Exterior Walls: Brick

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Although the four building contractors at the party all had brick houses, that does not mean that brick is the very best low-maintenance exterior (with all the variables, there is no best), but the arguments in its favor are quite compelling. From an ecological point of view, much energy is used in making brick. But once made properly, brick can last indefinitely. A 2 X 4 rots eventually and not all the breakdown can be economically recovered as available energy. A brick, properly made, remains available as a brick possibly for centuries. Nor is there a shortage of suitable clays to make brick. And because bricks are so durable, millions of them are available from outmoded buildings for reuse .

Of course, brick is not forever, or not nearly as forever as some natural stone (see later in this section). If the outer surface of bricks (especially old bricks not baked as completely as modem ones) wears away, the inner brick is generally soft and may deteriorate rather rapidly in the weather. Even when bricks endure for centuries, the mortar between them will not, and repair becomes necessary. But building consultants, architects, and carpenters vastly exaggerate the difficulties of most repair work on old brick buildings

As for the assumed high price of brick compared to other exterior wall sidings, it depends on how you count your pennies. “Where else can you buy something for 4 a pound that will last forever,” quips Harold Snyder of the Claycraft Company, which produces brick in Ohio. Actually brick itself is not necessarily more expensive than any other good exterior wall material. Depending on the type of brick, expect to pay from $140 to $225 a thousand. There are about six bricks per square foot, so that means, using 18 brick as an example, a square foot of brick costs about $1.08 plus the cost of mortar. Rough cedar siding starts at about 954 per square foot, not counting a penetrating stain treatment. Redwood is considerably more. Vinyl siding was last quoted to me at $180 a square or $1.80 per square foot.

The expensiveness of brick is in the labor. Country bricklayers may charge as low as $14 an hour, but union bricklayers work for between $20 and $30. A bricklayer at $20 an hour, laying 10 square feet an hour, costs you $2 a square foot for labor. Thus, the total cost of the brick would come to over $3 per square foot. Labor for wood, aluminum, or vinyl siding would be considerably less—not counting painting, staining, or upkeep. The old rule of thumb among contractors in my local area is that a house with a brick exterior costs $1 more per square foot than a wooden exterior, and since good wood and good brick have both been rising in price, that rule probably still holds. Even if the difference is now $1.50, as some contractors figure, then on a 1,600-square-foot house you are talking about $2,400 more for brick. Can you think of a better building investment, really? No more worries about your home’s exterior walls for the rest of your life, barring an earthquake or bomb. And if you have to sell, you stand a good chance of getting that investment back, with interest.

Speaking of earthquakes, brick does have less tolerance to a foundation settling than does wood. Wood will give a little. Brick and other masonry walls crack when they give.

Cut Those Vines Back

Do not let vines grow on brick walls, picturesque as that might seem. The tendrils grip into the mortar and suck out moisture necessary to the longevity of the wall. Accelerated deterioration may be the unhappy result.

Color and Texture Choices

You have a greater—much greater—selection in color and texture with brick than with stone, block, or wood. Belden, one of several brick companies in Ohio, alone sells at least 200 different kinds of brick, Jim Platt of the Mideast Regional Brick Institute in Canton, Ohio, tells me. New colors and textures are constantly being developed, and the different brickyards guard their formulas as closely as famous restaurants guard their recipes. Bricks are in fact fascinating enough to justify a book on them alone, not only geologically, but historically and culturally as well.

(I had better state some place that I have absolutely no connection, financial or otherwise, with any brick manufacturer. If I sound like I’m selling brick it's only because I like brick—I live in a Belden brick house—and because I’ve found the subject interesting. You will too, if you start researching.)

Bricks have been made and used since ancient times. Brick walls in England still stand, made by the Romans before the birth of Christ. If you begin to keep a sharp eye out for brick, you will notice breathtaking artistry in older buildings: stunning arches, pillars, door and window frames, inlaid designs, graphics, numbers, names—all done with variously colored bricks. The different methods of laying up a wall are named by country of origin: Dutch bond, English bond, Flemish bond, etc. The English love red brick and brought the architecture with them to this country. So did certain German immigrants later, building their red brick houses, churches, and schools in the Midwest in stubborn defiance of the almost unlimited forest around them, which they doggedly burnt to get rid of. In American cities with Polish neighborhoods, you find many old yellow brick houses. Homesick Polish immigrants wanted yellow brick because back in Poland that's the color their clays produced. In the Art Deco rage of the ‘30s, glazed brick became popular, and you will still find houses made of it in sections of New York City—dirty, but indestructible.

One reason some older brick homes don't last “forever” or even for 100 years without maintenance is that not all the bricks in the exterior wall were baked uniformly hard as they should have been. Softer ones deteriorate and have to be replaced. They are softer because the position they occupied in the old kilns did not always provide for even heating.

Almost all brick is machine-made today, one way or another. Wire- cut brick is very straight and square on the edges; sand-molded brick is more rounded and softer to the eye, though not structurally any softer. Most brick today is baked very hard, at least a very hard V skin. If it’s softer inside, as much older brick was, sandblasting is a mistake, because when exposed, the soft inner brick will deteriorate in the weather. Sandblasting is seldom a good idea anyway because it wears the brick away. There are cleaning compounds used now that contain muriatic acid. Professional crews apply them, usually in a spray, to clean off brick.

Soft bricks absorb more water than hard, but can be treated with silicone compounds to waterproof them. Not many new bricks today need waterproofing. People who say their bricks leak will find that the water is coming through the mortar joints, not the brick itself. Silicone coatings will help that problem. Formerly, in the days when brick walls were truly brick walls and not brick veneer as is mostly the case today, the inner bricks were very soft and cheap. Exposed to the weather, they deteriorate rather rapidly. If you are getting brick for reuse from an old house, be aware of this.

Bricks today may be solid or cored, the latter having holes in them to make them lighter and to grip the mortar better.

Brick for Fireproof Walls and Flues

One of brick’s main advantages is only partially realized in home residences. Brick won’t burn. This is why there is such a renaissance in brick in architectural, institutional, and public buildings. Brick backed by concrete block passes the strictest fire codes. Masonry salespeople love to point out, quite rightly, that owners of commercial buildings quickly recoup the extra cost of brick and go on to save thousands of dollars— in insurance costs alone.

Homeowners do take partial advantage of brick’s fire safety feature by using it in fireplace walls and chimneys. There has been a recent backing away from stainless steel flues by many wood stove users. Stainless steel flues are more expensive than masonry but much cheaper to install so the overall cost is less. But though approved by all codes, stainless steel is guaranteed for only ten years. Most often it will last longer than that, but the danger is that once the flue is in place, who will replace it in ten years just to be on the safe side?

Stainless steel flues have not had a very good record. Of 23,000 chimney fires in stain less steel flues, a fourth of them spread to the surrounding structure according to a survey done by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A good masonry chimney won’t let that happen. According to some experts, in tense heat can cause the inner lining of a stain less steel flue to buckle and lose its insulative power and then a chimney fire might set the house ablaze. The danger is especially critical where wood or fake masonry chimneys are built around the steel flue. A brick chimney is not only safer, but especially when built inside the house rather than on an exterior wall, it acts as a giant heat sink, absorbing heat rising with the smoke and adding considerably to the efficiency of the stove or fireplace.


The quality of the mortar is just as important to the durability of the wall as is the brick or other masonry unit used. Quality covers a wide range of definitions, from proper mixtures to proper application. Mortar is com posed of masonry cement or a mixture of masonry cement and portland cement or a mixture of portland cement and hydrated lime. Seven different combinations are identified by type: M, 5, N, 0, K, and for reinforced masonry, PM and PL. These are very important to architects and builders, but for practical purposes, the homeowner is best off to buy pure masonry cement rather than fuss with mixtures.

Mix masonry cement with clean masonry sand at the rate of 1 part cement to 2 ½ parts sand. The sand proportion can vary from 2¼ to 3 ½ parts, but the greater the amount of cement the stronger the bond will be, especially below grade. Add to that enough water to make a good plastic workable mixture. Achieving the optimum plasticity is the key to strong, long-lasting mortar and is the difference between a good mason and a poor one—for which you pay the same money. The mortar must be neither too wet nor too dry (see the box “The Proper Concrete Mix”). Once a brick has been set in its bed of mortar so that the mortar bulges out to fill the joint properly but not drip down the side, it's then tapped gently to level, if necessary. Then it should not be readjusted later on—even a minute or two later—as this can break the bond between mortar and masonry.

Water that's highly alkaline or acid (lime water, for example, in the first instance, and sulfur water in the second) should not be used, as it can cause mortar to discolor later on and stain the wall—very noticeable if colored mortars are used. But this is a rare problem.

Joints can be finished off several ways. Indented joints, or raked joints as they are called, give pleasing visual textures to a wall, but the indentation should not be more than 1/2 inch, or water is encouraged to lie on the joint, possibly seeping into the wall rather than draining off. Raked joints are seldom advised for high snow and rainfall areas, but my house has raked joints, and we experience calamitous rains on occasion, with no ill effects.

Building Real Brick Walls

Homeowners and carpenters resist masonry walls because of real or assumed inconveniences in running electrical wiring or plumbing in them, and because masonry has poor insulation value. So they build a wooden frame house and veneer it with brick—building two walls, in effect.

Today, only a few gallant souls argue against doing this and build a real brick house, one with two or three runs or “wythes,” as they are called, of brick or brick backed by concrete block—doing away with the wood stud walls altogether. A neighbor, Fred, whose family has been in the construction business for years, bought an old farmhouse recently and remodeled it into a stunning modem home, where the accent is definitely on low maintenance. The roof is old-fashioned standing-seam metal, and the exterior is brick. On the new addition to the house, the brick is backed by the customary stud wall, but the old part of the house was already brick—inside and out. Frey added a third wythe of brick so that all the brick was of the same kind.

With a rigid foam insulation in a cavity between the new brick and the old, Frey doesn’t believe the old part of the house is any harder to heat than the new. On the interior, some of his old brick walls have simply been plastered right over the interior brick. Frey says a real brick wall of two wythes should cost only about a third more than a stud wall with an exterior wythe of brick—less if the interior brick is left as is (that is, neither plastered nor paneled), to become the interior wall.

John Thomdike, who built his own real brick house a few years ago near Athens, Ohio, agrees. He built his walls of two wythes of standard brick with a 2-inch space between for polyurethane insulation with a high R-value. “If you use a moderately priced brick and 2 inches of polyurethane, the cost of materials will be 25 to 30 percent higher than the least expensive 2-by-4 stud wall with 4 inches of fiberglass insulation, exterior sheathing and siding, and interior gypsum wallboard,” says Thorndike. “But the masonry wall will be superior on almost every count, including insulation.”

That being so, if you used high-quality wood wall materials, the material cost of real brick versus a brick veneer or a high-quality wood siding would not be much different. The labor cost would still keep the brick wall more expensive, but not much.

Brick for Do-It-Yourselfers

And that brings up brick’s other major advantage. It is very amenable to do-it-yourself builders. Americans don’t realize this because we basically spring from a wood culture. Wood is probably the most useful material on earth, and our nation has grown up surrounded by acres and acres of it. Many of us grow up learning the basics of wood construction— the operation of ax, saw, hammer and nails are as familiar as tying our shoes. Consequently, when we turn to building, we naturally turn to wood. Carpentry is our inheritance. On the other hand, we tend to view masonry as an esoteric art, and masons have been only too glad to encourage that mystique. While it's true that the more decorative kinds of brickwork demand both engineering skill and artistic talent, that's also true of carpentry.

As Thorndike says, and I quote from his delightful article on brick in Country Journal (April 1980): “At its simplest, bricklaying is something a 10-year-old child is capable of learning, and there is no reason for home builders to shy away from it. Anyone who has ever wished to build his own small castle should now feel free.”

The advantage of brick for the spare time do-it-yourselfer is that, first of all, anyone can lift a brick. A brick is, as the computer generation likes to put it, “user-friendly.” That is certainly not true of concrete block. Secondly, in the process of building with brick, you can quit anytime and not have to worry about rain, as you might with a wooden wall. You can work at any pace that suits you. (But you can’t lay brick in below-freezing weather unless you add a quick-drying agent to the mortar, and even then I’d be leery.)

The basic mechanics of laying a brick wall are the same as laying concrete blocks, requiring only that you know how to measure accurately and plumb with a level and string. Hundreds of books tell how. For an all brick wall, the kind most favored by masons today, is the two-wythe kind like Thorndike’s. (This is despite the Brick Institute’s attempt to interest builders in a one-wythe wall in place of studs, which it says can be practical. And, of course, you can always go to a three-brick thickness if you like to lay brick.) Weep holes through the bottom of the outside wythe carry off any moisture that might gather in the cavity between the two wythes of brick. Insulation is installed in the cavity as the wall mounts, and about every 2 feet vertically and 4 feet horizontally metal wall ties or crossties are laid in the mortar joints connecting the two wythes to improve strength. These ties will conduct some cold through the cavity to the inner wall, but at 1/16 inch in diameter, not much.

Brick Paneling

If you like brick but think it's too expensive and not insulative enough, there’s a new product in brick paneling for exterior siding, called Pan-Brick (Pan-Brick, Inc., 3030 Saskatchewan Drive, Regina, SK 54T 6P1, Canada). These panels are real bricks only ½ inch thick bonded to isocyanurate foam board on plywood. The panels have an R-value of 8.7 and cost about $6 per square foot installed. The bricks will last, and the foam board is supposed to, but only time will tell. The paneling is applied with drywall screws and the holes are sealed.

Another curious real brick panel is Perma-Panel (US. Brick, Michigan Division, 3820 Sen Road, Corunna, MI 48817). A panel, 48 by 16 inches, is composed of polystyrene insulation glued to an aluminum frame upon which ‘/2-inch-thick bricks are set on little ledges so that there is a 3 space all around each brick. The panels, minus the bricks, are nailed and / or glued to the wall, adhesive is applied to the aluminum, then the thin bricks are set into place and grouted. The whole system is a way to lay brick without learning how to be a bricklayer. The polystyrene backing adds insulation. No footing is necessary to support this lightweight kind of brick wall. “Moisture must not get between the panel and the substratum,” say the instructions, which means you’ve got to have expert caulking and flashing of all potential openings. Personally, I think it would be more practical to learn to lay brick.

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Updated: Thursday, March 5, 2009 12:29