Connecticut’s commissioner of consumer protection, Jonathan A. Harris, expects to issue a report this fall on the “potential cause or causes” of failing concrete foundations in northeastern Connecticut. To date, the state Dept. of Consumer Protection has 225 complaints about foundation troubles from owners of single-family houses built between 1983 and 2003. But other building types also are affected, says William F. Neal, a professional engineer who, since 2010, has examined 300 buildings in 19 towns.
Neal says he has seen defective concrete foundations in office buildings, strip malls, public buildings and a “large number” of condominium complexes, ranging from 45 to 200 units. “We also have a number of failing concrete septic tanks and suspect the problem is starting in a [parking] garage at an educational facility,” says Neal, the owner of Residential Engineering Services LLC, which offers house inspections.
“There is a lot of tension about this,” he adds. “Most of my clients refuse to have their problem made public.”
Neal’s findings aside, state Rep. Kelly JS Luxenberg (D), who introduced legislation concerning concrete foundations that, on May 25, became Public Act No. 16-45, says “no commercial buildings have been affected to date.”
Harris adds, “We’ve been told there are issues with condominium housing. I can’t point to a specific complaint.”
To get a handle on the foundation issues, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) last July called on the Dept. of Consumer Protection and the Office of the Attorney General to conduct an investigation. DCP’s investigative team is collaborating with stakeholders, elected officials and other state government departments, including insurance, banking and housing.
DCP also hired Kay Wille, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering, to lead the technical part of the investigation. “We are looking for answers as to the causation and scope of the problem,” says Harris, including all contributing factors: aggregate, installation, bad drainage and environmental conditions.
Pyrrhotite Found in Defective Concrete Foundations
To date, investigators have determined that the iron-sulfide mineral pyrrhotite is a common denominator in the foundation problems, says Harris.
In the presence of water and oxygen, pyrrhotite can oxidize. The oxidation can produce expansive reactions that, over time, can damage structures made from aggregate containing pyrrhotite, agree the experts.
Investigations have traced the ready mix used in some faulty foundations to a supplier, Joseph J. Mottes Co., Stafford Springs, Conn. Mottes used aggregate from a Willington, Conn.-sited quarry, called Becker Construction Co., where there is pyrrhotite.
Becker, owned by Lawrence Becker, and Mottes, owned by Becker’s daughter, Diane Becker, are cooperating with the state’s investigation. On May 9, both companies agreed to stop selling, until June 2017, material or product containing aggregate from Becker’s quarry for use in residential concrete foundations.
Becker still sells stone for other uses, says John Patton, a Mottes spokesman. But as of Jan. 1, because of the publicity around the deteriorating foundations, Mottes ceased operations and is leasing its facility to Connecticut Ready Mix for the year, he adds.
“We support an unbiased and comprehensive investigation of these foundation issues, including how the materials were placed and installed, in addition to remedial actions so that homeowners can get the answers they deserve and meaningful help with solutions,” says Patton.
During the period in question, Mottes and Becker also supplied material to customers in the commercial building and transportation sectors, including the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation.
ConnDOT looked at inspection records for its concrete structures, including 4,000 bridges, and found “no problems,” says Kevin Nursick, a ConnDOT spokesman.
Among other things, the new law requires applicants for certificates of occupancy—for residential and commercial buildings with concrete foundations—to provide the names of the concrete supplier and installer to building officials. Records must be saved for 50 years.
Neal estimates 10,000 to 30,000 houses were built in the affected area from 1983 to 2003. Three of the houses Neal has inspected have been condemned. “We typically find the worst damage in damper parts of the foundation,” he says.
Homeowners face spending $150,000 to $300,000 for a replacement foundation, adds Neal. To date, their homeowners’ insurance claims have been turned down.
The problem may be caused by faulty aggregate, ready mix, installation, general construction or a combination of factors. Finding the causes poses “an extremely complex problem,” Neal says.
“Evidence would tend to suggest one concrete supplier [is involved], but we can’t always determine” the source of the aggregate or ready mix or the installer’s name, says Neal. “It’s like trying to find out where a carpenter bought 2x4s 20 years ago.”
Mottes suspects foundation subcontractors added too much water to the ready mix to make it easier to cast, which undermined its integrity for the long term. One installer, John Gray, worked for many builders during that period, says Patton. “Our drivers would call his concrete ‘Gray Soup,’ ” he adds, saying Gray Construction, which could not be located, is out of business.
Mottes won a lawsuit, in 2003, filed in 1997 by Robert and Linda Tofolowsky against Frederick Bilow, a builder, and Mottes, alleging breach of warranty by Bilow and defective concrete supplied by Mottes for the foundation of their 1985-purchased house in Tolland, Conn.
In finding for the defendant, Judge Jane S. Scholl of the Connecticut Superior Court wrote, “Even assuming that Mottes had some control of the pouring of the concrete … once the foundation was poured, then Mottes no longer had possession and control of the concrete.”
Pyrrhotite in aggregate is not new. In 2014, the Superior Court of Quebec judged that SNC-Lavalin was responsible for most of the problems in structures in Trois Rivieres, Quebec. SNC’s appeal is scheduled to be heard in the fall of next year. “Our position is that part of the responsibility should be shared with other parties involved,” saysLouis-Antoine Paquin, SNC-Lavalin’s spokesman.
The Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act allows the commissioner of consumer protection to pursue persons and businesses who have used unfair or deceptive trade practices with consumers. It also grants the court the discretion to award punitive damages and other relief.
“It’s highly unlikely the state will be able to produce funds from an action, but we are still proceeding very thoroughly and deliberately to try to resolve this issue,” says Commissioner Harris.