Safety put 'in jeopardy' by some companies shoring up shaky homes, industry complaint alleges
'It's kind of scary,' said one New Brunswick cottage owner
This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it's reshaping our economy.
As climate conditions change, homeowners are turning to helical piles to fortify and anchor their homes against shifting soils and extreme weather.
But some companies that produce and install foundation posts used to shore up thousands of homes in Canada may not be following the rules, according to the federal body that certifies construction materials in Canada.
Ed Cutler knows this first hand. He paid a company $17,000 to install helical piles to support his Saint Jacques, N.B., cottage in 2015. When he returned to reopen the cottage the following year, the building had shifted so much that he couldn't open the front door.
"It's kind of scary," said Cutler. "You'd be sitting down or you'd be laying in bed and somebody would start to walk around. It felt like you were on a boat in the water."
The 59-year-old tried a number of homemade fixes, eventually resorting to crawling underneath the cottage and cranking up a series of little jacks to steady it.
The Canadian Construction Materials Centre (CCMC) confirmed it is visiting some helical pile factories after one manufacturer lodged a complaint in November alleging his competitors were cutting corners.
"When you do things incorrectly like that, you're basically putting your customer's public safety in jeopardy," said Julian Reusing, president of Magog, Que.-based GoliathTech, which lodged the complaint with the CCMC.
Wrong steel used
Helical piles, also known as screw piles, are long steel tubes with one or several helix blades welded onto their body. They are plunged deep into the soil using special equipment to shore up foundations and anchor structures in place.
In order for its products to be used in Canada, a company has to first certify its helical piles through the Canadian Construction Materials Centre. That also means they have to stick to the specifications of their CCMC approval, which governs how they are made and how they can be used in construction.
Reusing said that GoliathTech kept losing out on projects, and was often undercut by 30 per cent in bidding. In an effort to figure out why, Reusing started doing some tests.
"We set up dummy [building] sites. We had four or so competitors install their piles. We sent [samples of] them out to third-party laboratories. We tested them. We weren't actually expecting to come back with so many issues," Reusing said.
The lab, Mequaltech, found some of the samples were not of the same steel grade promised in their CCMC specifications. It also found non-conformance issues with welding and corrosion protection.
Reusing filed a formal complaint with the CCMC and shared his lab findings, as well as other evidence he collected of helical pile installations across Canada that he says are not up to code.
He estimates, based on the number of projects he's seen, that millions of homes in Canada are affected by piles installations that haven't strictly followed the rules affecting everything from foundations to patios.
"If we were to drive just within two miles of where we are here [in Quebec] I could probably find you 50 to 70 houses," Reusing said.
After receiving the complaint, CCMC took the rare step of issuing a technical bulletin to industry and building inspectors across the country.
The bulletin stated "every project is required to have: helical blades, approval of a registered professional engineer, welding that conforms to standards; required corrosion protection, and a certified installer."
It warned that not following those guidelines "can compromise the load carrying capacity and serviceability of the corresponding load bearing foundations."
The building moves
In order to even use his cottage, Ed Cutler has had to reframe doors — and still his shower door hangs off-kilter. Putting finishing touches on the cottage has been near impossible because it has been so structurally unsound.
"You can actually take and push on the side of the walls and see the building move," Cutler said.
To demonstrate this, the retiree gave the side of the house a shove. The siding squeaked as it visibly moved, despite the posts that are supposed to hold it in place.
Watch as Ed Cutler rocks his cottage on its foundations:
"I trusted the installer," Cutler said. Once he started doing some research, he found that the installer hadn't installed the right sized posts or even enough of them.
The company is currently in the process of repairing Cutler's cottage, four years after the posts were first installed. The company insists it has "high standards." Cutler wishes he knew four years ago what was in the current CCMC bulletin — especially the part about having the project certified by an engineer.
"There were no engineering drawings. There was no engineer, to my knowledge, that was consulted," Cutler said.
Cutler is comparatively lucky. A civil suit filed in Bathurst, N.B., alleges one home collapsed in part because the screw piles it was built upon were not properly installed.
During flooding in 2017, the New Brunswick house was lifted off the piles. When the flood waters receded, the house came back down, but not exactly where it had been on the piles. The house later broke in half and the owner filed suit against the local installer, the piling company and his home insurance company.
According to the statement of claim, the piling company did not consult an engineer for the project. The company did not respond to CBC's questions about the suit, but it did file a notice to defend in the New Brunswick court.
Inspectors can't see underground
The Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (CAHPI) says climate change is driving an increase in the use of helical piles.
"People are having to build structures in areas where environmental conditions are changing," said CAHPI President Graham Clarke.
He said people often have to dig deeper into the soil to find an anchor point to support structures. And then there are the powerful forces above ground that can topple a structure. Clarke said extreme winds put more pressure on buildings and patios to stay in place.
"We seem to really be pushing those extremes, and very often helical piles are a solution for a traditional system that wouldn't work," Clarke said.
CCMC may certify helical piles and set the terms for how they can be used, but Clarke said it is ultimately up to provincial or municipal building inspectors to enforce the rules, which can be problematic.
"For the most part, they don't have an ability to look at the post sticking out of the ground and determine whether it was installed to the right depth," said Clarke.
Instead, Clarke said inspectors rely on permitting paperwork for the job and sealed engineering reports, something not every company is providing for each specific job.
Clarke believes homeowners should insist installers hire an engineer to review each job.
"Otherwise, I mean, who is making the decision on what the loads are? Who's making the decision on how deep it has to go? Where does the buck stop?" Clarke asked.
In an email to CBC News, CCMC said people who might be worried about the helical piles already installed on their property should contact their local building permit office to see what engineering and paperwork exists.
The CCMC confirmed this week that it is taking further steps to investigate Julian Reusing's complaint.
It said that if it finds evidence manufacturers are deviating from the quality control information in their CCMC evaluation reports, their certification reports could be pulled, making it difficult for them to do business.