How deep should a concrete foundation be?

Updated February 21, 2017

Building a foundation is not really a do-it-yourself project in most cases. It requires excavation, sometimes several feet deep and a lot of concrete work. There are several types of foundations. A basement is one. Stem walls around the perimeter (and at spaces in between) is another. Concrete slabs are another; these can be built in a T shape with a vertical wall under the slab or "on grade" with a single thickness of concrete that is thicker at the outside edges. All concrete foundations require a secure footing, the most important element of foundation building.

Determine the "frost line" for your area. This is the point in the ground at which the soil never freezes. It will vary. In warmer locales, the ground never freezes. In colder areas, the frost line may be 90 cm, 1.2 m (3 or 4 feet) or more deep. Dig footing trenches with the top of the footing below this line, to prevent the concrete from heaving and buckling as the ground freezes and thaws.

Decide on a foundation type. Foundations can be shallow or deep. Use a shallow foundation where the soil is stable and fairly level, with no severe slopes or drainage issues. Use a deep foundation in areas with poor soil stability, on hillsides, in flood zones or other locales where a shallower foundation might tilt or slip. Dig deep foundations to bedrock or reinforce with steel or some form of caisson or pier.

Design the foundation to fit the building conditions. Start any type of foundation by digging footings, at least 60 cm (2 feet) wide and as deep as the frost line; some foundations will require extra width, some up to 1.8 m (6 feet) wide. Match the foundation to the size of the building. A one-story garage may get by with a foundation 20 cm (8 inches) wide and 20 cm (8 inches) tall; a two-story house will require at least 25 cm (10 inch) dimensions. Check local building codes for specific foundation sizes and construction for various structures.

Install reinforcing bars in footings and foundations. Place rebar horizontally and vertically in both; put footing rebar vertically to extend up into the foundation wall. Start the footings with a base layer of tightly compacted gravel. Use a mechanical vibrator when pouring concrete foundations to settle the concrete and eliminate any air pockets which might weaken it.

Things You'll Need

  • Local building codes
  • Excavator
  • Reinforcing bars
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About the Author

Bob Haring has been a news writer and editor for more than 50 years, mostly with the Associated Press and then as executive editor of the Tulsa, Okla. "World." Since retiring he has written freelance stories and a weekly computer security column. Haring holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.