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Energy Solutions

Fixing Those Drainage Problems, 30 Years Later

I finally fix the basement drainage problems that have plagued my house for 30 years

If you want to stop water coming in at your basement window, eliminate the window. The basement window and window well are gone. The original Tyvek is folded up as new drainage layers are added. There is a second (original) drainage tile at the bottom of the trench.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
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If you want to stop water coming in at your basement window, eliminate the window. The basement window and window well are gone. The original Tyvek is folded up as new drainage layers are added. There is a second (original) drainage tile at the bottom of the trench.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
I tried fixing the drainage years ago, but my fix failed at the basement window wells. This is what one of the windows looked like after it was dug out, exposing the EPDM drainage layer.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
Re-clapboarding the front of the house.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
We improved the grade on the front of the house and eliminated two window wells that collected water dripping off the roof. I still need to repair or replace the storm/screen door.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
This illustration comes from "Details for a Dry Foundation" by William Rose (Fine Homebuilding, August/September 1997).
Image Credit: Fine Homebuilding

When I bought the house in West Dummerston, Vermont, where my wife and I have lived for the past thirty years, one of the first things I did was fix the drainage problems that were dumping water into our basement…

Or so I thought. Let me explain.

When I moved into the 1780s house there was a hill on the west side that channeled runoff right into the dry-stone foundation. During rainstorms rivulets of water would flow into the basement with abandon. The house had only survived so long because the soil is very sandy. Moisture that got into the basement would quickly soak into the ground and disappear.

Correcting the grade

Step one was to change the topography. I hired an excavation contractor to move several hundred yards of earth from the west side of the house, creating a bit of a swale to direct runoff away from the house.

Step two was to dig a deep trench about three feet from the house to try to intercept the water flowing toward the foundation. I couldn’t dig that trench right against the foundation, because we have a rubble foundation that is vertical on the interior but sloping away from the house on the exterior.

An underground polystyrene roof

I dug the trench by hand to the depth of the basement floor (I was thirty years younger back then and full of energy), then created a sloped plane where I could install two inches of extruded polystyrene insulation and a plastic moisture barrier. I wanted not only to deal with drainage, but also to insulate the basement while I was at it.

I installed perforated drainage tile at the bottom of the trench, backfilled with crushed stone, dealt with the tricky detailing at the window wells, and finished it off. Water flows off the roof eaves and is directed away from the house….

At least that was the plan.

Adding another layer

But with heavy rains, I discovered that my drainage layer didn’t work at the window wells. Water somehow made its way around the plastic and into the basement — carrying the sandy soil with it.

Fifteen years later, I tried a fix — hiring a builder this time (I had less of that youthful energy by then) to expose the top of the trench and install a layer of EPDM rubber mat. Again, we dealt with the tricky detail at the window well….

And again, we failed. Moisture still came into the basement and still carried the sandy soil with it. We ended up with a sinkhole in our lawn. The folds around the window wells just didn’t work.

Eliminating the windows

That brought us to this summer. We’re wanting to fix up the house so that we can put it on the market in the next year or so as we move to the farm we bought down the road, and I knew that I would finally have to fix these drainage problems before selling the house.

Working with a different builder, my friend Eli Gould, we decided to eliminate the windows altogether so that the drainage could be continuous from the wall system down to the sloped insulation. Building scientist friends of mine, Terry Brennan and Andy Shapiro, were staying at our house one night when we were thinking about this solution, and they concurred that eliminating those windows was a no-brainer.

We now know that basement windows shouldn’t be used for ventilation in our climate — because they introduce more moisture than they remove. Yes, we will lose some natural light, but that’s not a big deal since we don’t use the basement for anything besides our heating system, indirect hot water tank, pressure tank for water, freezer, and some limited storage.

This time the basement should stay dry

So here we are. Done. The walls have four layers of drainage, lapped so that water can’t sneak in. We used a housewrap, Grace Ice & Water Shield, EPDM, and metal flashing (for protection on the outside). We installed an additional length of drainage tile, and more crushed stone. We replaced some rotted clapboards at the bottom of the wall. I think it’s going to work like a charm!

What we have created is essentially an underground roof (a name given to this approach by building scientist Bill Rose). Water comes off the eaves of the roof and hits the crushed stone, dropping down and being carried away by the drainage layers and drainage tile. The sloped insulation saves some energy and keeps the basement from freezing.

Looking good so far!

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. toymaker | | #1

    Why not an eave gutter?

    Underground water proofing seems a good idea, but it should not be your only defense. Membranes subject to freeze/thaw cycles will likely fail in the future, plus water will wick down and around your barrier to humidify your basement. But more to the point, why dump all the roof water on the foundation in the first place? I can see the black streaks left from water running over the facia in the picture. Good ole gutters move most of the water away from the foundation and can be visually inspected to reveal any problems. No need to get out a shovel or backhoe. My previous older home has original galvanized gutters still in good shape after 91 years. Your swale probably took care of adjacent lot runoff. Looks to me like the roof was the water source for your window well leaks, not to mention your lower clapboard and storm door rot. Am I missing something?

    Cheers and thanks for your work, john the toymaker

  2. davidmeiland | | #2

    about the gutter... might not be the only problem, but at least part of it.

  3. tinagleisner | | #3

    Window Wells
    I agree that you don't need the natural light if you're not using the basement except for storage ... but what about the next owners? Seems to me there must be ways to protect a house with window wells or there wouldn't be so many, although I don't have personal experience with them. Gutters make sense too as it does sound like you stopper water flowing towards the house.

  4. user-1140531 | | #4


    I am not sure I follow what you did. In the photo, it looks like a French drain system in a shallow bed with the tile just beneath the surface. But you described your earlier approach in digging all the way down to the level of the footings to intercept ground water moving toward the house. Yet, I would think that would have been uncessary once you had the excavator make a swale to redirect water that had been coming down the hill toward your house.

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