Step Building No-Nos

Every year we get calls from prospective clients across the Fox Valley in need of having their paver patio steps repaired/replaced, and before I even get out to the site, I already know what I’m going to find when I get there.

Almost universally it’s one of two problems we’re being called in to fix; either the previous contractor built the steps so that the home’s sheathing is being used as a retaining wall to hold back/up (something it was never designed or intended to do), or the steps were built when the home was new and the subsoils beneath the steps consisted of 8-10 feet of uncompacted fill and now it’s settled several inches and is falling apart.  In the picture below you’ll see the former (not built by Stonehenge), with two common problems: the house’s exterior being used as a retaining wall, and the steps constructed directly against the siding (see the siding buckling in two places beneath the patio doors?).  When built against the siding, it pins the siding and doesn’t allow it to stretch and flex with the changes in temperature, not to mention how would you ever replace it if you needed to?

poorly constructed paver steps

But the bigger problem, using the thin wooden sheathing of the home to retain the packed crushed stone on the back side of the step, can have several negative consequences, not the least of which is the bowing of the sheathing (5/8″ OSB was NOT made to be a retaining wall) and subsequent settling of your steps into the void that the bowing creates.

The biggest impact is the moisture retention.  Homes are built with the wood sheathing above ground for a reason – too much contact with moisture and the sheathing and studs, the lumber that is the structure of your home, will rot.  When repairing these steps we often have to replace portions of the sheathing and occasionally portions of the rim joist!

So what’s the right way to build steps?

Your steps shouldn’t ever rely on the parts of your home that are made from wood for their support.  Ever.  They should be self-supporting and free standing (unless tied via rebar to your home’s concrete foundation, which is perfectly acceptable and sometimes necessary).  We like to build ours so that there’s a small space (up to 1/2″) between the steps and the house structure, to ensure there’s adequate ventilation and no future rot issues.  We also like to “trim out” the siding around the steps – it makes for a cleaner looking installation and prevents future problems should you decide to replace your siding (there’s no way you’d be able to remove or install siding behind the step afterward).

We’d like to think we build some of the better steps in the Northeast Wisconsin.  Like the ones below.

Correctly built steps

The steps for this Neenah home had the siding trimmed around them, and at the base of the steps where the meet the foundation you can see a narrow gap that’s allowing ventilation, protecting the home’s sheathing from future rot issues.

The problems with incorrectly built steps are not limited to the new/small/inexperienced landscape firms.  We’ve been called in to repair/replace steps built by the biggest companies in the area.

So be sure to do your research, and hire the company with the knowledge and experience to build your project correctly.