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Dealing with Rising Damp in Building Reconstruction

Old buildings with stone or brick walls face problems with capillary moisture and efflorescence

Posted on Jul 23 2013 by Vera Novak

While China is building new cities as fast as possible, Eastern Europe is faced with a challenge on the opposite end of the scale. With a negative population growth and an abundance of old houses, it makes much more sense to rebuild the existing infrastructure than to build new.

I'm now visiting Eastern Europe. Many of the villages have houses built prior to World War II. Fortunately, the thick stone walls and strong timbered roof structures make for solid buildings that withstood years of abandon and can serve for many more centuries once refurbished.

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Image Credits:

  1. Vera Novak

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Insulating Old Brick Buildings

If you’re thinking of insulating the interior of a load-bearing brick wall, proceed with caution

Posted on Aug 12 2011 by Martin Holladay

UPDATED March 19, 2015

Older buildings with load-bearing brick walls are common in many northern U.S. cities. While these thick (muti-wythe) brick walls were often plastered on the interior, they were rarely insulated.

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Image Credits:

  1. John Straube
  2. Terry Brennan
  3. Building Science Corporation

Jefferson City Deep Energy Retrofit

Jefferson City, MO

Aug 1 2011 By Peter Yost | 0 comments

General Specs and Team

Location: Jefferson City, MO
Bedrooms: 3
Bathrooms: 1.5
Living Space : 1600 sqf
Cost (USD/sq. ft.): $55/sqf

Cost based on final appraised value.

Project Team
- Builder: River City Habitat for Humanity
- Sustainable Building Consultant: Verdatek Solutions
- Rater: ASERusa

Community Organizations
- City of Jefferson
- HBA of Central Missouri
- Linn State Technical College
- Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers
- Missouri Career Center
- University of Missouri Extension
- Nichols Career Center
- Central Missouri Community Action
- Missouri Department of Natural Resources
- University of Missouri-Center for Sustainable Energy
- Central Missouri Region Master Gardeners

National Support
- NAHB Research Center National Green Building Program
- DOE Building America


Foundation: block wall crawl space modified with partial full basement
Above-grade walls: structural block modified with interior insulated framed wall
Roof: vented unconditioned attic modified to “cathedralized” conditioned attic


Foundation: insulated and air-sealed with R-8 Icynene
Above-grade walls: R-19 "flash and fill" (2x4 inset walls sprayed with 2 in. of foam and filled with cellulose)
Roof: R-40 cathedralized and sprayed with Icynene
Windows: Quaker AdvantEdge (U-factor=0.30; SHGC=0.29; VT=0.50)

Indoor Air Quality

AprilAire Model 8126 Ventilation Control System


NGBS score and rating pending

This Habitat for Humanity (HFH) GreenBuild community project moves a 100-year old home to a “200-year” home

At face value, 802 West McCarty is nothing special, just one of 800 vacant or foreclosed homes in a distressed Jefferson City, MO urban neighborhood. But you don’t end up with the team listed to the right without creating something special indeed: the deepest green Habitat for Humanity (HFH) remodeling project in the Midwest. “We took it from the past 100 years and will be able to give it another 100 years of life,” says Ken Thoenen of Ken Thoenen Homes, the project chairman.

Humble home, humble owners

Lessons Learned

Matt Belcher took some time to think through this aspect of the project.

Hidden challenges: “Whenever you are dealing with renovating a home there are always the unforeseen challenges. In a building of this age, we encountered a number of issues that were not necessarily issues from the original construction. In fact, the quality and durability of the original structure is what made it possible to rehab this home instead of demolish it. During the course of the project, I always thought about the original builder and stone masons that laid up the stone and brick walls. They certainly did not have the equipment we do now, but they did a fine job building a good ‘stout’ home. I would hope in a hundred years or so someone would think that way about what I did!”

Correcting the work of others: “Most of our hurdles were with the additions that were put on the home with dissimilar materials and some of the products (like asbestos floor tiles and duct insulation) that were added long after the original home was built. The biggest challenge was the damage done simply by having stormwater running directly against the rear and sides of the home.”

Solar-ready: “We originally had wanted to include a solar thermal system and possibly some other ‘high tech’ equipment, but Habitat was concerned with the new homeowners’ ability to manage and maintain these higher tech items, not mention the price point. We concurred with their concern and included the ability to have these types of items added with the hopes that over the course of time, they would be.”

Taking the time to build a team: “We held several pre-planning meetings to have everyone on our team onboard, especially the folks from Nichols Career Center and Students at Linn Tech. I was able to visit Linn Tech and hold a couple of workshops with the architectural students there to discuss the nature of green building and how we are applying it to this project and identify how the National Green Building Standard and checklist was being used. They made several site visits, of course, to do measuring and inspections to be able to develop the plans for the house.

One great example of our partners’ benefitting from the process was during the blower-door testing we did prior to drywall. The insulation contractor was just completing the window and door sealing as we cranked up the blower door. Our rater also had an infrared camera with a digital thermometer. He was able to use the ‘gun’ to show areas around the windows that needed to be sealed. It was a great learning tool for the insulator; he is now interested in acquiring one of these ‘guns’ for their company’s own quality control process.”

Moving the building industry forward: “We were also able to demonstrate to industry professionals the process of focusing on the building envelope and designing in daylighting and passive solar as we rehabbed this project. We also demonstrated how a high-performance envelope can mean properly sized equipment much smaller than original, even thought the home was larger.

Finally, we held several open houses, a few for industry professionals and a few for the general public (with a focus on homeowners in this neighborhood to demonstrate what could be done with homes of this era!). These were all well attended. We had fact sheets posted around the home explaining different features and upgrades and general information. Our team even came up with a trivia game based on features in the home that visitors could get answered by reading the fact sheets!”


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Image Credits:

  1. Matt Belcher
  2. HBA of Central Missouri

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How Did Water Damage this Brick Basement?

Seasoned builders and a moisture expert debate whether rising damp or a blocked chimney caused this brick column to crumble.

Posted on Mar 30 2010 by Rob Wotzak

In a recent discussion from our Q&A forum, Chris Ermides tries to determine what caused severe deterioration of a brick column in the basement of his Victorian home. Chris knows that his basement could use some moisture remediation, but he is puzzled that none of the nearby brick walls have similar signs of decay. Fortunately, the chimney that the column once supported is long gone, and the load of the adjacent beams rests comfortably on lally columns, but Chris is still determined to solve this mystery.

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Efflorescence = Water Damage — Building Science Podcast

The white powder on the surface of brick, block, and mortar between rocks is water and salt attacking these porous materials. In new construction you can prevent it — in old houses, you can only control it.

Posted on Mar 29 2010 by Joe Lstiburek

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This podcast series is excerpted from a two-day class called "Building Science Fundamentals" taught by Dr. Joe Lstiburek and Dr. John Straube of Building Science Corporation.

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Image Credits:

  1. Rob Wotzak

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Hefting the CalStar Brick for Greenness, Performance

CalStar says it takes significantly less energy to make its fly ash bricks than clay bricks, but a full-fledged testing regimen specifically for fly ash bricks still has to be developed

Posted on Nov 6 2009 by Richard Defendorf

New construction products, especially those manufactured with new or previously ignored waste materials, no doubt make product testers’ lives interesting. Case in point is the fly ash brick developed by California-based CalStar Products.

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Image Credits:

  1. CalStar Products Inc.

Hardscapes: Patios and Driveways

Patios and Driveways Need Solid Foundations

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Permeable materials reduce water runoff

Both driveways and patios can be built from a variety of durable materials. A solid base that drains water effectively is a good beginning.

Longevity is only one consideration, however. Because driveways and patios often cover significant square footage, they can contribute to runoff problems both on and off the lot. Water that can't seep back into the ground ends up in stormwater drains and municipal treatment plants. Permeable materials, however, reduce runoff and erosion and help recharge underground water supplies.

See below for:

Tab 1

Start with a solid foundation

Eight inches of processed stone (sometimes called ABC stone or sure-pack) with particles ranging in size from dust to 1 1/2 inches in diameter provides the best base material for stone and paver patios and driveways. Place the stone in several thoroughly compacted 2- or 3-inch lifts and graded at a slope of 1/8 inch per foot so that water drains away from adjacent structures. Wetting the material during compaction will help lock together the variously sized particles. On unstable or clay soil, a layer of heavy-duty geotextile underneath the stone base will prevent differential settling.

One inch of course sand place on top of the stone base provides a good setting bed for the pavers. All setting and base material should be sourced locally to reduce material and environmental costs.

Tab 2

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A patio can be more than just a place to park your barbecue grill.

In most climates, a patio could be a valuable living space, at least for part of the year. Consider using dry-laid pavers and complementary plantings, not just for added interest but to absorb stormwater runoff.

Consider alternatives to the typical concrete slab. The portland cement in concrete is very high in embodied energyEnergy that goes into making a product; includes energy required for growth, extraction, and transportation of the raw material as well as manufacture, packaging, and transportation of the finished product. Embodied energy is often used to measure ecological cost. and accounts for a sizable fraction of the world’s human-generated carbon emissions. Therefore, it’s worth looking at concrete substitutes, such as fly ashFine particulates consisting primarily of silica, alumina, and iron that are collected from flue gases during coal combustion. Flyash is employed as a substitute for some of the portland cement used in the making of concrete, producing a denser, stronger, and slower-setting material while eliminating a portion of the energy-intensive cement required. More info or blast-furnace slag for portland cement in the concrete mix, and at strategies for using less concrete (e.g., open or spaced pavers). An “old-fashioned” driveway with two concrete drive strips surrounded by strips of groundcover is one possible approach. Salvaged stone, “urbanite”, and other reclaimed materials are excellent candidates for patios.

Images from: Fine Gardening.

Tab 3

Good site preparation, then layers of stone and stone dust

No matter what the finish materials are, the key to a long-lasting installation is careful site preparation. An ample base of compacted stone and coarse sand or stone dust creates a stable foundation that will keep the finish surface flat and trouble-free. A patio laid over soil that contains a lot of organic material or clay won’t last nearly as long.

Sub-surface drainage. If the site is prone to flooding or heavy runoff, a curtain drain may be needed to divert water away from the finished patio.

Excavation. To provide enough room for base layers, soil may have to be removed from the site. String lines that establish the finish grade and pitch across the width and length of the site to determine how much material must be removed. A depth of between 9 inches and 10 inches below finished grade leaves enough room for crushed stone and setting sand.

Stone base. Crushed stone added in 2-inch to 3-inch layers and then compacted builds a stable base. A good option is something called ABC stone, which includes everything from dust to gravel up to 1 ½ inches in diameter. Each layer should be dampened and mechanically compacted. Look for a total depth of between 6 inches and 7 inches

Coarse sand or stone dust. A 1-inch-thick layer of compacted coarse sand or stone dust over the stone base provides a flat foundation for the pavers. String lines help keep the surface flat and pitched correctly.

Add pavers and more sand. Pavers can be laid in any pattern. The surface should be sloped away from the house to promote drainage (1/8 inch per foot is adequate). Once the pavers are in place, spread sand over the surface and vibrate it to lock the pavers in place.

Tab 4

No requirement for polyethylene vapor retarders

While IRCInternational Residential Code. The one- and two-family dwelling model building code copyrighted by the International Code Council. The IRC is meant to be a stand-alone code compatible with the three national building codes—the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) National code, the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) code and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) code. section 105 exempts driveways, patios, and sidewalks from permit requirements, many municipalities have local code or zoning requirements that specify setbacks and construction methods. Additionally, concrete porches and concrete walkways with steps that are exposed to the weather must satisfy section R402.2 and accompanying Table R402.2, which specifies the minimum compressive strength of concrete based on its weathering potential.

According to section R506.2.3, polyethylene vapor retarders are not required under concrete driveways, walks, or patios, making pervious types of paving an attractive green option to conventional concrete flatwork.

Like driveways, the IRC doesn’t require a polyethylene vapor retarder under patios, provided the space is unlikely to be enclosed in the future (section R506.2.3). This code exception makes the use of pervious paving materials an attractive option for outdoor living space.


This stuff is heavy

Because most, if not all, pavers are highly durable, transportation costs emerge as a key sustainability issue. All are heavy, so selecting pavers that are mined or manufactured nearby reduces transportation costs. Natural stone that is quarried regionally is preferable to shipping pavers long distances, even if local choices are somewhat less exotic.

Using salvaged brick or natural stone pavers is a better environmental choice than buying new.

Other landscaping materials

Landscaping often includes terraced gardens and beds, especially on a sloping lot. Pressure-treated timbers are readily available, easy to work with and inexpensive. But a more attractive option are timbers made with recycled plastic. Not only will they last longer than wood but they help reduce the amount of waste plastic that goes to landfills.


LEED for HOMESLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. Permeable paving can contribute to maximizing the 4 points available in credit SS4 (Sustainable Sites).

NGBSNational Green Building Standard Based on the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines and passed through ANSI. This standard can be applied to both new homes, remodeling projects, and additions. Under Ch. 4 — Site Design: up to 5 points for permeable paving (403.5).


Pavers are less likely to crack than monolithic slabs

With an adequate base of compacted stone, a patio should last for many years with very little maintenance. There are three conventional categories for pavers: clay brick, concrete, and natural stone.

Many types of pavers can handle repeated freeze-thaw cycles while providing an extremely wear-resistant surface. A monolithic concrete slab is more susceptible to cracking than a patio made from individual pavers.

Clay brick. Brick is available in many colors and can be set in a variety of patterns. Because they are made from natural clay, brick pavers won’t fade in color and require little if any maintenance. Brick is highly durable and has a slip-resistant surface.

Concrete. Less expensive than brick or natural stone, concrete pavers come in a variety of shapes and colors, including styles resembling brick and stone. Chamfered edges allow concrete pavers to be used on surfaces that must be plowed or snow-blown in winter, and de-icing products do not easily damage concrete. They can be used in all climates.

Stone. Bluestone, granite, and limestone are types of stone that can be cut into pavers. Stone is probably the most expensive option, but it is also extremely durable. Colors and textures vary widely. The look of irregularly shaped stones is impossible to produce with manufactured products such as concrete or brick.

Plastic pavers. In addition to these familiar materials, at least one manufacturer now produces pavers made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) that is 100% recycled from postindustrial sources. Renew Resources offers the tiles in four colors and two sizes.


Consider slope as well as surface porosity

Driveways need a slight slope so that they shed water, but too much makes winter driving difficult. The grade should be no less than 2% (a change of 2 feet over 100 feet) but probably no more than 12%.

Turning radius is another consideration. This can be as narrow as 15 feet in parking areas for small and midsize cars. But curves on long driveways may require a radius of 50 feet to accommodate fire trucks.


Pavers and gravel let the water through

Runoff from driveways and sidewalks is far from a trivial problem in suburban and urban neighborhoods where wide expanses of concrete and asphalt produce a great deal of water. Storm drains and waste treatment plants must be designed to handle a lot of water, and runoff also carries with it a variety of contaminants.

Permeable surfaces allow at least some of the water to filter back into the ground while reducing the risks of erosion and flooding. Among the options for driveway surfaces:

Plastic and concrete grids are placed on top of the driveway base and filled with gravel or topsoil and vegetation for a surface that resists erosion but still supports heavy vehicles. After it rains, the grid holds water until the water can seep into the ground. Plastic grids are often made from recycled materials and also can be used to reinforce and stabilize driveway bases beneath different finish materials.

Pavers. Gaps between pavers let water and snowmelt pass through, so a base layer that drains well is key. Pavers can be made with concrete, brick, or stone. Compared with some other materials, pavers are relatively expensive, mainly because of the labor costs involved in their installation. Concrete pavers have a smooth surface, simplifying snow removal, and are available in many colors and patterns. Cobblestones, which are more expensive still, are generally uneven, posing potential problems for snowplows and snow blowers. But the look is estate-like classic.

Gravel. This one of the cheapest driveway options, but it’s got some drawbacks. Without a good base and careful grading, expect ruts, potholes, and erosion after a heavy rain, and snowplows probably will push some of the surface stone into your yard. It can be difficult to snow-blow before the ground freezes solid. Fancy grades of crushed stone are better looking but share some of the same maintenance issues. On the plus side, a fresh surface is fairly easy to apply, and gravel often can be sourced locally, lowering transportation costs.

Reclaimed asphalt. An option in some areas, reclaimed asphalt is recovered from road rebuilding projects and ground into a gravel-like mixture. It can be spread and packed by hand, or applied with the same equipment used to place asphalt. The material packs tightly to form a durable, wash-resistant surface.

Porous asphalt and concrete. Leaving out the fine aggregates in a standard asphalt mix produces a porous surface through which water can drain freely. Durability appears comparable to conventional asphalt, even in cold-weather regions, but the mix is more expensive and not as widely used, limiting availability. One drawback is that the surface can be clogged by dirt and sand, and porous asphalt requires a more carefully designed base that can handle the water runoff. Using larger pea gravel and a lower water-to-cement ratio produces permeable concrete, which allows water to pass through quickly. As is the case with porous asphalt, finding a local contractor may be difficult.

Concrete is an impermeable material. More expensive but also more durable than asphalt, it won’t get soft and gummy in the summer. But it’s susceptible to staining and can crack when placed over an inadequate base. Brushing the surface when the concrete has partially cured exposes aggregate for a more decorative appearance, but the treatment also means substantially higher costs and requires a skilled contractor. Concrete can be embossed with a pattern to make it look like pavers.

Asphalt is impermeable, cheap, and the least green. It’s composed mostly of sand and gravel aggregate that’s held together with a bituminous (petroleum-based) binderGlue used in manufactured wood products, such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF), particleboard, and engineered lumber. Some binders are made with formaldehyde. See urea-formaldehyde binder and methyl diisocyanate (MDI) binder. . Although it’s not as durable as concrete, asphalt is more flexible ,so it’s not as likely to crack. Its dark color absorbs heat, so it melts snow faster than light-colored surfaces. Asphalt should be resealed every few years, but it can be resurfaced without tearing up the original pavement. It takes a number of months before asphalt cures, and the surface can get soft in the summer. An interesting nonpetroleum alternative is a resin-based pavement called Road Oyl Resin Pavement made by the Soil Stabilization Products Co. It’s produced from pine rosin and pitch and compares favorably with conventional asphalt for hardness and durability.


The Center for Universal Design

A Concrete-Paver Patio from the Bottom Up in Fine Homebuilding

Road Oyl Resin Pavement asphalt alternative.

Renew Resources plastic patio pavers.

Image Credits:

  1. Chris Green / Fine Homebuilding #170
  2. Brian Pontolilo/Fine Homebuilding #195
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Installed Correctly, Brick Veneer Lasts a Long Time

UPDATED 11/26/2012

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Image Credits:

  1. Don Mannes/Fine Homebuilding #142
  2. Roe A. Osborn/Fine Homebuilding #142
  3. Dan Morrison/Fine Homebuilding #192
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