country.

Slab foundations work well with radiant floor heating. They can also be a finished floor, which saves a lot of money. Slabs work well in areas that have high water tables and, in frost-protected versions, can be an inexpensive way to get out of the ground in cold areas as well.

Crawl spaces are said to offer none of the benefits of a basement and all of the drawbacks, but they can be built to provide warm and dry storage space. Some people choose them in order to save money on excavation and concrete costs up-front. A sealed and conditioned crawl space can be a good place to put mechanical equipment. Building codes often require that unconditioned crawl spaces be vented to the outside, which can bring in excessive moisture and cause health and durability issues.

Basements provide extra potential living space if detailed well enough to stay dry. For the extra cost of digging a little deeper and building the foundation a little taller, you can double a home's living space. Too often basements are an afterthought — not completely inside or outside the thermal envelope and prone to air leakage and moisture problems. Well-detailed basements are warm, dry, and healthy.

Pier foundations are good choices for homes on remote or steep sites. Because they use the least amount of concrete and cause least amount of site disturbance, pier foundations have the smallest environmental impact.

Soil is the forgotten part of a foundation

"...the soil a foundation rests on is part of the foundation system; it's a building material, just like the 2 by 4 studs that frame the house." Says engineer Robert Felton. It's definitely green to follow Felton's practical advice on how soils are the bedrock of durable foundations. Felton's rules of thumb for evaluating, compacting, and replacing soils are nicely covered in the Fine Homebuilding article, "Soil: The Other Half of the Foundation" (see FURTHER RESOURCES below).


Fly ash can replace Portland cement in a concrete mix

Portland cement is energy intensive to make, and produces about 6% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The CO2 comes from both the manufacturing process and the chemical process of calcining limestone.

One way to reduce the environmental burdens of concrete is to use fly ash (or other pozzolans, such as blast-furnace slag) instead of Portland cement. Fly ash is a waste product from coal-fired power plants.

Portland cement accounts for 12% of most concrete, replacing it with 15% to 25% Type C or Type F fly ash are fairly common, and mixes up to 60% are sometimes used.

Having a tough time convincing your building inspector?
Ask local or regional departments of transportation what fly ash mixes they have tested and support. This can help the building department (and the concrete contractor) get on board.

Tip: Look for a concrete supplier who is familiar with fly ash mixes
A seasoned fly ash mixer can give valuable advice about differences in installation and performance. Concrete block makers also are using industrial byproducts such as slag in their products. The types and grades of fly ash and blast-furnace slag can vary widely in quality and quantity. Some of these materials come from manufacturing or energy production activities here in the United States, but increasingly these materials are being imported from overseas because of higher demand. In this case, the offset may be debatable.


Fine Homebuilding: Soil:The Other Half of the Foundation
Understanding Basements
Foundations—Moisture Resistant Construction

Image Credits:

  1. Charles Lockhart
  2. Chuck Lockhart
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Feb 15, 2015 4:50 PM ET

Response to Paul J. Boniface
by Martin Holladay

You're more likely to get an answer to your question if you post it on our Q&A page. Here is the link:

Briefly, though: ICF foundations almost always cost significantly more than conventional poured concrete foundations.

Feb 15, 2015 4:38 PM ET

ICF Foundations
by Paul J. Boniface

Can you speak to the cost of ICF's vs poured foundations. Also, what are the problems that you have overcome using ICF's, if any?

May 22, 2010 11:22 AM ET

ICF foundations
by Martin Holladay

We didn't forget ICF foundations. ICF foundations fall into either one of two of the categories mentioned above: basement foundations or crawl space foundations.

To read more about ICFs on the GBA Web site, visit Insulated Concrete Forms.

May 22, 2010 9:40 AM ET

Green - Foundations
by Tim Lyden

Somehow you forgot to mention the most energy efficient foundation type available, ICFs Insulated Concrete Forms.
An ICF Basement can save between 20% & 30% of a homes Heating & Cooling Energy & Costs.
According to the DOEs site, they average a 44% + energy savings Nationwide, however they do compete with the Corporate giants, and are being suppressed.

ICFs are also Mold-Proof, Fire-Proof, Sound-Proof, Non Off-Gassing, and save 20 to 100 trees with each building, and actually cost less to build in Commercial buildings.

The concrete develops harder & stronger (3000 psi conc, will harden to 4200 PSI) because the
permanent forms prevent the concrete from drying out too soon & cracking.

They are easy to build with, with some guidance, and pay for themselves in short time, in Energy Savings Dividends.

I have been building with them for 6 years now and have never had more happy customers.
The Stick Framing Method is over 175 years old, and has changed very little.
Isn't it time we put Technology into the way we build our buildings, as we do in everything else.

We need to build real Energy Efficient Buildings, 50% to 80% and make a real difference, not 20% & 30% more efficient, or why bother. We have the technology, Why Not Use it.

Thank you
Tim Lyden

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