You know you’ve got a pier and beam home but don’t know *a ton* about piers. Like which kind of piers do you have? Are these piers good or not? You’re just looking for any insights into the piers you have on your home. Well, I think we can help you out here . . .
Who’s we? Oh right, we are Anchor Foundation Repair and we have worked on 1,000+ pier and beam and block and base homes in and around the Brazos Valley since 1985. We have *seen it all* under a home and can tell you about piers in these crawlspace types of home foundations.
This article will name and describe 6 types of piers commonly found in pier and beam homes. We will also explore the pros and cons of each type of pier and briefly discuss repair tactics for problem piers. Let’s take a peek at piers!
6 Types of Piers on Pier & Beam Homes
We’ve categorized piers into 6 distinct types, but this is kind of our way of thinking of them and not the only way by any means. Just what makes sense in this country boy’s mind . . .
Each type hasn’t been used in a strict chronological order through time necessarily. Some older methods are still used today and some seemingly “modern” methods are not really all that new or used anymore. And newer doesn’t even mean better when it comes to piers.
These pier types are ones we have seen in our area of Central Texas (in other words, there could be a few more out there that aren’t on the list). We will present them by material type from simplest to most modern/reinforced materials used in pier and beam home foundations. Like this:
- Timber Piers (3 common types)
- Stacked Stone and Mortar
- Brick and Mortar
- Stacked Concrete Base and Block Combos
- Poured Pyramids
- Poured Cylindrical Piers
In the next section, we will describe these a bit more and explore their pros and cons.
Description and Pros/Cons for Pier Types on Pier & Beam Homes
We’ll give you a quick rundown on what each of these pier types looks like and show you examples. Then we will discuss the pros and cons for each type.
1. Timber Piers (3 Common Types)
Timber is a fancy word for wood. So three different wood types might get used for timber piers. Cedar stumps, Bois d’Arc piers, and pressure-treated pine. Cedar is a kind of tree that is resistant to rotting and bugs, so its wood was used at one point for foundations.
Bois d’Arc is another specific type of tree (native to Texas in fact) that is known for its strength, hardness, and pest resistance. Bois d’Arc is French and translates to “wood of the bow”, so you can pronounce it in French if ya want. But in countryfied-Texas terms, people basically pronounce it *Bo-Dark* thus making all dead French people roll over in their graves.
Then there’s good ol’ pressure-treated pine posts that you might readily think of, the squared 4×4 inch or 6×6 inch type of deal. All three of these wood types have been used in the past for home foundations and pressure-treated pine is even used today in simple structures. *Naturally* they have their pros and cons.
Pros for Timber Piers
Pine is cheap and easy to buy. Cedar and Bois d’Arc piers are period-specific. These piers could be found in a unique or historic home with a charm that you might value and want to preserve.
Cons for Timber Piers
All timber piers are subject to rot and decay even if they are very strong and pest resistant. If they hang out under a pier and beam home that has drainage issues and constant damp conditions, any wood will deteriorate at some point.
If you are wanting to replicate the vintage feel of cedar stumps or *bo-dark*, you might not be able to because they are not common building materials anymore.
2. Stacked Stone and Mortar
Flat, large stones like flagstone used to be stacked up and used for crawlspace-type foundations. This would likely be an older or historic home as well and is not common anymore.
Pros for Stacked Stone Piers
The main pro is that it has a charming and beautiful appearance to some folks. They want their period home to stay the way it was originally built and love the natural look.
Cons for Stacked Stone Piers
The mortar used to hold stacked stones together will deteriorate at some point. These kinds of piers are not easily repairable because once one of the piers begins to lean, it’s hard to dig them out and start over. It’s even harder to find a person who can or will do the work needed to preserve something with vintage-level workmanship.
3. Brick and Mortar Piers
You’ve probably seen brick and mortar piers around and they are very visible when used on block and base homes where the crawlspace area is not covered by skirting. Brick and mortar piers were very common in the 30s and 40s and even some through the 50s.
Bricks are stacked in a rectangular column about 12 x 24 inches around and as tall as it needs to be to hold a home in a level position. The home shown in these pictures was significantly raised up off the ground in addition to having more than one pier type. Brick pier columns can be built to any height most suitable for a home’s design, which is kind of one of its pros.
Pros of Brick and Mortar Piers
Similar to stacked stone, the brick and mortar pier has a desirable vintage look. People who love vintage homes love the appearance and beauty of a brick-column supported home.
Cons of Brick and Mortar Piers
Also similar to stacked stone, brick piers are subject to mortar deterioration and difficulty with repairs once leaning. When a brick pier is no longer plumb (i.e. straight vertical) it is not easily salvaged in that state.
You have to rip the whole brick column out and start over and that can prove difficult depending on how much clearance you have in the crawlspace. And again, you have to find someone who will do it for you which might also be easier said than done. It’s not a method used anymore for home foundations.
4. Stacked Concrete Base and Block Combos
These are varying sizes of concrete blocks and cinder-looking blocks stacked on top of one another. They will also appear in a square-ish or rectangular-shaped column just like a brick and mortar pier. The main differences between brick columns and these are that the sizes of blocks are not uniform throughout and no mortar holds them together.
The blocks are different sizes because they will start with the largest size on the bottom and switch to thinner blocks as they approach the base of the home structure. This graduated system helps to make sure that the home rests in a level position. Each pier is customized to the correct elevation needed to support and secure the home.
Yes, there is no mortar holding them together. That sounds like it could be a con but it’s actually not. We will explore this in the pros and cons next.
Pros of Stacked Concrete Base and Block Combos
Stacked concrete piers are highly and easily adjustable. They are lightweight and easy to maneuver. Concrete blocks are also low maintenance and durable. These premade construction items are readily available and inexpensive at any local hardware store.
Concrete blocks have the strength of stone and brick, without the hassle of being stuck together with mortar, extremely heavy, or difficult to dig out. This makes any failing part simple to remove and replace. They are great for supporting homes both on the perimeter and under the interior of the build.
Cons of Stacked Concrete Base and Block Combos
Unlike brick and stacked stone piers, concrete blocks by themselves are not particularly attractive. These are precast concrete, called CMUs (Concrete Masonry Units) and they are not sexy. They are the Plain Jane of building materials.
CMUs do not have any steel reinforcements built into them. Even though they are quite durable, they are only as durable as the ingredients they are made from and there ain’t no steel in there.
5. Poured Pyramid Piers
Poured concrete pyramids are monolithic, meaning they are one solid piece and they are also steel-reinforced on the inside.
They look like a pyramid with the top cut off to make that part straight instead of going all the way to a point. The idea was that the wide base would make them more stable. But these piers had a short-lived heyday and were mostly used in rural settings in the 50s.
Pros of Poured Pyramid Piers
Since they are monolithic and one solid piece, they are strong, won’t fall apart, and can hold a lot of weight when they stay vertical and in place. They can be a very stable pyramid just like whoever invented them envisioned as long as nothing shifts. They also have the steel reinforcement going for them.
Cons of Poured Pyramid Piers
These piers sound like an awesome idea, we’ve all heard that pyramids are really strong. The pyramid shape that made people think they would be more stable also turned out to be its downfall. The narrow top of the pyramid made these piers prone to tilting once weight was placed on top of them.
When a one-piece pier like this is tilted and out of plumb, it’s difficult to put back in place.
These are poured concrete piers and they often had even wider bases hidden below the surface. If it loses its plumb (which is likely in expansive clay soils like we have here), you have to bust the whole thing out to replace it and that’s no easy task.
6. Poured Cylindrical Piers aka Sonotube Foundation
These poured piers are big solid cylinders of reinforced poured concrete. A round prefabricated cardboard form (one brand name is Sonotube® but there are others as well) is used to make these piers. It looks like a giant empty toilet paper roll.
So a hole would be dug in the ground and the hollow cardboard Sonotube® form is inserted and then concrete is poured inside and steel reinforcements are added. These poured cylindrical piers are still used today by home builders that construct new pier and beam houses.
Pros of Cylindrical Piers
A monolithic (one piece) poured and reinforced concrete pier is strong and durable if it stays in its proper position. Using this type of foundation is cheaper than a traditional slab-on-grade foundation for a new home.
Cons of Cylindrical Piers
The large cylindrical shape is a con because it has some limitations. First, when one of these large piers is used on the perimeter of the home, it has to be offset and tucked in under the house (or else it would stick out from the edge and look funny).
When the pier is placed so that it doesn’t stick out, then the load beam on top of it is not centered, running through the diameter of the column. So more of the home’s weight is putting pressure on one half of the cylinder than the other.
So the perimeter Sonotube® piers are more prone to tilting because the weight is not evenly distributed across the middle of the top surface of the cylinder. Since these are very large monolithic columns, once they get off-kilter, they are nearly impossible to realign to plumb.
So your only option, if something goes wrong, is to bust them out or work around them and start over which is also a major challenge.
Repair Options for Pier and Beam Foundation Homes
Now that you know more about what kind of piers you have, you’re probably wondering how they can be fixed if something goes wrong. Since some of these pier types are no longer used today, the number of repair options is less than the number of pier types.
You’ve really got about 3 reasonable choices for handling piers that need help:
- Retuck mortar on brick and stone piers to buy time and maintain the vintage look
- Remove any failing piers and replace them with stacked concrete piers
- Place all new piers with stacked concrete, working around existing piers that can’t be easily removed
We’re a fan of stacked concrete piers over any other pier replacement solution because of their adjustable and maneuverable nature. If one piece breaks, degrades, or becomes misaligned, it’s easy to tweak, reshim, or replace that one item and get things back in position quickly and easily.
Proper Maintenance Will Help Pier Repairs Last
If you replace failing piers with stacked concrete and provide proper maintenance, your pier foundation repair will last forever. The key is the proper maintenance part. Making small tweaks and checking regularly for needed adjustments will ensure that your pier and beam or other crawlspace-type foundation stays in great shape.
Taking care of a pier and beam home is kinda like car maintenance. You gotta change the oil in your car every so often or really bad things will happen. Keeping a pier and beam home working right is similar because you need to perform the regular maintenance or face larger and more costly consequences.
Homeowners often think they don’t need to do maintenance on their pier and beam home at all. Out of sight, out of mind. Then shock sets in when they find themselves in a heap of foundation trouble.
Maybe Piers Aren’t Your Problem?
A lot can go wrong with a pier and beam foundation. There are piers, different kinds of sill beams, shims, joists, sub-flooring, and even gutter issues to consider. For being kinda old-school, they are actually quite complex.
At Anchor Foundation Repair, we have been repairing foundations in Bryan, College Station, and surrounding communities like Caldwell and Madisonville for 35+ years. We work on slab-on-grade foundations as well as pier and beam foundations.
Check out this article for more on how pier and beam foundations work and how they can be repaired: “How Do You Fix a Pier and Beam Foundation? Understanding Damage and Repairs.”