Richardson's Tella Firma Says It Has the Right Foundation for Texas' Shifting Soil

A few months after building his dream house on Lake Texoma, Jim Fontaine started to see signs that the project had gone terribly wrong.Hairline cracks appeared in the basement’s stained concrete floor. Doors stuck or wouldn't open. Then, cracks began to creep up the walls.The backfiring home project led to a career change for Fontaine, a tech entrepreneur. He's CEO of Tella Firma, a Richardson-based company that's using a unique installation method to fend off foundation problems caused by the expansive clay soil in Texas and other regions. As Texas construction booms, Fontaine said the approach could help builders, developers and homeowners avoid the same headaches and pricey repairs that he faced. Tella Firma has installed about 1,000 foundations, with most in the Dallas area. It recently raised $1.6 million from the North Texas Angel Network and Enhanced Capital, among others, to expand in Central Texas, develop new products and install more foundations for commercial projects."I always tell people, 'We are not curing cancer, but we are solving real problems,'" he said.Fontaine heard about the new way to install foundations when talking about his home repair troubles on a Cub Scouts trip. One of the other dads, Tony Childress, had a company that used the elevated foundation approach on high-end, custom homes. He told Fontaine that the method would have prevented his problem.Fontaine spun the patented system and equipment into an independent company with the aim of bringing down the price and making the approach more mainstream. Before signing on as CEO, he said he studied two maps -- the U.S. Geological Survey that shows active clay soil and a map of housing starts across the country. He said the maps convinced him the company had a huge market.Finicky clay soil can complicate home construction, especially since materials like concrete and bricks don't bend. The tiny particles act like sponges, swelling after rainstorms and drying out on the hottest summer days, said Jean-Louis Briaud, a civil engineering professor at Texas A&M University. In some cases, the height of soil beneath a house can change by as much as a foot on the driest day and the wettest one, he said.When the soil shifts, the edges of the home see damage first. The active soil is found in many major metropolitan areas in Texas, including Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio and outside of Texas in areas including Denver.Tella Firma's method is unique because it can lift the foundation slab, so it's slightly above the soil. Here's how it works: Before construction projects, an engineer takes a soil sample to calculate how much the soil could rise or fall and decides what foundation to use. Briaud of Texas A&M said builders generally use one of three approaches: slab-on-grade, which lays the concrete directly on top of the ground; stiffened slab-on-grade, a waffle-like crisscrossing of stiff beams to keep the foundation from bending; and pier-and-beam, a pricier solution that elevates the foundation above the ground and creates a crawl space beneath. Some builders inject the soil with water or chemicals to stabilize it.Tella Firma uses an approach that's between slab-on-grade and pier-and-beam in both price and method. For example, on a $400,000 home, the Tella Firma approach would cost about $4,000 more than a slab-on-grade foundation, Fontaine said. But he estimated that a pier-and-beam would cost about $15,000 more.It sells piers and a lifting mechanism that allows concrete companies to elevate a foundation. The piers go down to bedrock or solid earth and then the concrete foundation is poured on top. A crew uses wrenches to raise the slab up a few inches, so it is at least an inch higher than the predicted vertical rise of the soil. That leaves a protective void for the soil to rise and fall, without moving the house. The suspended structure resembles the design of a parking garage. Tella Firma has a 10-year warranty on foundations that use the system, Fontaine said.In 2005, Simmie Cooper, the co-CEO of Dallas-based Camden Homes and CEO of Dallas-based Cooper Contractors, became the first builder to use the method. He said he's since used it to install foundations on bad soil, whether they're entry-level homes or million-dollar mansions.He said he prefers it to the pricier pier-and-beam approach, which leaves a large space that can accumulate moisture or attract animals. It's also less messy than injecting thousands of gallons of water or chemicals to stabilize shifting soil."This to me is the Rolls Royce of foundations," he said.  Continue reading...

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