If you visit the basement of an older home, you may notice that the floor joists above your head are embedded in the foundation walls. This is rare in a modern home, where floor joists usually rest on a 2×6 pressure-treated mudsill that is bolted to the top of the foundation wall.
In a house with embedded joists, the top of the foundation wall is often level with the tops of the joists. This construction method required builders to frame the floor (supporting the joists with temporary beams in some cases) before the wall was complete, and then to finish the wall by placing concrete around the ends of the joists. The same method was also used for some homes with stone-and-mortar foundations or brick foundations.
Builders used to embed joists in the foundation walls to prevent air leakage into the joist bays. While it’s true that poured concrete is a decent air barrier, embedded joists have a downside: the joist ends are susceptible to moisture accumulation and rot.
Interior insulation makes the situation worse
The ends of most embedded joists don’t rot, of course. While these joist ends face a daunting number of moisture sources — capillary moisture rising up the foundation wall, condensation of moisture from the interior air, and foundation moisture from wind-driven rain — the lumber is also able to dry out when conditions are favorable. Joist ends on the south side of a building usually have a lower moisture content than joist ends on the north side, since sunlight warms a foundation and helps keep embedded joists dry.
If homeowners get tired of the energy losses associated with uninsulated basement walls, and decide to install interior insulation, there’s a potential for greater problems. In a basement with embedded joists, the new interior insulation will now make…