Brick veneer often presents problems in new masonry homes

During the last couple of years masonry problems have been cropping up in new construction all over the city.

The trend is ironic, given Chicago’s history. After all, this is the city of the Great Fire, which enacted some of the toughest building codes ever seen after much of the city was destroyed in that conflagration.

Unfortunately, many would argue, the city’s masonry standards have been bottoming out ever since.

Masonry is the art of shaping, arranging, and uniting stone, building blocks, brick, etc. to form walls and other parts of a building. This is according to Cyril M. Harris and his Dictionary of Architecture and Construction.

What is often called masonry construction today is almost guaranteed to be “brick veneer.” In this type of construction the building’s frame is made of wood and a thin course of brick is “tied” to the surface. The wood frame provides the structure and the brick sits and looks pretty.

Masonry construction back in the 1920s typically meant walls that had three courses of brick. Today, masonry walls are only one brick width (or one “wythe”) thick. It doesn’t take an engineer to see that the modern method is much cheaper and in many ways more problematic than the old standard.

The brick walls in older homes are sturdier. They withstand pressure and wind better and generally endure longer than what’s being built today. One of the most important differences is how these two construction types handle moisture. With three courses of brick, the walls in old homes don’t usually suffer moisture problems because water can’t get through that hefty barrier.

Water does get through brick veneer, however, and if builders haven’t taken the proper measures to deal with it, homeowners may find themselves suffering mold, separated hardwood floors and walls that are beginning to disintegrate.

How big is the problem? In more than half of the new homes we inspect, the brick veneer walls have not been properly constructed.

When designed and built properly, masonry walls will exhibit flashing paper and “weep holes” over doors and windows and at the joint of foundation wall and brick. Flashing is a sort of plastic skirt that lies behind the brick. As water gets through the face brick, it should run down the flashing where it will collect at the bottom and ooze outside through the weep holes.

In brick veneer construction, the flashing must extend past the brick line over doors and windows. You will see it now that you know what to look for (and if you don’t you should hear warning bells). Weep holes are situated at the end of a row of three or more bricks and may take the form of round holes, ropes or plastic tubes. Again, expect to see these over doors and windows and at the point where the brick wall sits on the foundation.

No weep holes and no flashing yields a wet interior. And a wet interior will often yield mold growth and other problems. Avoid these pitfalls by physically looking for the black or metal flashing in veneer construction and for the holes or ropes that will allow moisture out.

Remember, builders frequently ignore this requirement, but the resulting problems will be all too evident down the road if you’re not careful.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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