Andrea promised a while back that I'd explain how the foundation works, but I haven't done that yet. We went through a fairly long and painful process to get to the foundation we have now. I think it was worth it—the current foundation looks very cool, and I think it will function well. So let's take a tour.
What you see to the right is the pier foundation as viewed from the west side, looking east down toward the road. You can just see the roof of the car behind the foundation of the garage. That's the sort of U-shaped bit of concrete to the far right, which I will not be talking about, since it's pretty much just a normal foundation.
The horizontal bar of concrete that's closest to the camera is a grade beam. It's mostly resting on footings that have been pinned to ledge, although there's a point in the center where the ledge comes so high that there's just grade beam on ledge, with no special footing underneath. What you can't see from this angle is that the ledge drops off pretty steeply on the other side of the grade beam.
In the center, you can see a wall heading east from the grade beam. This is a shear wall—it's there to prevent racking in the east-west direction. It's solidly on ledge all the way down. The big dark grey wall that's further down the hill is another shear wall that's to prevent racking in the north-south direction.
Racking is a situation where there is a differential force on a wall that tends to try to bring it out of square. The force is called a shear force. Shear walls are shaped so as to resist the shear force. Shear force in earthquake country comes from the ground moving, while the inertia of the house tends to want it to stay in the same place. So the foundation accelerates in the direction of the shear force, and the top of the wall has to move to catch up to it. If you don't have a good shear wall, the wall can fail.
A house that's on piers has limited shear strength, because the piers are just big sticks poking up out of the ground. The footing might look like it will have some shear strength, and indeed the rebar that connects the footing to the pier, combined with the rebar in the pier, does give it some shear strength. But many homeowners in the San Francisco Marina learned the hard way that a house standing on piers with no shear wall is likely to collapse.
But we don't get earthquakes in Vermont, right? Well, not as often as California, but it's best to be prepared. What we do get, though, is high winds. With winds, the ground wants to stay in place, and house wants to move, which will tend to make the piers fall over. We have a pretty tall wall to the south. So we need enough shear strength to accommodate that wind force without failing. So our structural engineer, Ben, specified these shear walls.
The other advantage of the shear walls is, I hope, entirely psychological: there are two piers that are not directly pinned to ledge. I worry a little bit that these piers might somehow fail—they might start to wander, or we might have gotten the drainage and cover wrong, and they might move due to ice expansion. I don't think this is a real risk—we examined this issue carefully and concluded that the footings were secure. But if for some reason we blew it, the shear walls give us a huge additional safety factor that will allow us to correct any problem that should arise. Even though this is extremely unlikely, the fact that they are there gives me a lot of peace of mind.
Referring back to the picture at the top again, you can see a slot in the north end of the north-south shear wall, and a notch in the south end. These are to accommodate the laminated veneer lumber (LVL) beams that will be running east-west along the tops of the piers. So let's talk about wood for a minute.
Anywhere where there is horizontal contact between the foundation and the concrete, we will have pressure-treated lumber. So the grade beam at the top will have a 2x (two-by, not two layers) of PT on top of it. The shear walls will have 2x or 4x, depending. There are notches on the east side of the grade beam on the north and south ends to accommodate the LVL beams; each of these notches will have first a layer of PT, and then the LVL beam will rest on top of that. The LVL beams will be attached to the piers with metal brackets.
Ultimately, when all the foundation wood is in, we will effectively have a sill plate to rest the floor box on. In places, it will look just like a traditional sill plate. In places, the top of the plate will be an LVL beam.
What ties this foundation together is the floor box. The bottom of the floor box is a structural membrane made of zip sheathing nailed to the bottom of the floor joists according to a nailing schedule provided by Ben. This will create a box that is very resistant to deforming as a result of differential forces. This is what allows the shear walls, which are not otherwise connected to the piers, to keep the piers stable.
By the way, I should point out that while it might sound like I know what I'm talking about here, I'm relaying to you a layperson's understanding of how this all works, not a structural engineer's. Hopefully what I'm saying here will be of some benefit in terms of telling an interested reader what sorts of things to look out for, but it's no substitute for actually hiring a structural engineer to analyze your specific project. If you're flying your house the way we are, you definitely want expert help.