The summer after Bethesda Workshops moved into our building, we noticed water seeping in across the back wall of the eating area, originally a long warehouse, where the wall met the floor. Investigation determined the drainage ditch behind the building needed clearing out, and our angel investor had someone do that for us. Grateful, we thought the problem was solved.
About a year later, water started oozing in along the side wall of the building too. That ditch was also cleared, but this time the issue was more persistent. Eventually, we had to rearrange the client welcome area so that we could sop up the incoming water more easily. Water leaching into a side meeting room required a dehumidifier and occasionally an ozone ionizer machine to keep the musty smell at bay. Clearly, it was time to consider more drastic action.
The first company to provide a quote identified the problem as our building’s concrete slab construction, which traps water without an easy runoff, in combination with its setting. Bethesda Workshops’ home sits about 12 feet below our neighboring structure on the side and about 6 feet below the business behind us. Both properties funnel water down the steep banks, and it bombards the L-shaped perimeter of our building. Basically, we were sunk — literally.
This firm proposed an outdoor drainage system to channel water away from the foundation. This method required digging a large ditch along the L perimeter and installing drains and external barriers to gutter the water away. The second quote, from an equally established and reputable company, took a very different approach: addressing the issue from inside the building, not the outside. It involved cutting a 6-inch wide by 12-inch deep trench in the interior concrete floor along the L perimeter walls and installing a system of French drains and two sump pumps to remove the water. This firm said that for 20 years they had done the kind of exterior foundation work the first company quoted, until this new method was introduced and proved over a decade to be far superior. It also created a tremendous mess inside and took longer.
Both quotes were a very sizable expense, but the exterior fix was almost twice the amount of the interior quote. I knew nothing about the foundation of a building. Which option was best? What if I ultimately wasted more money than I saved by going with the interior approach and it didn’t work? I felt overwhelmed and unequipped to decide.
I asked the opinion of our angel investor, who pointed out the lifetime guarantee in the contract for the interior method. I had seen that promise and feared it was too good to be true, but this experienced contract negotiator said it was ironclad. I also asked our trusted contractor who renovated the building, and he was familiar with the interior method and said it worked well.
When I wondered aloud if the problem was really bad enough to invest so much money, both advisors strongly emphasized the importance of tending to the foundation. Based on their input, I chose the interior repair and contracted the work for a couple of months out when there was a sufficient window between workshops. Surprisingly, the water seepage seemed to abate significantly during that period, and I second guessed the decision. Each consultant kept telling me that the foundation was far too important to risk. “If you’ve had such a severe problem in the past, it’s not magically going to fix itself” one said.
The preparation for the work was unexpectedly hard. We were told that concrete dust would spread throughout the building, and I took that warning seriously. Over a period of three days, we basically shrink wrapped everything in the areas along the L perimeter where the trench would be dug. We gathered all the tables and chairs used by participants and covered them in plastic sheeting. My husband climbed a 12-foot step ladder and protected our huge projection screen, the ceiling mounted projector, and the audio equipment. We wrapped every bookcase full of supplies in the perimeter group rooms, crammed many items into a large meeting room away from the area, and taped plastic across the door.
In the kitchen, eating and lounging area, we sheeted all the cabinets, sink, and two refrigerators. We stacked the couches and other furniture and covered them, too. By the time we were finished, the building looked totally disheveled and super sad. Getting to our offices, which fortunately were outside the repair zone, required navigating a shrouded obstacle course.
When the repair finally started, I saw quickly that our advisors were right. Very right. The contractor removed the drywall above where the foundation company would cut the trench, and wet 2x4s were exposed, along with the beginning of mold. When the foundation crew cut through the concrete and removed the debris, muddy water stood in the bottom of the trough. Soon the wet, musty smell enveloped the building. Yikes!
The fix took longer than anticipated, and the repour of the concrete floor was rough instead of smooth. The vapor barrier installation along the perimeter walls was wavy in places, which drove me crazy. But when the torrential rains came, the system operated flawlessly. The sump pumps hummed, and the outside drains bubbled waterspouts. The building remained completely dry and the damp mustiness was gone.
As I stood in the rain and watched the volume of water being pumped from under the building, I knew there was no way an exterior system could have kept it all out. It had to be an inside job. And if we hadn’t torn up the concrete and removed the drywall, all that nasty, wet decay would still be lurking.
As challenging as the project was, the result is definitely worth the hassle and expense. Plus, the experience yielded some important life reminders:
• Tend to your foundation! It’s the…well, foundation for everything else.
• Consider carefully what needs to be done. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend if it doesn’t fix the issue.
• Ask trusted advisors who know more than you do and follow their advice. Ask them again when you’re scared or doubt yourself.
• Put in the work upfront and avoid a bigger cleanup later.
• Don’t be afraid of the mess. It’s part of the repair process.
• Repairing what needs fixing doesn’t always result in something that looks like new or even as good as it did before. Cutting away debris usually leaves a scar. It’s all good.
• Help someone else who’s tending to his/her foundation. Be supportive and encouraging.
• Be willing to get in the trench with someone and remove the debris or prepare for the project or clean up afterward. No one should have to face the yuck and mold alone.
After all the focus on water and the problems it can cause, the forecast for Nashville predicts repeated bouts of rain in the coming days. I love the rain and I love more being at Bethesda Workshops during the rain, especially a really hard downpour that pings on the metal roof. Now that we’ve tended to the foundation, I can enjoy the storms without worrying about any water seeping inside.
Marnie C. Ferree