Here in Middle Tennessee, we love our brick houses. Not that there’s anything wrong with wood siding, fiber-cement siding or sawdust-and-glue siding. There’s not even anything wrong with vinyl siding, except that it melts if you get the backyard grill too close to it, or a reflection from a neighbor’s window shines on it for too long. It’s just that we mid-South folk like to have some brick on our houses.
Well, there are some problems with the local brick, and I figure I’m just the guy to tell you about them.
One problem is that a whole lot of people think a new house with brick on it is a genuine “brick house”—that is, a house with walls that are three bricks thick, just like houses that were built 100 years ago. In the 20 or so years I’ve inspected houses, I’ve run across maybe a half-dozen real-enough brick houses, all in old neighborhoods.
New houses have brick veneer. That means the exterior brick wall is just one brick thick, and the brick is just a cladding placed over the house frame. Brick veneer looks good and works fine—when it’s installed right.
That brings us to the big problem: best I can tell, nobody is installing brick veneer right. For a good many years now, I’ve offered the following to any local bricker or residential-construction supervisor: show me a new house where you did the brick-veneer job right and I’ll take your picture and put it in the paper, along with a flattering caption that will make your mama proud. I’ll also give you a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon in cans, and a big-ass bag of Doritos.
In recent years, I’ve extended this offer to any municipal codes inspector who has the courage to make a bricker or supervisor tear off a sorry-ass brick-veneer job and do it all over again, the right way. Decision of the judge—and that would be me—is final.
Now don’t start thinking that the local brickers and building supervisors are the only people who screw up brick veneer, and that the local codes enforcers are the only people who let them get away with it. Members of my home-inspector grapevine—my online group of hand-picked geniuses, my nearly infallible brain trust—tell me that brick veneer is routinely heinous in Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, the Midwest, the Northeast and of course, all over the South.
I know some of you are wondering: what are the brickers doing wrong? What bad things can happen?
Well, the brickers are doing pretty much everything wrong. I’ve seen quite a few two-story brick veneer walls built on a foundation of scrap wood, buried in the ground. Those walls will crack, maybe even fall down. I’ve seen brick veneer hanging off crooked concrete foundations.
I’ve never seen a brick-veneer wall with proper weep holes and flashings, even though weep holes and flashings have been required by the building code at least since 1992. The weep holes and flashings are supposed to be there, to let water weep out of the wall cavity.
I’ve heard brickers, builders and engineers spout nonsense, folklore and fearful lies about brick veneer walls and how they’re supposed to be built. Of course, all of these folks have screwed up their jobs, so I’m skeptical about their opinions.
If you build brick-veneer walls wrong, bad things can happen. If the weep holes and flashings aren’t done correctly, water can damage the brick, and cause cracking or failure. As bad or worse: if water gets trapped in the wall, it can rot wood, and cause mold to grow in the walls.
Here in Middle Tennessee, it’s common for the brickers to leave out the brick ties, which are metal strips that keep the brick veneer from moving. The brickers might think that’s harmless, but it’s not. Last year, a woman was injured when the brick veneer peeled off her house during a storm, then crashed onto her minivan. Once the brick was gone, it was easy to see that there weren’t nearly enough brick ties.
So why aren’t people who buy new brick-veneer houses pitching a fit? Here’s why: it takes a long time for problems to show up inside a wall. It could take four years or longer. After four years, a Tennessee builder doesn’t have any obligation to fix any defects in a house he built.
As I explained in last week’s column, if you’re going to buy a brand-new house and you want it to turn out right, you’re going to have to do your own quality control.
Before the brickers start on your new house, go to jlconline.com and download the PDF version of this article: “How To Keep Water Out of Brick Veneer,” by Jerry Carrier. The article costs less than $5. It explains why the details in brick veneer are important, and it shows the right way to install brick veneer.
Then, go to bia.org and print out their Technical Notes 7, 7A and 7B.
Tell your builder that you’ll expect the brick-veneer work to conform to the building code, and that you want him to mind the details in the Carrier article and the Brick Industry Association’s Technical Notes.
Finally, call the boss at your local codes office and ask him nicely to have his inspectors pay close attention to the brick-veneer job at your house.