Photo of a waffle slab before being poured with concrete

Beware Waffle Slabs

Let’s face it. If you even know what waffle slabs are, you’re either building one or having one built. What are waffle slabs? Are they a great idea? Are waffle slabs the best bang for your buck? I’ll answer these questions and finish up with why, after 20 years of structural engineering, I have never, ever designed one waffle slab.

What is a Waffle Slab?

Waffle slabs are a reinforced concrete footing and slab system constructed on the ground. They consist of a perimeter footing (edge beam) and a series of narrow internal beams (strip footings) at one metre nominal centres running each way. The whole footing and slab system is constructed on top of the ground.

Edge formwork makes the sides of the slab and polystyrene ‘pods’ create the formed voids between the strip footings. When viewed from underneath, the system of internal strip footings looks like a waffle – hence the name.

Upon completion of the waffle slab house, the ground around the slab is built up by the builder to reduce the height of the slab above the surrounding ground.

See this blog for a great series of photos of a Waffle Slab being built.

Here’s another video of a waffle slab ready for concrete:

Waffle slabs achieve their strength by varying their height above ground. The higher the slab above ground – the deeper the beams. The deeper the beams – the more stiffness the system has.

In Australia, waffle slabs are designed to comply with AS2870 – The Australian Standard for Residential Slabs and Footings. The current version of the standard is AS2870-2011.

A Place for Waffle Slabs

There is definitely a place for waffle slabs in the construction world.

Waffle slabs work really well on sites that are almost flat,  natural soils or controlled fill, that have good surface strength and where the natural ground surface falls away from the outsides of the building in all directions.

They work well on non-reactive sites, slightly reactive clay sites and some moderately reactive clay sites.

Waffle slabs are not recommended on highly reactive clay sites (Class H1 and H2) because the requirements for good drainage are almost impossible to achieve.

There is no ‘deemed to comply’ design for waffle slabs for extremely reactive sites (Class E sites). In fact, there is no deemed to comply raft footing design for Class E sites either – the footing and slab system for a Class E site must be designed by a relevantly qualified engineer.

Are Waffle Slabs a Great Idea?

Are waffle slabs a great idea? A definite maybe. These are the sites where waffle slabs won’t work so well:

  • Soft ground conditions. Extra bored piers or screw piers are required so that the system is supported on strong ground.
  • Sloping sites. Waffle slabs are built on flat sites. On sloping blocks, the ground has to be made level first by digging some of it out or filling some of it in. Problems arise when some of the dirt dug out is used as uncontrolled fill on the low side of the block. All houses, even waffle slabs, need firm, even support to all parts of the slab.
  • Highly reactive and extremely reactive clay sites. These sites need stiff footing systems to span over the swelling and shrinking soils. Concrete beams get stronger and stiffer when the depth of the concrete beams increases but waffle pod void formers tend to max out at 375mm deep (so providing 475mm deep beams and ribs with a 100mm slab).  Some designers try to achieve extra slab stiffness by adding more steel reinforcement. This works but the design process becomes more complicated.
  • Cyclonic areas and high wind areas. High winds generate a lot of pressure on roofs which result in some very concentrated forces in modern trussed roofs. On a regular-sized 200m2 house, some truss uplift forces are as high as 5 tonnes. In a waffle slab, these forces need to be resisted only by the weight of the footing system because there is no skin friction with the ground. 5 tonnes of concrete is about 2 cubic metres of concrete. That’s a lot more concrete than is available to resist the large uplift forces from some heavily loaded truss es. The consequence? High wind forces will lift enough of the waffle slab to resist the force but this comes with deflection of the slab. In a cyclone – be prepared for your slab to lift and your walls to crack. Will you be covered for this damage? Probably, but you insurer may well want to have a little talk to your footing and slab engineer about sharing some of the repair costs!

Are Waffle Slabs Best Bang for your Buck?

On the correct site with correct preparation and in non-cyclonic areas. Yes. They are much faster for the concreter. They are much easier for the builder. AS2870 even permits thinner slabs (85mm thick compared to 100mm thick conventional slab thickness). Therefore they should be cheaper for you the consumer. If your builder charges you more for one of these cost-cutting waffle slab systems, then you are getting cheated.

Why I don’t like Waffle Slabs

I have never, ever designed a waffle slab – but I know plenty about them. I have inspected lots of cracked houses and some of them are waffle slabs.

Conventional raft footing houses can crack too, so why don’t I like waffle slabs?

  1. The soil brought in as fill around a completed waffle slab house must not be porous. Porous soil allows water to seep below the surface and access the ground under a waffle slab. This results in slab heave. Unfortunately, builders prefer porous fill because it is easier to spread and doesn’t need to be compacted. This is my number one reason that I advocate against waffle slabs on reactive clay sites.
  2. The pipe trenches that run from under the waffle slab must be graded so that any water in the trenches runs away from the house.  This is rarely done.
  3. If the ground around your house gets eroded or washed away, you can see under a waffle slab. If you can see under the slab, so can vermin, toads, snakes and the population of wildlife seeking shelter under your floor. Yuck.
  4. The polystyrene void formers are made of polystyrene. Der. What is polystyrene? It is a synthetic aromatic polymer made from the monomer styrene, a liquid petrochemical. Sounds exactly like something I don’t want stockpiled under my slab.
  5. Waffle slabs don’t work in cyclonic areas. There simply isn’t enough weight in the slab and footings to resist the high forces.
  6. Ground preparation must be immaculate. It must be immaculate on day one and must be kept immaculate forever by the homeowner. You must not overwater the ground near your house, build up the ground around your house, allow surface water to run towards your house (and under your house) or plant gardens next to your house. Does this even sound possible?

Join Me For An Inspection of A Waffle Slab

Just recently I inspected a waffle slab before it was poured. Come and check out my waffle slab inspection video.

More About Surface Drainage

The number of times I have asked the owner of a cracked house, “Where does the water go when it rains?” and they have told me. “It just goes! It just disappears!”

I have bad news for you. Water does not just ‘disappear’ into reactive clays. Reactive clays are the same clay soils used to line dams to make them impermeable. If the water around your house is “just disappearing” then it is probably “just disappearing – under your house.”

Now consider if the builder has used sand or gravel to build up the ground around your house. The same thing is happening. The water is disappearing – draining through the porous soil and potentially draining under your house. Enter slab heave.

Even if your builder has used moist clay as fill around your waffle slab house, by pouring perimeter concrete paths on a sand bed, you are providing a tunnel for water to run down your walls and sit under your waffle slab. When you build a garden against your house, the formed concrete garden edging forms a water barrier and allows rainwater to drain down against the wall.

Filling the gap between a concrete path and the walls of your house with flexible sealant is one excellent way of stopping surface water draining under your house, but the sand layer under the slab needs to be managed too.

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More Reading

It’s not just me that has an opinion on waffle slabs. Check these links out for some more information on waffle slabs.

Waffle Slab Problems

HomeOne Posts about Waffle Slabs

Slater & Gordon calls for taskforce to act on faulty house slabs

HomeOne Forum – House Problems

Builder Forced to Fix Cracked House

Softley v Metricon Homes Pty Ltd

Home Owners Compensated for Faulty Slab

42 thoughts on “Beware Waffle Slabs”

  1. Such fabulous information for people like me who read my soil report and was loss. The builder probably just wanted to ignore all necessary requirements the engineering company had given us after they did the soil report. This is so bad, I could hv been living in a potentially dangerous home as the clay soil on my property is apparently highly reactive and the site was given a P CLASSIFICATION. Thank you so much, now I can arm myself with everything you hv said in your report online. You saved me.

  2. Thanks for your informed opinion.

    I’m about to build to build here in the Caribbean, the requirements for detailed preparation and questions over cyclone performance overwiegh the the potential cost benefits.
    I’ll stick with convincing the locals that a vapour barrier is a good idea

  3. There is a newer player about to enter the Australian market with a product proven in the US and Mexico for expansive and liquefiable soils, earthquake resistance and being utilized for buildings up to 5 stories. A void former system using post tensioning in lieu of rebar. Used for latest Marriott hotel in Hawaii to overcome potential of liquifieble soils due to earthquakes and for ~ 20,000 new houses there over the next 10 years on land divisions with imported fill.
    Google Wafflemat for comprehensive information sites re Wafflemat.

  4. Hi there
    We are building a house at the moment

    They have got all the concrete form work down reo and pods

    It is pouring with rain and will do for days will this rain damage or effect the pods in anyway? Concrete will not be laid for another week


  5. Hi Mat,
    As a builder, I too am not a fan of waffle pods. Whilst I agree with most of what you have said I also find some misleading information in your statement. Firstly it is worth noting that cut, fill or cut and fill is also applicable to raft slabs on uneven ground. Furthermore, waffle pod slabs are widely used in Central and North Qld in cyclonic regions and are designed by engineers for those areas, so apparently they are suitable for high wind areas.
    It is also worth noting there is a new player in the market, Cupolex. This system uses domes in a similar fashion to pods.

    1. Hi Wardy
      Thanks for your comments. Yes both types of slabs get used on cut and fill sites. It’s the issues with drainage under waffle slabs that are hardest to get around. When builders fill around a waffle slab with sand fill the underlying lay of the land is obscured and water can flow through the sand and under the slab. That’s when slab heave can occur.
      Really glad you also mentioned waffle slabs in cyclonic areas. I’d encourage you to ask your engineer whether you have enough concrete mass in the waffle slab to resist uplift forces from a 60kN girder truss. You’ve probably tied down girder trusses with even bigger uplift forces? That’s more than 6,000 kg uplift force on one part of the slab. Let me know what they say.
      Matt Cornell

      1. Hi Matt,
        I’d be interested to know if there are similar issues with the Cupolex slab system. Builders in Mackay are starting to use this (including my soon to be builder!). Are there any risks to be aware of with this system?
        Ian Dwyer

        1. Hi Ian
          The downsides of waffle slabs and Cupolex slabs are the same – it’s a slab constructed on top of the ground and it’s easy for water to get under the slab.
          The other issue for these slabs in cyclonic regions is the lack of concrete under the big truss reactions. Ask your builder and/or engineer “Is my slab heavy enough to resist the girder truss reactions?” For example: a truss tie down force of 25kN you need to engage 1m3 of concrete (ignoring superstructure self weight). Check your slab engineer has accounted for these big uplift forces and references the truss plan on the Form 15 design certificate.

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