Do Valley Homes Have Fewer Basements?
Excerpt from Valley 101: The Great Big Book of Life, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published May 30, 1999.)
Q:My wife says there are no basements here because there are no tornadoes, so we don’t need a place to hide. I say it’s because the ground is too hard. Who’s right?
A: First of all, your question is flawed by asserting there are no basements around here. Granted, there aren’t many, but there are some, especially in older homes. They’re relatively plentiful in the Encanto neighborhood of Phoenix and in some scattered pockets of pre-World War II homes around the Valley.
They’re not the pine-paneled rumpus-room basements you recall from your split level back in Moline, Ill., but they’re basements nonetheless.
And, as we shall see, basements have made somewhat of a comeback in recent years in upper-end new housing.
But the vast majority of Phoenix-area houses are squatting on concrete slabs, meaning that if we ever really did have a tornado, your best bet would be a merciful God.
So, why no subterranean space?
“Because it’s cheaper to go up than it is to go down,” said Earl Gibbons, a soil specialist for Construction Inspection and Testing Co. in Phoenix.
It isn’t that the soil around here is necessarily too hard, Gibbons said. It’s just that the soil isn’t quite right. “We have sandy conditions in a lot of areas, and it’s hard to excavate sand because it keeps collapsing in,” he said.
And if it isn’t sand, it’s rock or clay, which tends to be very dry, leaving a lot of air pockets and making it hard to backfill.
In colder climes, builders are required to dig deep to get below the frost line. In the Valley, the frost line is something you get on your lip from drinking a Slurpee.
There are less tangible factors involved as well.
Do you have fond childhood memories of carefree hours wiled away playing hide-and-seek in your grandma’s basement?
Very relevent since so many Arizonans are from places were basements were the norm. From an energy standpoint a basement would be a welcome shelter during the summer months since they are naturally cooler and more of the ducting is inside the house rather than the attic. Keep up the good work. http://www.greenintegrateddesign.com/blog.html
When we moved here in the 1960s and my parents bought their first house near Scottsdale Road and Shea Blvd. (that intersection was just a 4-way stop, back then) and wanted a basement included, their Realtor told them that basements weren’t common here because of the caliche that is often just under the surface layer of soil. As my father learned as he went about digging trenches for wiring, post holes for corral fencing, and holes for shrubs, trees, and cacti, it was often necessary to soak the soil in the area with water overnight before it even began to be possible to dig it out by hand. The Realtor said that caliche could wreck the teeth on the bucket of a backhoe and contractors frequently had to use dynamite to blast out caliche or boulders in order to lay foundations or build swimming pools. That made it just too expensive to put a basement into every new home. Plus, he said, because of the many unpleasant critters that reside in the area (e.g., scorpions, black widows, rattlers, Arizona recluse spiders), basements were not very popular here. This was something we heard given many times, over the years, as the reason for the lack of basements in the Valley. It may have been true or it may have been an urban legend. It is certainly true that many homes constructed in the early 1960s were not tight enough to begin to keep out the sand from a dust storm, so I can easily imagine that basement construction at that time wouldn’t have been much more secure.
As for a basement being a cooler place in the summer, I don’t mean to argue but it’s something I wonder about. Desert heat goes quite deep. It’s why the water that comes out of your “Cold” tap may easily be 85 degrees F. from May-October. Even though the water mains are buried deeply, the water stays quite warm. People who have explored Egyptian tombs and pyramids will attest to the heat that is encountered inside. Those deep underground places that one would think would be cool – are not cool at all. I can only assume that an artificially air-conditioned underground space may hold its temperature better than an above-ground space if it is well insulated in the first place.
Our house in Rainbow Valley was built in 1991, complete with finished basement. Not only is it cool in the summer, but it is a great hiding place for the dogs during fireworks, and storms.