Let me start by saying, I am not a Hydrologist, landscape architect, general contractor, etc. I am a real estate agent. I have been selling real estate in eastern Massachusetts for somewhere north of 18 years and I see one problem more than any other, by far. Poor drainage design that fails to contemplate the war against water in Boston. I routinely see homes over 100 years old, and I have no idea why they haven’t adequately strategized to direct the water out and away from their foundations.

As I tour homes with my first time buyer clients, I preach. I’ve repeated this sermon ad nauseam. The vast majority of property in the Boston area is sitting on a fairly high water table. In many cases we sit on ledge rock. After hundreds of years of property changing hands, not only do lot lines move, but so do the elevations and how the water drains from the property. One must also consider the present and future…global climate change is making an impact on our water table.

Relative sea level change globally since 1901.

Relative sea level change globally since 1901.

Fun fact, since 1901, the global sea level has risen approximately 8 inches. This phenomena seems to be continuing at an alarming rate. It would be foolish to think this increased water level will only effect the coast. Think of Boston like a sponge lying in your sink. As the water comes up, it gets soggier and soggier. Even those of us sitting in higher elevations are going to get wet. NOAA has a really neat tool to visualize the coastal changes over time. It really makes you think how life will change if we don’t prepare ourselves.

My first home was a victorian mansard built around 1865. It is no longer mine, but it sits (or floats) in the Brewery District in Jamaica Plain. The foundation of this property was no more than 100 feet from the underground culvert that now holds the Stony Brook. This area was once home to naturally occurring artesian wells and many breweries, so needless to say it was damp. The neighbors were only about 9ft away and there was no where for the water to go when it rained or snowed. I had to come up with a plan…

The first thing you need to do when you buy a property is stand in the rain. Put on your galoshes and your rain coat and when the heavens open up, stakeout your property. Spend some time circling it, watching how the rain flows off the property, where it pools, where water enters the property and where (or if) it exits. Does your basement get damp? Does it get wet? Where is it coming in? How soon does it dissipate? Is it trickling down the walls or coming up from below (damp spots on the floor)? Are the walls yellowing? Are they flakey and powdered? Does the mortar crumble in your fingers?

For the mansard in Jamaica Plain, an underground pipe and a dry well did the trick. The basement wasn’t used for much more than storage. I dug a trench around the perimeter, installed a pipe a couple feet down (wrapped in a landscaping cloth and gravel burrito) and ran the downspouts into the pipe. The whole system drained into two underground dry wells.

Now I have a home in Milton, MA. I realized I was dealing with a couple, or maybe a few different water related issues. I live on a gentle slope. It starts well above me and continues well below me, terminating in the Pope’s Pond Conservation Area and the Pine Tree Brook. My first clue I had a problem was a decent crack in the foundation wall. Yikes! I had no settling in my house whatsoever, but I didn’t intend to wait for it to happen. The crack was near the main carrying beam, so I jack-hammered out the concrete, poured a cubic foot of hydraulic cement and installed a cement filled steel lally column. However, when that hole was open, I discovered something. No, it wasn’t oil. It was water. I had no idea there was water under my slab. My basement had not shown any signs of dampness in two years. 

Ground water coming from under the foundation pad.

Ground water coming from under the foundation pad.

Tasting my own medicine. I put on my rain proof thinking cap and went outside in the weather – many times. I watched my home shed water and I paid attention to the soil. It became clear the water was pooling in the area between my garage and the main house (uphill slightly from the crack) and it was obviously coming from the back as the land is sloped toward the house from the back. I won’t get in to my aggravation with the Town of Milton regarding possible leaks – that is for another blog post. It was time to “drain the swamp”. We formulated a battle plan, and treated the water as an incoming enemy force. We had three main strategies:

  1. Create a positive grade away from your foundation.
  2. Install exterior drainage incorporating your downspouts if necessary.
  3. You’ll have to keep reading!

I enlisted my good friend, landscape extraordinaire, hardscaping master, chef and head wine taster, Rich Gargiulo of Earthen Stoneworks (formerly Treeworks). First, we needed to level the battlefield. Regrading with Dingo, which is a mini bulldozer, recountouring the entire yard. Our goal was not to stop the water completely – that is a futile pursuit, but rather direct it where we wanted it to go.

water in boston

Regrading property to assist drainage.

We installed metal window wells at the basement windows and “bathtubbed” the rear patio area up at the edges, forcing the water into the center where we would later install a drain pipe. In the back part of the yard, where it was not possible to change the incline, we installed a drain pipe perpendicular to the incline, which drains along the edge of the property and terminates at a drywall near the end of the driveway.

water in boston

Using landscaping cloth, gravel and a pipe for drainage.

We then dug a secondary trench diagonally through the patio area between the garage and the house, connecting to the perimeter pipe at a 45 degree angle. 

Secondary patio drain that will connect to main drain at 45 degree angle.

Secondary patio drain that will connect to main drain at 45 degree angle.

Main drain runs into a 4ftx3ftx4ft dry well with overflow popup valve.

Main drain runs into a 4ftx3ftx4ft dry well with overflow popup valve.

The drain pipe itself consisted of a flexible portion and a rigid portion. The flexible pipe was obviously used for corners and to connect to downspouts, while the rigid section was used for the long runs.

Drainage system materials used for long and curved runs.

Drainage system materials used for long and curved runs.

Each trench was about 2ft deep. A layer of landscaping cloth is then laid across the trench, a layer of 3/4 gravel at the bottom and the pipe is laid out and fit together. More gravel covers the pipe, and the burrito is closed up. In case you hadn’t guessed, the cloth acts as a filter to keep out sediments. The final step is to cover the trench with dirt. Hypothetically, the “frontline” pipe on the uphill slope should catch much of the water I’m getting from the west. The patio pipe should then adequately drain any water that settles in the patio area and keep it from seeping under my foundation pad. But I didn’t end the battle here…

To be continued…

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