Quality Issues With Brick Buildings

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Quality Issues With Brick Buildings

Why has the quality of brick building design and construction declined so steeply in the last 100 years?

Posted on Sep 18 2015 by Martin Holladay

The design of brick buildings and the quality of brick construction have declined dramatically in the last 100 years. While this statement is debatable, I'll try to defend it with evidence. If my evidence is compelling, it raises questions about why certain technologies advance in sophistication while other technologies decline.

Before I return to the topic of brick buildings, I'd like to take a detour to look at an example of technological evolution.

I'm going to look at lighting technology — but I'm going to dial the time machine back before LEDs, before compact fluorescents, and before the incandescent lamp. I'm going to look at the evolution of the common household lamp: specifically, Palestinian olive oil lamps that were used between 2,500 B.C. and the 11th century A.D.

My father, William Holladay, is now retired. He spent most of his working years as a full-time professor of Old Testament studies, with a specialty in the book of Jeremiah. He also worked (occasionally) as a part-time archaeologist. During the 1960s, when my family lived in Beirut, Lebanon, my father acquired a collection of ancient oil lamps. Most of these lamps were purchased in Jordan in 1964, when my father worked at a dig in Shechem.

When arranged chronologically, the lamps tell a story of technological evolution. The earliest lamp in the collection, the one that dates from 2,500 B.C., is a simple bowl. It worked, but it was far from a perfect tool. If you tried to carry this lamp, the wick could easily slip from the bowl, creating a fire hazard, and precious oil could be easily spilled.

Potters eventually learned to pinch one side of the bowl to create a recess for the wick, making it less likely that the wick would fall to the floor when the lamp was carried. The pinched spout later evolved into a circular hole; this restriction provided some friction on the wick, making it easier to adjust the size of the flame and to trim the wick when the carbon got too thick. Eventually, as can be seen by looking at the lamps that date from the 2nd to the 10th centuries A.D., the hole used to fill the lamps with oil became smaller, a change which reduced oil spillage.

After centuries of development, masonry improved

A similar process happened with brick buildings. Early bricks were fired at a low temperature, so they were soft. They didn't weather well. Over many centuries, brickmakers learned to distinguish between high-quality clay and low-quality clay, and learned how to fire their bricks at a higher temperature. Bricks became more weather-resistant.

Masons learned to mix mortars that were both strong and somewhat flexible.

Architects learned how to create water-management details that kept bricks dry and limited freeze-thaw problems.

Choosing two buildings to illustrate recent trends

To illustrate my thesis that older brick buildings were more sophisticated in design and execution than modern brick buildings, I needed two buildings to compare. I didn't have to roam far to find these examples. The first one I visited is the local bank where I have deposited my money for more than 20 years. The handsome building in St. Johnsbury, Vermont was built in 1891 (see Image #2 at the bottom of the page). Formerly called the Citizens Bank building, it was renamed the Union Bank building after a recent bank merger.

Like most brick buildings from this era, the building has excellent water management details, including innie windows that are protected from the weather; granite window sills that are set proud of the brick façade; and a corbelled cornice that creates an overhang at the top of the wall. The brickwork is notable for its remarkably thin mortar joints.

The Citizens Bank building in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was built in 1891.

A building from the 1980s

Let's compare this 1891 building to a more modern building — namely, my son's college dorm, Andres Hall in Hanover, New Hampshire (see photo at left). Andres Hall was built in 1987.

Clearly, Andres Hall lacks the elaborate ornamentation seen in the façade of the Citizens Bank building. But I'm not going to address ornamentation; I'm going to address only fundamental issues like where windows are located with respect to the vertical plane of the brick façade; the drip line of the window sills; and the extent to which the architect included projections from the vertical plane of the façade to protect the wall from rain.

Andres Hall has a lot of problems. Let's look, for example, at how the windows are detailed.

Many older buildings have a detail at the lintel called a “flat arch” or “jack arch.” When the masons splay the lintel bricks in this way, the flat arch distributes the weight of the wall above the window like a header in a wood-framed wall.

Compare a proper jack arch (like the one in the photo at left, at the Citizens Bank building) with the imitation version on Andres Hall (right).

At the brick dormitory built in 1987, this detail was corrupted. The architect (Herbert S. Newman of New Haven, Connecticut) attempted to mimic the jack arch, but without the splaying that gives the detail its strength. This modern detail is absurd; it is a vague attempt to mimic a jack arch without any comprehension of the geometry or engineering principles behind the idea of a lintel.

The window sills at Andres Hall are poorly detailed. Water collects on the sills, and the sills fail to direct the water beyond the plane of the brick façade. The result is mortar deterioration.

Let's compare the quality of the mortar joints at the older building with those at the newer building.

At the Citizens Bank building, the mortar joints (left photo, above) are consistent and remarkably thin. The modern building's mortar joints (right photo, above) are fat, sloppy, and uneven.

Since Andres Hall lacks a corbelled cornice or adequate flashing, water dribbles down the façade in several places.

Clearly, technology has gone backwards during the last 100 years. What happened?

A master architect and a master mason

Back in 1891, when the Citizens Bank building was under construction, there were two essential people on the job site. One was the architect. I imagine that the architect — someone who clearly cared about water management details — visited the job site regularly. The project was also blessed with the presence of a master mason — perhaps a recent immigrant from Italy — who knew how to sift sand and wield a trowel. Both of these people oversaw the work of others, and both insisted that every worker on the job site needed to adhere to high standards of quality.

The results of their work included the impeccable mortar joints at the Citizens Bank building.

At the Andres Hall job site in 1987, on the other hand, both of these roles — the role of the experienced architect and the skilled mason — went unfilled. Instead of an architect who understood water management issues, there was an architect who hadn't the foggiest idea how to design a façade to stay dry. Instead of a mason who knew how to sift sand and create a thin, well-tooled mortar joint, there was a mason who slopped on the mortar in a casual fashion and barely tooled the joints.

My analysis doesn't even address brick problems associated with the switch from multi-wythe brick construction to brick veneer over wood framing. (Andres Hall is not a wood-framed building.) Although buildings with brick veneer over wood framing are usually better insulated than old multi-wythe brick buildings, they are frequently plagued by an entirely new category of water entry problems due to flashing errors, clogged air spaces, and missing weep holes. But that's a topic for another article.

Technological decline

If I were to create a photo display of brick details from 1890 to 1990 — something analogous to my father's collection of oil lamps — the photos would demonstrate technological decline rather than technological advancement. It would be like one of those parody illustrations showing the “descent of man.”

There have been other periods in history where knowledge and skill are lost in just a few generations. One might cite the early 5th century, when the Visigoths sacked Rome — the traditional starting point for the Dark Ages. While tempting, the comparison doesn't hold up: after all, some aspects of our technology have advanced since 1891. But not brick masonry.

Why did brick masonry skills wither in northern New England during the 20th century? Why weren't the skills of the architects and master masons of a century ago passed on to succeeding generations? I'm not sure. The sloppy details at Andres Hall weren't due to a constrained budget. After all, Dartmouth College has an endowment of $4.5 billion. No institution in northern New England is wealthier, or installs more copper roofing, than Dartmouth College. And yet back in 1987, Dartmouth was willing to accept brickwork that would have embarrassed the mason who built the Citizens Bank building in 1891. (More: the Andres Hall brickwork would even have embarrassed the 16-year-old apprentice who mixed the mortar for the masons at the Citizens Bank building.)

Part of the blame, I feel, rests at the feet of the Modernist movement — a movement that idealized the cube and disdained roof overhangs. Modernist architects were ignorant of the entire concept of moisture management. The fact that thousands of Modernist buildings suffered water entry problems did little to deter architects from falling in love with Modernism and Brutalism. This tragic love affair contributed to the withering of age-old skills.

Generalizing is dangerous — but still...

I'll admit that the argument presented here is somewhat of a gimmick. I've chosen two specific buildings — a handsome building from 1891, and a graceless building from 1987 — to prove my point. Perhaps two other buildings could be chosen to support the opposite thesis: namely, that the quality of brick masonry has improved over the last 100 years. However, I feel fairly confident in the general truth of the trends I've identified.

Some observers claim that the worst buildings ever built in the U.S. were built during the 1970s and 1980s — that these dark decades represented the nadir of U.S. architecture and construction. If these people are right, we may now be rising from the bottom of the trough. I hope so.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Flash-and-Batt Insulation.”

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Image Credits:

  1. Image #1: Wikimedia Commons. Photo of oil lamps: Patricia Appelbaum. All other photos: Martin Holladay.

Sep 18, 2015 10:43 AM ET

which came first: the architecture or the brick?
by Paul Eldrenkamp

In the bank building, the brick and the architecture are interdependent. That kind of architecture can only be executed in brick, and the brick in turn makes the architecture possible.

In the dorm, the brick is incidental to the architecture -- that building could have gotten almost any cladding and it would not have mattered much to the architecture. What it got was tantamount to wallpaper printed with a brick pattern. It's curtain-wall brick. It's just there to provide a color and texture that panders to what people think a New England college dorm should have for cladding.

If your brick cladding is functioning primarily as wallpaper, it's hard to care about getting the details right.

Sep 18, 2015 10:53 AM ET

Response to Paul Eldrenkamp
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your comments. I agree that architects these days often think of "cladding" as a last-minute decision, like choosing an outfit to wear to a party -- as if you could dress a building in any one of a variety of costumes.

On some level, this approach -- "Which cladding shall we choose?" -- might work, but only if the architect cares about water-management details. It doesn't matter to me whether the architect prefers stucco, vinyl siding, cedar shingles, or brick veneer -- but you still have to learn how to keep the water out...

Sep 18, 2015 4:54 PM ET

Stains where water dribbles
by Bob Irving

Stains where water dribbles down facades is ubiquitous in modern masonry buildings - so is it an all too frequent design flaw? Perhaps it's an intentional design statement (although I can't imagine what they are saying).

Sep 18, 2015 5:09 PM ET

Response to Bob Irving
by Martin Holladay

The phrase "an intentional design statement" seems to me to be a particularly charitable explanation for these ubiquitous examples of architects' ignorance and incompetence.

For more examples of egregious dribbling, see Brick Buildings Need Roof Overhangs.

Sep 19, 2015 4:59 AM ET

Bank caption typo
by Adam Liberman

Typo: The caption "A building from the 1980s" under the bank building should read "A building from the 1890s".

Sep 19, 2015 5:18 AM ET

Response to Adam Liberman
by Martin Holladay

The phrase you quote -- "A building from the 1980s" -- is a heading to introduce the paragraphs that follow. It is not a photo caption. I'll see what I can do to clarify the amgibuity.

Sep 19, 2015 9:45 AM ET

by Kent James

I would guess that the relative cost of building a brick building has gone up (compared with other alternatives). So while Dartmouth may have the money, I would think the demand for high quality masons that would have been high in the 1890s (when there were fewer alternatives), is much less, so they are much harder to find. And in their attempts to be competitive with other materials, masons work as cheaply and quickly as they can. But that doesn't excuse the architect's ignorance of the water issues.

Sep 19, 2015 9:54 AM ET

Response to Kent James
by Martin Holladay

I agree. The details required to keep rain off the facade, and to prevent mortar deterioration, are mostly architectural details that add only slightly to the cost. Even if the masonry work is sloppy and the mortar joints are fat, the building would last longer, and require less maintenance, if the architect had included some decent water-management details.

Sep 21, 2015 9:54 AM ET

Not just brick
by Kevin Miller

This "disposable" view of houses and buildings has been prevalent since at least the post-WW2 boom in both population and housing. I often lament the poor quality of commercial buildings that are constructed today, but then I realize the mall/restaurant/apartment building will be bull-dozed in 30 years, so why bother with quality?

There are numerous other egregious examples of the devolution of construction. Roofers frequently tear off 125-year old metal roofs and replace them with asphalt shingles. Roof-lines are built with little concern for how the gutters can handle the volume of water. Houses are built on flat or sunken lots which afford almost no opportunity for proper grading. Obviously I could continue, but this exercise presents no challenge and is therefore boring me!

In defense of the building industry, we are building exactly what the public has demanded. They want really big, spacious houses at a very low cost. Something has to give. The customer that comes to the builder and says, "I want a 1,400 SF house built to last centuries and with the utmost quality and efficiency" almost doesn't exist.

Sep 21, 2015 10:08 AM ET

Edited Sep 21, 2015 10:16 AM ET.

Response to Kevin Miller
by Martin Holladay

I agree that we can come up with many examples of declining quality in residential (and commercial) design and construction. (Fortunately, some details, like airtightness details, are getting better.)

But I don't think that it's true that "we are building exactly what the public has demanded." I think that most home buyers who spend $300,000 for a new house assume (a) that the house is "built to code," (b) that the house "has passed inspection" (whatever that means), and that (c) the house will last for many, many decades.

Homeowners don't know how to assess design quality or construction quality, and can't be expected to. However, homeowners want quality buildings, not junk. They tend to learn about the defects in their homes soon after their new home warranty expires.

Automobiles have gotten a lot better over the last 30 years, and car buyers are glad of that. (These changes did not occur because car buyers took courses in automotive engineering and assessment; rather, the manufacturers stepped up to the plate and introduced improvements.) If similar changes were to happen in the home building industry, home buyers would be pleased at the changes. It just hasn't happened yet.

While it's true that homeowners can't be expected to assess design quality or construction quality, the same cannot be said for Dartmouth College, home of the Thayer School of Engineering. If an Ivy League college with a multi-billion-dollar endowment is willing to accept low-quality buildings from the architects and contractors they have chosen, shame on Dartmouth.

You wrote that many commercial buildings are designed to be "bulldozed in 30 years." If that is Darmouth's plan, then Andres Hall is nearing its deadline, and will be gone in 2017. However, I don't think that is part of Dartmouth's plan. Many brick buildings on the campus are well over 100 years old, and look a lot better than Andres Hall.

Sep 26, 2015 12:51 PM ET

by James Morgan

Architectural education began to transfer from the apprenticeship tradition to college based schools of architecture in the 1880s or so and was pretty much complete by the 1940s (at the beginning of my career I worked with someone whose apprenticeship was interrupted by WW2 and never resumed). To teach in an architecture school you need publications with pretty pictures of your work. Preferably taken when the building is brand new and with minimalist exterior detailing, a la moderne. One or two built examples of your work will suffice, usually achieved in the few years of actual practice which followed your own graduation. Once you become a professor of architecture the rest of your career will seldom be concerned with actual building. Exception: every school of architecture likes to have on its faculty a superstar or two who maintains an actual practice. Few of these starchitects - Gehry comes to mind - are grounded in the everyday world of functional detailing, and lecture instead on massing, design concept and design theory.

Sep 27, 2015 11:26 PM ET

Architectural education is
by Terry Herschberger

Architectural education is all about "design" in its least technical sense. The design must be innovative, unique, and driven by a concept that may or may not have real life application. Details like water management and practical functionality are secondary and left to the contractor (lowest bidder) to figure out on their own. Architects at the time of your 1890 building were Master Builders. Now, not so much.

Oct 7, 2015 4:06 AM ET

Edited Oct 7, 2015 4:07 AM ET.

Response to James Morgan and Terry Herschberger
by Martin Holladay

James and Terry,
If the curriculum at our architecture schools is as flawed as you report -- and I believe that it is -- then at least a few architecture schools need to step forward and address the issue. How could architectural training be improved?

It seems to me that architecture schools address "design" (meaning the appearance of the exterior of a building from a distance, I think) but neglect two rather important topics: building science and water management. This bold summary sounds extraordinary -- but I don't think that my summary is an overstatement.

Oct 11, 2015 6:16 PM ET

portland cement
by Bennett Sandler

Fascinating article. It seems significant to me that the decline in quality of masonry buildings coincides with the decline of the use of lime-based mortars and the rise in popularity of Portland cement. Portland requires less skill to mix, hardens faster, and is much harder when cured. So buildings go up with fewer workers and less skill. The trade-off is only obvious decades later when things start to crack and spall and leak and so on. Most of the really good restoration masons I've encountered have enormous hostility and contempt for portland cement.

Oct 11, 2015 7:18 PM ET

Response to Bennett Sandler
by Martin Holladay

Your proposed explanation is interesting. At most, I imagine that the switch to cement-based mortars was a contributory factor rather than a primary factor to the phenomenon described here.

When I built the two stone chimneys on my house, more than 30 years ago, I researched mortars, and hesitated between lime-based mortars (with their inherent flexibility) and cement-based mortars (with their greater strength). I ended up mixing up my own recipe, with more lime and less cement than most modern recommendations. (It's been a few decades, so I've already forgotten my ratio.) The mortar has held up well.

Oct 11, 2015 8:32 PM ET

Architecture schools
by Malcolm Taylor

A good example of how architecture should be taught is the University of Waterloo. It is a co-op programme, so the students graduate with good practical knowledge, and I'd venture that with faculty like John Straub teaching building science, they have a pretty good grasp of it too.

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