By Dwight Sailer and Bryan
Our company, HighCraft Builders in Fort Collins, Colo.,
specializes in room additions and remodels. Residential
construction in this area is complicated by expansive clay,
hilly lots, and variable soils that can make excavating and
pouring conventional concrete foundations challenging and
expensive. Completing a small addition can take a surprisingly
long time and typically costs substantially more per square
foot than new home construction. Given these concerns, we do
anything we can to make the process easier and less expensive
for our customers.
A couple of years ago, we met Dr. Howard Perko, Ph.D., of
Secure Foundations and Structures, Inc.
(www.secureengineer.com), an engineer in our
area who holds a patent on a type of helical pier. Helical
piers are essentially large earth screws made from galvanized
steel. They're turned into the ground until they're stable
enough to build on. While these piers are fairly common in
commercial construction and in foundation repair, they aren't
widely used as a residential foundation system. Howard decided
to put an addition on his own home using helical piers as the
foundation system, and he invited us to watch the installation.
That showed us the advantages to that kind of construction and
got us thinking about how we could use helical piers for the
work we do. Since we saw the demonstration a couple of years
ago, we've used helical piers in over a dozen projects, ranging
from simple bumpouts to large two-story additions.
Advantages of Helical Piers
Helical piers don't require huge spaces for site access because
they can usually be installed with a mini excavator or
skid-steer loader. We can often drive around a fence or through
a gate to get to a backyard. We can also work on steep sites
and ledges that would be nearly impossible otherwise. Compared
to a concrete foundation, installation is extremely fast; we
can usually shave a week or two off a project schedule. In
addition, we don't have to be concerned with weather delays
— while inconvenient, freezing temperatures and rain
won't stop a job. Minimal excavation is required, and you don't
have to store the excavated soil while you wait to backfill.
That means that the existing landscaping is typically left
Piers also solve problems like digging next to an old stone
foundation that would likely collapse if disturbed. They're
great for areas with shallow water tables and caving
Designing a Helical Pier
Our building department won't accept a foundation plan with
helical piers unless it's stamped by an engineer. The engineer
determines how many piers are required and locates them on a
foundation plan. To properly estimate the depth, number, and
size of helical blades required, it's usually necessary to have
a soil test done or at least have some experience installing
helical piers in the same general area. While bringing in a
drilling rig to make test borings adds about $800 to $1,200 to
the cost, it also guarantees a sturdy foundation that's free
from movement. Another option is to keep an inventory of lead
sections (the corkscrew-shaped part that screws into the
ground) with various blade configurations and a surplus of
extensions (see Figure 1). Different lead sections can be tried
until the proper depth and installation torque are achieved,
but we think it's cheap insurance to get the test
Helical piers are available in several
diameters and screw configurations. Multiple blades provide
additional bearing, but they're harder to turn into the ground.
Single blades are easier to turn, but achieving proper bearing
usually means a deeper placement with additional time for
Determining bearing capacity.
As a helical pier is screwed into the ground, the torque
generated by the helical blades provides a direct means of
determining soil density, stiffness, and strength. Measuring
the torque allows you to determine whether the pier can support
the weight of the structure. There are three basic ways to
measure the torque: by using a mechanical or electronic
instrument that measures hydraulic pressure at the auger's
power head; by using shear pins that break at a specific
torque; or by using the machine's maximum turning capacity,
which is how we do it. Simply put, when our auger stalls while
driving a properly sized helical pier, the pier has enough
We like to have an engineer on site the day of an installation
in case something unforeseen happens. If, for example, a pier
hits cobbles 10 feet down, an engineer can approve alternate
locations or additional piers. The engineer can also determine
when the piers are deep enough to provide sufficient bearing
and uplift resistance if a soils report was not done.
A Typical Design
Our projects built on helical pier foundations are constructed
like a typical backyard deck. An average box addition might
have a row of three piers installed about a foot or 18 inches
from the existing foundation and another row of three about the
same distance from the band joist. Joists run over dropped
beams that sit on the piers. The biggest challenge with room
additions is in making the foundation appear consistent with
the existing structure. If the existing house has a concrete
foundation (most do here), a "floating" addition looks odd. So
we use a skirt wall made with treated lumber and sheets of
1/2-inch cement board that's difficult to distinguish from a
poured foundation (Figure 2).
Figure 2.Six helical piers can usually support an
average single-story room addition, and cement-board skirting
makes the addition match the rest of the house. Sometimes the
piers can be installed in the morning and the framing start in
Preparing the Site
As with any below-grade work, we have the utilities located
several days before work starts. We try to get as much
information from the homeowner as possible regarding septic,
well, and sprinkler locations. The concern with helical piers
is that below-ground damage can take days or weeks to show up,
and any necessary repair would then be a big problem, with a
new room addition sitting on top.
We order all the piers and associated components well ahead of
time because those parts aren't readily available at
lumberyards. We use Magnum Piering (West Chester, Ohio,
800/822-7437, www.magnumpiering.com), and we keep extra
piers and extension tubes on hand.
Installing the Piers
Depending on site conditions, we may need to scrape some soil
to achieve the required 18-inch clearance between grade and the
bottom of the joists. If plumbing is planned for the addition,
we dig deeper to allow for easier access.
We install the piers with a mini excavator or skid-steer loader
and a hydraulic auger attachment. This equipment is small and
very maneuverable and works well for most locations. The
process starts with the installation of a 6-foot lead (the part
with blades). It's driven down to grade, then 6-foot extensions
are bolted on as needed. The leads and extensions attach to the
auger powerhead with a grade-8 bolt (Figure 3). Installing one
pier usually takes about 30 minutes to an hour.
Figure 3.A bobcat or small excavator with an auger
attachment turns the lead section into the ground. Additional
sections are added until the pier encounters enough resistance
to stall the motor. The soils common to the author's area
usually take one lead section and one extension.
In our area, the soils are usually soft enough to accept the
piers, but bedrock and localized sections of hard rock called
"rock lenses" can be a problem for helical piers. If a pier
won't advance, it's easiest to back it out and try one with a
smaller diameter that (hopefully) won't encounter as much
resistance. If that doesn't work, you can move the pier
location to the left or right. The amount you can move a pier
depends on the structure, and you'll want to consult your
engineer, but in most cases you can move to the left or right
about a foot without a problem. If that doesn't work, you may
have to take more drastic measures, like bringing in a drilling
rig to make a "pilot hole" or pinning a concrete caisson to the
offending rock. Thankfully, we've never had it happen, but
piers sometimes get stuck and won't advance or back out. In
that case, the only solution is to either cut it off or work it
back and forth until it's free. Another good reason to get a
soils report is to avoid these kinds of frustrations.
When all the piers are in place, we determine our finished
floor height and cut the piers off accordingly using a portable
band saw. We then bolt U-shaped saddles to the posts to accept
a built-up beam (Figure 4). Once the beams are installed,
construction is conventional. We lay joists on top of the
beams, install the subfloor, and build the walls on top. We
insulate the joist cavities and install plywood or rigid
insulation on the bottom side of the joists to keep the floor
warm. We also install 6-mil plastic over the crawlspace
4. Once all the piers are installed, a site
level is used to cut them to uniform height. U-shaped
saddles bolted to the piers (above) receive the beams
that support the floor system (left).
To keep the look of the foundation consistent with the existing
structure, we add skirting that attaches to the bottom side of
the floor joists and goes down to grade level. This is simply a
pressure-treated 2x4 wall with 4x8 sheets of cement board on
the outside. The joints and screw heads are skimmed with mortar
to make the skirting look like a poured foundation (Figure 5).
This is the most tedious part of the process.
Figure 5.To make the room addition better match
the existing house and its concrete foundation, the author uses
a skirting system made from pressure-treated lumber covered
with cement board. Seams and screw holes are skim-coated with
mortar to give it a monolithic appearance.
Pros and Cons
Now that we've done more than a dozen helical pier foundations,
the advantages and disadvantages have become clear. Pier
foundations go in faster and cause less damage to the site.
They work well with almost all soil types, and their strength
and integrity are verifiable, unlike that of concrete, which
can vary in quality and strength. They are also long lasting.
Test data indicates that in moderately to highly corrosive
soils, the hot-dipped galvanizing should last 75 years or more;
in less corrosive soils, it can last for hundreds of
There are some disadvantages, too. As discussed above, these
foundations should be designed and inspected by an engineer,
and sometimes a soils test is required, both of which take
time. In addition, good planning and ordering are critical.
Waiting while one or two missing helical pier components are
ordered could stall a project for weeks. Inspections also work
differently than with a conventional foundation. Most
municipalities require special inspections of helical pier
foundations by geotechnical or foundation engineering firms
— on the plus side, the helical pier inspection usually
replaces "open hole" soils and footing inspections. One final
problem, discussed earlier, is that sometimes hard bedrock
won't allow adequate penetration. While bedrock can provide
sufficient bearing, the piers also have to go deep enough to
resist frost, expansive soils, seismic forces, and other types
of uplift pressure. If you hit solid bedrock and the pier isn't
deep enough, you'll need an engineer for a backup plan.
Our first two or three projects weren't very profitable because
of the learning curve, but now the cost is working out much
better. Not only do helical piers reduce the amount of mess and
excavation, they also allow us to build much more quickly on
difficult lots. Sometimes we can install the piers in the
morning and start framing the floor system in the
In our area, a pier foundation for a basic 20x24 addition runs
about $500 to $800 per pier. That's about 5% to 10% less than a
standard concrete foundation. For our customers, however, there
are extra savings, including whatever new landscaping would
cost after the installation of a concrete foundation. The real
saving shows up in situations where a conventional foundation
isn't possible — on expansive soils or in steep terrain.
In those cases, the helical piers can save as much as 10% to
20% over a specialized concrete foundation.
Our original interest in helical piers was eliminating
excavation and its problems. But getting used to how the
various parts of the foundation and skirt wall go together can
take a while, and after the first couple of projects, we began
to wonder if the new challenges were worth the trouble.
Fortunately, everyone in our company welcomes a challenge.
Creative ideas and feedback from all involved have improved the
process so that we now appreciate the advantages, including
some we didn't anticipate. Last year we did two projects on
lots so steep and tight they wouldn't have been feasible
without helical piers.
Dwight Sailer and Bryan Sothare the owners of HighCraft Builders, a
remodeling company in Fort Collins, Colo.