Analyzing Brick Work Yourself

Article written for Rental Housing Association's monthly newsletter.
By Marty Smith

Most building owners and property managers are pretty adept at knowing the condition of the buildings in their portfolio. You know when you need a new roof, paint job, etc. You spend time inspecting your investment(s) and know when something needs fixing, or just doesn’t look right. You call in your contractor, or consultant, and figure out how much, and when. This process does not necessarily apply when it comes to masonry with buildings that are more than 50 years old. By the time your building starts leaking, or the chimney is leaning, you are going to spend a lot of money. These problems can be nipped in the bud if you can spot the early signs. The problem is, most folks are uniformed when it comes to masonry. There are several owners that don’t know if they have an unreinforced masonry building (URM), or a framed building with a brick veneer.

If it hasn’t happened yet, your masonry building will be required to be seismically upgraded. The first step is determining if your building is URM. Go to the basement, or anywhere the masonry is exposed: Does the floor or roof support go directly into the masonry? Is the masonry at least two courses thick (two layers deep)? Stare at the exterior wall: Are there courses of brick that look like half-brick about every sixth row? If you see any of these clues, there is a good chance you have a URM building. Now, how you tell if your building has had any seismic upgrades: Does your building have round circles on the outside near the floor lines with bolts sticking through? Is there any steel support from the parapet (a low protective wall along the edge of a roof) to the roof? If so, then your building has had some seismic upgrading. You should still have the building reviewed by an engineer, but you are ahead of the game.

Prior to WWII, many of the masonry buildings in the greater Seattle area were laid up with a hot lime mix. There was very little, if any, cement in the mortar. Hot lime is a very soft mortar. That does not make it weak, necessarily, but it does make it susceptible to wear which will cause leaks. As a general rule of thumb, mortar wears faster at the top of the building than at the bottom. In Western Washington it wears faster on the South side than anywhere else. Usually the West side is next in line. Go to the top of the building, hang out the window and have a look. Start with the South side. Then go to the ground and have a look. Does the bottom look better than the top? With a true masonry building, the wear does not show in the same way. It might be worn at the top, but it is also worn at the bottom as the water works its way down through the masonry and erodes the mortar. Regardless of the type of construction your masonry building is, if the bottom of the wall looks worse than it does 5 feet up, it is time to have a mason look at it.

Knowing how to look at your masonry building will save you money in the long run as you protect your investment – hopefully these tips have helped broaden your masonry knowledge.