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Best Practices

Low-Carbon Foundations

As more building pros look for ways to get carbon out of their projects, foundations are the low-hanging fruit. Here are some viable alternatives to concrete basements and slabs.

Pin foundation from manufacturer Diamond Pier

A new study examines the “remaining carbon budget” (RCB), which is the amount of CO2 that can still be added to the atmosphere without exceeding global warming temperature targets. The authors describe the remaining budget as “tiny” and call the situation “dire.” To have a 50% chance of staying under 1.5 degrees Celsius the budget or ceiling is down to 250 gigatonnes of CO2. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap report says, “Only an urgent system-wide transformation can deliver the enormous cuts needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2030: 45% compared with projections based on policies currently in place to get on track to 1.5°C and 30 percent for 2°C.”

Construction is a major contributor to carbon emissions, much of it coming from the use of concrete. In their Emissions of Materials Benchmark Assessment for Residential Construction (EMBARC) study, Builders for Climate Action and  Passive Buildings Canada examined 503 Canadian houses and found that concrete, mostly in foundations and slabs, comprised 33% of the Material Carbon Emissions (MCE), the “cradle to gate” portion of upfront carbon; a third of carbon emissions could be eliminated if alternative foundations and slabs were used. This is probably an underestimate of the full impact of concrete; Builders for Climate Action and Paasive Buildings Canada use MCE because the data on transportation and on-site construction—from gate to completion—are so variable. But concrete is heavy, and just moving it has a big footprint.

To dig or not to dig

Concrete foundations are the de facto standard in North America but they have many problems besides their carbon footprint; they have little insulation value, they crack, they leak, and they are not even fireproof. Sustained temperatures above 570°F reduces concrete’s strength and can cause cracking or bowing. After the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado, many of the foundations were too…

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  1. nickdefabrizio | | #1

    We have been building on wood pilings at the Jersey shore for 60 years, and probably a million homes from Maine to Texas have been built this way on the coast. Easy, cheap and reliable, better than masonry in flood zones (less resistance to moving water and absorbs less pollutants from flood waters). A foundation can be laid out and completed in less than a day with zero concrete or cement. And contrary to popular belief, huge luxury homes and commercial buildings can be built this way. My next door neighbors home built entirely on wood pilings is 10,000 feet and is high end in every way, including $$$$$.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #2


      In the early 80's coastal BC had an interesting fish cannery architectural aesthetic that became the basis of the very popular Grandville Island in Vancouver, and a dockside development in nearby Steveton. Building on piles was a big part of that. I wish it had caught on more widely.

  2. jameshowison | | #3

    Any details for a garage built on these approaches? Or is slab on grade the only option? Just thinking residential garage.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #4


      Lot's of garages and large storage buildings on farms have been built without foundations for literally centuries. If you are content with compacted road-base as a finished surface, the process is a lot easier than it is for a house.

    2. Chris_in_NC | | #5

      If you don't do much/any work on your own cars, any surface capable of supporting the weight of a car will work. If you do work on your own cars, you need to have a safe and stable base to support jackstands, jacks, etc.
      At the more extreme end for a home shop, a 2-post lift needs footings with compression and bending load distribution, and a 4-post lift needs compressive strength. That's hard to do without concrete.

      You could make a garage with a raised timber floor capable of bearing vehicle weight, as was common for barns, old timey auto shops, and train buildings. I've seen some old pics from Europe of oil-soaked heavy timber floors inside hillside service garages, with walkout storage or shop space underneath. Seemed to work fine for old Ferraris in Italy, and makes for wonderful photography.
      No idea if that is a practical solution nowadays or what the code implications are. You're basically making a wooden trailer deck as the floor of a building, more or less. Or an industrial mezzanine, as another way of thinking about it.

  3. [email protected] | | #6

    Good article, but I wanted Lloyd to talk more about more traditional-style concrete-free (or concrete-lite) "pin" foundations. I am just about directly on bedrock and want to go this route, but even the pin foundations I've seen (like this JLC example from a few years ago: use quite a lot of concrete. What is a good pier-n-beam w/pins assembly? Could I simply make the pins the centerpiece of mortared stone piers? Thanks for any ideas or insight.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #7


      I've built a couple of houses directly on rock, much like the one in the JLC article. You get to omit the footing, but drilling in the pins and contouring the bottom of the stem-walls makes them more labour intensive than if they were on soil.

      Pinning piers to rock I've done two ways. One was quite similar to the full foundation in that you epoxy pins into the ledge, then build concrete piers above. I've done that on an ADU, and also used a variation of that for the bridge I've attached.

      The other I've only used on decks, and would definitely need engineering to size the pins, but you end up with a concrete-free foundation similar to helical piers. I drilled holes in the ledge deep enough to provide horizontal resistance, epoxied in 1" threaded rod, and supported the beams on large square washers and nuts.

      One complication with building with piers on rock is that in most climates you not only have to make a chase for the services from the underside of the floor to grade (as you do with any house on piers), but also somehow keep those services from freezing on the rock until they get somewhere they can be buried.

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