Special Reports

Homeowners' troubles lead Wichita to form task force

The city and the Wichita Area Builders Association are forming a task force to set standards for slab-house construction and soil stability testing, hoping to get new rules in place by next spring. The task force comes after a series of stories by The Eagle that investigated several crumbling slab-foundation houses in Clint Miller Homes' Maple Shade subdivision in southeast Wichita.

At least five neighboring houses in the subdivision have buckling foundations, cracking walls and workmanship issues. They were built on fill dirt and clay that swelled and contracted with moisture in an area with poor drainage.

The homeowners blame a lack of city building regulations and an unresponsive builder for their problems.

One woman, 74-year-old widow Betty Wiens, faces a repair bill of at least $70,000 to make her home livable. She paid $141,000 for the home.

The task force's goal is the "adoption of standards to regulate future construction techniques," said the president of the builders association, Wess Galyon.

The move was hailed by Wiens, whose Maple Shade residence fell apart after her slab foundation developed cracks almost an inch wide.

"What I really hope to get from this is for this kind of thing to never happen to any-one again," she said.

"These people out here have been through a lot, have lost a lot. I feel so sorry for Carol Poe. Her house is just terrible. Diana Ketterman. Will Thomas and Chelsee Anderson. Steve Garner.

"I mean, I had nothing until you guys got involved," she said to an Eagle reporter.

Maple Shade resident Diana Ketterman, a Wichita doctor who wrote The Eagle in late October about the deteriorating subdivision, said she's glad the city is moving to make changes.

"I think that's probably the best thing anyone can hope for, that it doesn't happen to anyone else," she said. "You can have all the laws you want to, but as long as nobody enforces them, it does you no good to have them."

Steve Garner, whose house is the latest addition to the list of crumbling structures, praised the prospect of new laws.

"Nothing but good news," he said. "It's good news that someone in the future will be protected from the same problems we have. At least new homebuyers will know the issues with the soil underneath their homes."

Suspicious soils

City Manager Robert Layton said Urbandale, Iowa, where he was city manager for 24 years, has a significant amount of expansive clay and shale soils and stricter standards to prevent problems like those occurring in Maple Shade.

Layton said he inquired about the city's regulations as soon as he learned about the problems in Maple Shade, but he credited Kurt Schroeder, superintendent of the Office of Central Inspection, and Galyon for the task force idea.

Layton said he's supportive of the task force and that he expects to see soil testing and slab foundation inspection recommendations go to the City Council by next spring.

City officials have said they had few legal remedies to help residents in Maple Shade.

"It's obvious that our code did not have provisions in it to directly address this issue," Layton said. "So, in that regard, we were limited in what we could do in terms of enforcement and trying to catch this on the front end."

The task force will investigate:

* Characteristics and conditions of each type of soil in the area.

* The effect of area weather on soils and the structures atop them.

* The effect of natural and man-made drainage.

* Construction techniques used in the Wichita area, compared with construction in other parts of the country with comparable soil and weather conditions.

* Development of standards and construction techniques that can be recommended for adoption and enforcement by area cities.

City officials are concerned there may not be enough qualified firms locally that can perform soil tests and certify the soil has been properly compacted before builders pour a slab foundation.

Formation of task force

Private city e-mails released to The Eagle on Friday indicate that top city officials began reviewing building codes and discussing a task force about a week after the newspaper published its initial story about the buckled foundation and cracking walls at Wiens' house.

A Nov. 24 e-mail from Schroeder to Layton said the task force will probably include the following:

"A structural engineer, a civil engineer, a representative from Allied Testing (soils, concrete, etc.), a representative from Terracon (which does most of the fill-compaction testing and concrete-slab testing in this area, though primarily for commercial construction), hydrologist/drainage expert M.S. Mitchell ('Big Ditch Mitch'), a foundation company representative, a homebuilder representative who has built successfully on the east side of town for over 40 years with good success, Wess Galyon, myself and a couple of my staff."

Galyon said the task force is similar to one formed by the builders association, the city and Sedgwick County code enforcement in the early 1980s to develop basement construction standards.

Those standards came, Galyon said, after growing problems in the late 1970s with basement walls cracking as clay soils swelled and contracted.

Schroeder said the city needs to explore new ways to prevent problems with increasingly popular slab patio homes, such as those in Maple Shade.

No timeline has been set, but Schroeder said he hopes to have well-researched recommendations for the City Council within two to three months.

Schroeder said he has been reviewing other cities' regulations, including Fort Worth, Des Moines, Overland Park and others that have to deal with expanding and shifting fill dirt and clay soil.

The need for better standards is even more pronounced now that more builders are putting up patio and slab-style houses.

"We just want to make sure if there's clay soil, particularly with slabs, that we have a good standard that most of the time will make a good, solid product," Schroeder said.

Most of eastern Wichita sits on soft shale, which is composed of clay and other minerals that have the potential to expand and contract with moisture.

Ongoing investigation

Spot checks by city inspectors, contractors and Eagle reporters indicate that the slab of Wiens' home did not meet city code, which requires 3.5 inches of thickness.

There's no evidence of any steel reinforcement, like rebar, in the foundation — a requirement in several Kansas cities.

Instead, her foundation has a fiber mesh reinforcement that failed as the concrete buckled.

An e-mail from Schroeder to Layton says the city documented the conditions at Wiens' home as contracting crews ripped out her concrete floor and dug deep into the soil to find stable ground.

"Various colors and levels of excavated soils indicated fill may have been poor and improperly compacted," he wrote. "Footings depths and widths, and foundation wall widths appeared to meet minimum code (although re-bar installation could not be seen/documented). This type of information will be important if we proceed against Clint Miller Homes on a license review action."

Schroeder said last week that the city hasn't decided whether to take formal action, saying its investigation is still under way.

Galyon said the builders are working with the city in the investigation before deciding whether to take any action on Clint Miller's membership. Options include expelling or censuring a member, he said.

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