Collapse of Abandoned Mine Sinks Indiana
Study Says Regulations Jack Up Housing
Storm Damage Creates Business Niche
Old "roof-and-pillar" coal mines present a hidden
Old mines lurk below millions of acres across the U.S.; some
have been out of use for so many years they don't appear on any
modern maps. All too often, unlucky homeowners learn about
abandoned mines only when one collapses under their property.
The resulting subsidence — or sinking of the ground's
surface — can severely damage a structure.
That's what happened to Sheila Schmitt's Boonville, Ind., home.
Schmitt found out earlier this year that her 2-year-old house
had been built above a mine — but not until her walls had
cracked, her floors had tilted, and her doors wouldn't close.
After Warrick County building commissioner Michael Winge
determined that the house was uninhabitable, investigators from
the state's Department of Natural Resources concluded that the
damage was caused by mine subsidence.
Some 56 feet beneath Sheila Schmitt's
Indiana home, an abandoned mine collapsed. Now Schmitt's house
is sinking. Deep cracks have developed in the building's
brickwork, both along the foundation (top) and higher up in the
walls (bottom). The house has been declared
Winge says it was the first mine subsidence he'd seen in that
part of the county. "This is the only one of these I have had
to deal with in the five years or so I have been here," he
says, adding that most subsidence problems are due to
conditions other than mines, such as buried trees or
Homeowner Schmitt told local reporters she hadn't known there
was a mine some 56 feet under her home when she bought it and
she didn't own mine subsidence insurance. She has since filed a
civil lawsuit against the developers of the subdivision.
Schmitt's situation is far from unique. Hundreds of homeowners
across the country have found themselves in similar straits as
old mines have given way beneath their properties. The mine
under Schmitt's house — the Henry Korff Mine, active from
1909 to 1934 — was typical of old operations in that it
employed the "roof-and-pillar method," in which 20 percent to
50 percent of the coal was left behind in columns that held up
the mine ceiling. Over time the pillars in these mines have
begun to collapse, causing the bedrock ceiling and soil above
to cave in. The surface ends up sagging only about 2 feet
— roughly a third the depth of the coal seam —
because of the way the intervening layers settle.
Whether and when an old mine's pillars will collapse or how
long a subsidence event will last is impossible to predict,
experts say. "Sometimes it happens pretty much overnight," says
Joseph Taranto, manager of Mine Subsidence Insurance and
Technical Services at Pennsylvania's Department of
In Pennsylvania, 1 million houses — including these
two — sit above old mines. Only 5 percent of their owners
have mine-subsidence insurance.
This is especially true of shallow mines, says Robert Gibson, a
supervisor at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Abandoned Mine Lands Division. Subsidence from a relatively
shallow mine, he says, tends to measure somewhere in the range
of 6 feet to 12 feet in diameter. "These pits open quickly, you
fill the hole, and solve the problem. Houses can usually bridge
them," he explains.
Sags over deeper mines, however, can take five to 10 years to
finish subsiding, he says. The resulting depressions are
typically 350 feet wide and cause damage to a home due to
uneven settling. In such cases, he notes, the house can
sometimes be protected temporarily by lifting it on bracing to
separate it from the sinking foundation.
"You don't want to get in there and make repairs until it
finishes moving," Taranto says, but once the ground has stopped
sinking, "the vast majority of houses are reparable." Permanent
concrete piers can be used to stabilize or lift the
Not surprisingly, experts caution against siting a building
above an abandoned mine. Builders who do build in an area with
a history of mining, Gibson says, should stay away from
slab-on-grade construction and brickwork. Wood is best because
it has some flexibility, and large expansion joints can absorb
a certain amount of movement, too.
In commercial situations, grout can be pumped into the
abandoned mine. However, this approach can easily cost $1
million per acre, Gibson observes, and isn't practical for
Although land above abandoned mines is seldom subject to
special building codes and zoning, most states recommend
— and some insurers require — that builders consult
with an engineer before building in these "undermined" areas.
Severely undermined states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and
Illinois are currently transferring old mining maps to modern
media to make data about the existence of a mine, its depth,
and its orientation available to engineers, builders, and local
Costs for residential damage due to mine subsidence generally
run to about a third of the home's value, Gibson estimates,
adding that it's rare for a house to be a total loss.
In Indiana, building commissioner Winge expects that the
Schmitt house will undergo repairs.
"The [original] builder in this case used poured foundation
walls, and this really helped reduce the amount of settling we
have to deal with," he says. "We can raise the house, then take
it down to its studs." At that point, he adds, "you'll be
starting from a framed home."— Laurie
To read more about mine subsidence, go
•Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of
•Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Mine
•Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which offers the
abandoned-mine-land development guide "Ask Before You Build,"
•Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology,
•Illinois Department of Natural Resources,
of an earthquake
striking the San Francisco area in
the next 25 years is 62 percent, according to the U.S. Geologic
Survey. Yet 86 percent of homeowners in California, Reuters
reports, have no earthquake insurance. A study released by Risk
Management Solutions, a firm specializing in modeling risks
from catastrophes, estimates that a 7.9-magnitude earthquake
— comparable to the one that leveled San Francisco in
1906 — would cause $260 billion in property damage.
Rising gas prices are changing the way home
buyers think about their daily commute. According to the online
real estate site HomePages.com, more than 40 percent of home
buyers now consider a short commute to be an important factor
in deciding where to live, compared with 9 percent in a similar
survey conducted last year.
It's a boomer boom for remodelers: A recent
NAHB poll finds that baby boomers (age 46 to 64) continue to be
the nation's best remodeling customers. Of all the remodelers
surveyed, 91 percent had provided service to boomers. Compare
that with the percentages who had worked for other age groups:
26 percent for 36- to 45-year-olds, 13 percent for seniors 65
and up, and 2 percent for customers under 35.
The Campbell County Commission had a devil of
a time this spring approving the name for a new subdivision in
Gillette, Wyo. The moniker "Sinnerville" — in honor of
developer Jason Sinner — generated some heated debate,
with one commission member predicting a negative effect on
property values. Sinner himself, after saying he was "trying to
put some affordable housing in this town," observed that
"there's a ‘Butts' subdivision here; I'd rather live in
Sinnerville." Ultimately, the name was approved.
Maine and New Hampshire are enacting stricter
VOC regulations for architectural and industrial maintenance
coatings. The new limits, based on Ozone Transport Commission
recommendations, went into effect on January 1 of this year in
Maine and will be effective January 1, 2007, in New Hampshire.
Under the rules, all coatings sold or used must comply with the
lower limits, except small containers, aerosols, shop-applied
coatings, and coatings manufactured before the regulations went
Minnesota passed notice and opportunity to
repair (NOR) legislation in May, joining 29 other states with
similar laws. Homeowners in Minnesota must now give builders 30
days to inspect a problem and offer a solution before filing a
Mississippi has elevated home-repair fraud to
a felony from a misdemeanor in response to an increase in
complaints after last year's hurricane season. The state has
made a number of arrests since last September on repair-fraud
charges, but crimes committed before March 13 will still be
prosecuted under the old law.
Marcio Lira, the owner of a Connecticut
masonry firm, now faces a manslaughter charge for his role in a
2005 trench collapse. Ademilson Vieira had been repairing a
retaining wall when a section of the unprotected trench
collapsed, killing him. Lira was at the work site at the time
of the accident. OSHA ruled in November that the death could
have been avoided if appropriate safeguards were in place at
the time, and fined Lira $20,100 for the violations.
The license of Virginia contractor John Edward
Callahan was revoked in May after he used untrained homeless
men to remove large amounts of asbestos and dump it in curbside
trash. Although Callahan's advertising claimed otherwise, he
was not licensed to do asbestos-removal work. He had been under
federal and state investigation since February 2005 for a
variety of environmental and labor violations — and had
previously been fined $12,000 in asbestos-related cases. Also
in May, an asbestos-removal firm in New York was shut down; its
owners were fined $100,000 and its general manager was
sentenced to 18 months in prison for improperly removing
asbestos and other violations.
The start of 2006 marked a battle for
supremacy among building-supply companies. The sale of Lanoga
to Fidelity's Pro-Build Holdings, along with Stock Building
Supply's purchase of Home Lumber Co., has weakened 84 Lumber's
dominance. Striking back, 84 announced a plan to double sales
by opening 125 new stores and closing 67 underperforming
"Building Homes of Our Own" is a new educational
computer game created by the NAHB and a team of educators.
Playing the role of builders, students choose a site, get a
building permit, build a house, and place it for sale. As in
the real world, well-meaning neighbors offer warnings,
community-review meetings supply input, and experts (identified
by a shirt and tie) give advice. The program aims to teach the
basic concepts of how homes are built, while reinforcing
subjects like math, science, and English.
Study Says Regulations Jack
Up Housing Costs
Massachusetts builders have been saying for years that
Boston-area housing costs are high because of land-use
regulations, not because of a land shortage. Now they have an
economic study to back up their anecdotal evidence.
"Regulation and the Rise of Housing Prices in Greater Boston,"
published in January, is the product of research by the Pioneer
Institute — a self-described proponent of limited
government — and Harvard University's Rappaport
Institute, which studies local governance issues.
As the report points out, Boston-area housing price increases
from 1980 to 2004 were the second highest in the U.S. (behind
New York's Long Island). Rising prices are a sign of strong
demand, but in the Boston area, not enough housing has been
built to meet this demand: A mere 5,001 single-family homes
were permitted in 2004.
Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard and lead
author of the study, used published economic formulas to
calculate the effect that the limited housing supply has had on
prices in the Boston area. According to his calculations, if
housing supply had increased by 27 percent since 1990 —
rather than by 9 percent, the actual amount — prices
would probably be 23 to 36 percent lower than they are
As part of the study, the two institutes spent two years
developing a database of land-use regulations in 187
communities around Boston. Glaeser reports that his analysis of
the resulting data found an average population density of 1.4
acres per household — a fairly low density for
He also notes that the value of a quarter acre under a new home
lot (excluding the value of the house) exceeds by 20 times the
value of a quarter acre that extends an existing lot. If there
were a true land shortage, Glaeser argues, the value of the two
quarter-acres would be the same. The large price differential,
he says, shows that "surviving the regulatory process adds
enormous value" to land.
Glaeser examined what he terms a "dizzying array" of local
land-use regulations, such as growth caps, minimum lot sizes,
restrictions on lot shape, wetlands regulations, subdivision
rules, and septic regulations. He discovered that of all the
regulations, minimum-acreage requirements have had the most
significant effect on housing costs and availability.
Increasing the minimum lot size by a quarter acre, he reports,
correlates with a 10 percent decrease in the total number of
permits issued by that jurisdiction. Increasing minimum lot
size by a full acre pushes housing prices up by more than 10
percent — and causes the number of affordable homes to
drop by somewhere between 8 percent and 20 percent.
Glaeser says he wasn't able to determine the separate effects
of the other regulations with any statistical certainty.
However, when he looked at wetland, septic, and subdivision
rules as a group, he says he found "statistically robust
results that each additional form of regulation is associated
with a 10 percent decline in annual permits."
In the report, Glaeser acknowledges that many land-use
regulations serve a purpose. But he argues that their economic
costs aren't being sufficiently weighed in policy decisions.
Because his research suggests that there are few incentives in
the Boston area for local governments to encourage growth, he
suggests that the state offer communities rewards for policies
that promote new construction.— Laurie
Storm Damage Creates
Last year, Tennessee restoration contractor Mike Dugan began
making plans to open a local office in Nashville, some 200
miles west of his Memphis headquarters. He had good reason to
believe the process would go smoothly: The Nashville office was
to be his fourth.
He'd set up his first regional office in Winter Haven, Fla., in
2004 to repair damage caused by Hurricanes Ivan and Charley.
And he'd opened another in New Orleans last year, when demand
for reconstruction work reached stratospheric levels in the
wake of Katrina.
Mother Nature, however, had plans of her own. In April of this
year, with the anticipated opening of the Nashville office
still several months away, central Tennessee — including
Nashville itself — was slammed by a series of tornadoes
that damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and businesses.
"The storms threw us into a little bit of a panic," Dugan says.
"We had to get things up and running a lot faster than we'd
But 20 years of experience repairing storm, flood, and fire
damage has taught Dugan the importance of moving quickly when
necessary. With the help of partners from other parts of the
country, his Nashville office snapped into action; before long
it was handling 80 projects a month.
Recently, Dugan took a brief break from the crazy pace to offer
some thoughts on how to succeed in such a demanding line of
work. His advice follows.
Get to know local insurers. "Every insurance company keeps a
list of restoration contractors it works with," he says. "In
some cases, they'll even guarantee the quality of a
contractor's work." Because most customers are referred to
restoration contractors by their insurers, a good reputation
with area insurance companies is much more important than
advertising or marketing.
Set up offices in several locations. "Because storm damage
accounts for a lot of our work, there can be a huge amount of
business in one area when it's quiet everywhere else," he
notes. In addition to smoothing out the revenue stream, local
offices make it easier to maintain solid relationships with
local subs and suppliers.
Move fast. Starting and finishing jobs quickly helps prevent
additional weather damage and makes for satisfied customers and
insurers. It also helps the bottom line. For example, after a
severe storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will haul
away construction waste left on the curb free of charge. "That
usually lasts only a few weeks, but in New Orleans after
Katrina it was extended to a couple of months," Dugan
Hire quality employees. "We shop for employees from other
companies a lot, because the best people in an area are usually
already working," he says. Willingness to travel is helpful but
not essential; although many of Dugan's 150 employees work only
on local jobs, a core group capable of tackling distant jobs on
short notice adds needed flexibility. — Jon
Post-World War II Suburbs
It's no secret that the post-World War II housing boom left
a legacy of homes now in need of modernizing. Frequently, these
old places are torn down and replaced with oversized
McMansions. Some homeowners, however, are bucking the trend and
opting instead to renovate or expand in a way that preserves
the neighborhood's character.
To support that impulse and boost the revitalization of aging
suburbs, the Mid-America Regional Council, a nonprofit group of
Kansas City-area governments, formed the First Suburbs
Coalition (www.marc.org/firstsuburbs) in 2002 and
charged it with addressing and publicizing the issues
surrounding these homes.
In keeping with its mission, the coalition has published a
guide to remodeling houses built between 1940 and 1970. The
36-page Idea Book: Updating Post-World War II Homes contains
floor plans for small, medium, and large-scale remodels of four
post-WWII house types: ranches, capes, split-levels, and
two-story residences. It also reviews basic design
considerations for exteriors and offers tips for the massing,
proportion, and scale of additions.
You can order the $10 guide by calling the Mid-America Regional
Council at 816/701-8243.