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Foundations in most Amherst homes built since the 1960s were not designed to meet the unusual demands of the town's problem soils, according to the preliminary report of a $500,000 study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The report, more than a year in the making, was released today to town officials. It recommends that Amherst adopt new guidelines to end what has been called a cookie-cutter approach to building home foundations.

Instead, each new home foundation should be "designed based on site-specific" soil conditions, and engineers who design them "should be held accountable for long-term performance of the foundation," the report said.

Darlene Torbenson, a leader of the North Amherst Residents Coalition, called the findings "a tool and a starting point, not a bible."

"It means there will be more careful development in Amherst because the town and the residents don't want to see this (foundation and home damage) propagated in the future," she said.

Torbenson also said residents affected by the foundation problems are not looking for who's at fault. "We need to understand what has happened, but at this point, the focus and the goal must be to get some funds to help homeowners," she said.

Among other problems, the study team noted that more than 90 percent of the homes they inspected lacked "adequate lateral support" at the tops of basement walls.

And while no single factor can account for all the damages that have affected an estimated 1,100 Amherst homes to date, the report listed potential causes that include: expansive soils, marginal designs, poor construction, and "inadequate observation and documentation" of foundations as they were being constructed.

The report is expected to become final after the Corps of Engineers takes comments from town officials, homeowners, builders and others involved in the study.

The study team also found fault with some foundation repairs, which can cost as much as $60,000 or more for some homes, saying future repair work should be subject to the same guidelines as new construction.

It also recommends that North Amherst residents inspect their basements at least twice a year and hire a licensed engineer to diagnose problems that they find.

Amherst officials also should sponsor a soils workshop, set up a Web site to exchange information and develop a homeowners guide to deal with problem soils, the study team said.


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