Structural, construction, and procedural failures associated with long-term pyritic soil expansion at a private elementary school in Pennsylvania

M. Kevin Parfitt, Daniel J. Jones, R. Gary Garvin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


This paper examines the background, history, and results of multiple investigations associated with pyrite-based expansive soils spanning almost 40 years in conjunction with a private elementary school located in western Pennsylvania. The school was initially designed in 1960. Original construction was completed in September 1961 and the first signs of distress, which were primarily related to slab heave, were reported in early 1962. One wing of the school, a 1965 classroom addition (1965 addition) with different structural and foundation systems, did not experience any expansive soil-related damages and served as a valuable comparison throughout multiple subsequent investigations. Pyritic soil material in the subgrade in conjunction with oxygen-rich groundwater was determined to be the cause of soil movement and building distress. Expansive soil-related problems at the school continued for decades despite an investigation, civil court action, and judgment in the late 1960s followed by a remediation program in the 1970s and 1980s. Following a second round of investigations and litigation in the late 1990s, all of the original classroom, office, and gymnasium building sections, with the exception of the 1965 addition, were demolished in late 2000 and early 2001 based on safety concerns and economic evaluation. Investigation and monitoring to confirm subgrade conditions continued throughout the demolition process. As a part of this paper, the history of this case dating back to one of the early identifications of pyrite as an expansive element of concern in building construction, including one of the earliest comprehensive identifications of the complete chemical-microbiological oxidation process is presented. The initial 1960s investigation and conclusions are identified as well as the series of engineering, procedural, and construction errors that took place during and after the first remediation process that led to ongoing soil expansion and structural damage, including misguided actions and misunderstandings that complicated and delayed a final resolution in this case. Today, the industry is more familiar with the potential for pyrite-related construction problems, nevertheless, the paper incorporates lessons learned for avoiding problems and in particular, the procedural failures that led to the eventual need to abandon and demolish the school facility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)56-66
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Performance of Constructed Facilities
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Building and Construction
  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality


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