Preventative Masonry Facades: Fact Finding First - A Report by Robert Gutmann

Masonry buildings, like any other building type, require routine maintenance. Proper maintenance of a masonry façade can increase the longevity of the building by decades, which is evident in many historic buildings throughout the world. Failure to properly maintain a masonry building goes beyond aesthetics and has fundamental safety and risk management implications.

To fully understand the condition of the masonry façade, routine inspections should be done to determine the overall condition. Building Envelope Forensic Services is one of many tools that GRLA’s Building Envelope Sciences Department is able to provide.

Recent events spotlight the need for routine maintenance and inspection. Tragically, on May 20, 2019, an aspiring concert pianist suffered serious injuries, including needing a finger amputated, after the façade of an Allston, MA restaurant collapsed on her last fall. This ultimately led to legal actions being taken against the business, the building’s owner, and its property manager.

“It’s a fundamental requirement of owning a piece of property – you have to maintain it in a safe condition,” according to Boston Inspectional Services Commissioner William Christopher Jr.  (Full Boston Globe Story)

The City of Boston Municipal Code is very clear in the requirement for inspections for an occupied building, 70 feet or taller, is at least once every five years.  In nearby Brookline, the requirement is an inspection for all buildings three stories or taller or that have parapets or facades of masonry or concrete.  This proactive approach was the direct result of a partial collapse at a residential building.  The above-mentioned collapse in Allston was a one-story building, which currently is exempt from all inspection regulations.  It is the responsibility of owners of smaller buildings to secure inspections and repairs as needed. 

GRLA’s Building Envelope Science group can provide inspections and recommendations to ensure your property’s safety and continued desired aesthetic. Those included are:

1. Visual Inspection

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The simplest and least expensive is a visual inspection that involves visually inspecting the façade existing conditions and marking up a defect inspection sheet. GRLA pulls from decades of experience and resources, such as The Brick Industry Association or the Masonry Institute of America, to analyze the data in determining the overall condition of the façade to suggest a maintenance program that fits both building needs and your budget.

2. Monitoring

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Monitoring is another way to evaluate the existing conditions. The most common way to do this by setting up instruments that can measure changes in the façade. The uploaded photo is an example of crack monitoring. Depending on the type of crack, how the crack migrates though the façade, how large the crack is, and what type of movement the crack exhibits will help aid us in determine what the best repair are needed.

3. Water Testing


Another type of inspection is water testing. At its basic form water is applied in a controlled, systematic fashion to determine where the source of a leak may be coming from. This is an important tool when working around transitions between windows, doors, balconies, and other penetrations, like pipes. Data, such as testing duration, water volume, location, and other information, is collected to determine how well the masonry wall assembly performs.

4. Invasive / Exploratory Testing


A fourth type of inspection is typically called an invasive or exploratory test. This involves removal of the outer wythe masonry bricks or masonry veneer to visually inspect the inner backup wall or interior wythe depending on the type of masonry wall construction. This is done by carefully removing bricks so that they can be reused.

Once an existing condition assessment has been performed, the collected information can be used to quantify the severity and frequency at which repairs are needed. With this information, GRLA’s Building Envelope Sciences Department can generate a preventative maintenance plan with cost estimates.  

Spring marks an ideal time for building owners and facility managers to survey their buildings and structures for any damage that may have resulted from the cold winter weather and freeze-thaw cycle. Please contact us with any inspection or maintenance needs you have.


Additional resources:

·         ASTM E2270 Standard Practice for Periodic Inspection of Building Facades for Unsafe Conditions

·         BIA Tech Note 46 – Maintenance of Brick Masonry

·         APT Building Technology Heritage Library

Great News! Envelope Details Are Required By Law!

Did you know that construction documents, by law, must include details showing how the building envelope is to be constructed?

This is great news! Why? Because clear, carefully crafted building envelope details make it easier for Contractors to build a reliable, high performance building.

And since buildings consume nearly half of all energy produced in the U.S. and the building envelope is responsible for about 25% of that energy use there are some big opportunities to improve performance here. 

Add to that the opportunity to reduce risk - problems from water leakage make up a big percentage of construction litigation - and it's clear why we should all want better buildings.

Ok, so back to the key point - all of this wishing and hoping for better buildings is actually supported by the law! Here's the pertinent section from the International Building Code:

Construction documents for all buildings shall describe the exterior wall envelope in sufficient detail to determine compliance with this code. The construction documents shall provide details of the exterior wall envelope as required, including flashing, intersections with dissimilar materials, corners, end details, control joints, intersections at roof, eaves or parapets, means of drainage, water-resistive membrane and details around openings.
— 2009 International Building Code, Section 107.2.4

Wow, right? How often is all of that crystal clear in a set of construction documents? 

Let's look at a definition real quick too: exterior wall envelope is defined in Section 1402.1 of the IBC as a system of components that provides protection from the detrimental effects of the exterior environment (slight paraphrase). 

The important part of that definition is that it is all about function. Aesthetics are great, but the obligation to detail the building envelope is not about how it looks, it is about how it works.

Here's another key point: the building code is the minimum standard. It literally describes the worst building you're legally permitted to build.

Let that sink in.

So if you're a designer and you want to do better than the worst - if you want to be an A student instead of scraping by with a D - your building envelope designs and documentation need to go even further than what's described above.

When a client is hesitant about the cost to properly detail critical components of the building, we should all be reminding them of these obligations. Let's all work together to raise the bar in our industry. 

Don't leave out key details. Understanding and clearly documenting how water, air, and heat are controlled by the building envelope is a critical part of the design process. It's OK to rely on building envelope specialists to help with the building envelope design - just like there are specialists for mechanical, structural, lighting, and other components of the design. 

But it's not OK to leave it out.