We’re doing some maintenance work on our home, a 1904 brick foursquare in Denver (a “Denver Square”). Someone painted the brick years before we bought it, and it’s time for fresh paint. Preparation of the brick for repainting revealed that we needed much more repointing (tuckpointing) of the mortar joints than I had anticipated. So… what does that mean?
Old brick buildings are really interesting. The brick is often pretty “soft,” and the mortar is even “softer.” By soft, I mean that you can gouge it or wear it away pretty easily; it’s, well, kind of weak. Our house has butter joints – really skinny mortar joints – with mortar color that matched the brick color. The house must have been so beautiful before someone came up with the “genius” idea of painting the brick… but I suspect that they painted because they thought they could substitute painting for repointing those mortar joints. Well, now we’re repainting AND repointing, so THAT didn’t work! Whoever made that decision decades ago really wasn’t acting in the best interests of the house. Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing at all than to do the wrong thing to a building.
Masonry walls need to be able to let water out, and need to be able to let water VAPOR out, and individual bricks in a wall need to be able to move a bit, in case they expand due to water absorption. Yes, bricks are a bit porous, and water gets into brick walls. You just can’t keep water out, so you always need to provide ways for it to GET out. Unless you want damaged bricks, you need the bricks to be able to move, and you need the brick wall to be able to “breathe,” at the locations of the mortar joints, so you need the mortar to be “softer” than the brick (weaker and more porous).
When it’s time to do repairs on an old brick building, you need someone who knows how to do it right. (Mortar-in-a-tube is not the right thing to use on an old building! Old mortar was made with much more lime than today’s mixes have – for old masonry, you really need a specialist.) We hired a mason who specializes in restoration of historic masonry. No, we didn’t need some of the fancy things that masonry restorers are capable of doing, such as matching new mortar color to the existing historic mortar color. (Ours will be painted over). But not everything that we do for buildings is for appearances. Much of what the caretakers (you know, the owners) of old buildings need to be doing is for the long-term FUNCTIONING and durability of the buildings. Building elements that function well, and are durable for the long-term, contribute greatly to the beauty of buildings.
Durability should be a primary focus of the sustainable (green) building movement. Build buildings well in the first place, maintain them properly over the years, and keep all that embodied energy in our cities instead of sending it off to landfills. Some well-meaning people are trying to ram an ethic of sustainability into a throw-away society, and it’s just not gonna work unless we develop, train, and properly compensate, our skilled building tradespeople, and develop in homeowners a strong sense of needing to care for their buildings, instead of just selling and leaving when maintenance needs present themselves.
I got off an important tangent up there. Back to that paint – the new paint is a necessary evil for my house, since someone already painted the brick years ago. Paint that is firmly attached to old brick should not be removed – removing the paint almost always removes the toughest part of the brick – the part that got fired. The inside of the brick is a bit softer than the exterior fired surface, so once a historic brick building has been painted, it should remain painted. Removing the paint could cause the brick to slowly erode away. However – you want paint that will not keep water in that wall. You want paint that can “breathe.” Flat paint typically is more vapor permeable than glossy paint, and latex paint is more vapor permeable than alkyd or oil-based paint, so if you have to paint brick, use flat latex paint. I wanted flat paint for aesthetic reasons, so I was thrilled to find out from Diane Travis at the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute that I was on the right track functionally with flat paint because of its higher vapor permeability. Diane emailed me this great brochure on “Maintenance and Repair of Older Masonry Buildings” when I contacted her for masonry contractor recommendations. The brochure is a good resource, and so is the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute! You can download a copy of the brochure if you click here.
Regarding those skilled tradespeople – I got two recommendations for masonry contractors who specialize in historic masonry repair and restoration. Both contractors were highly recommended, and were recommended by more than one person. Both do commercial and residential work. I met with Gary Holt of Olde English Masonry and John Voelker of Cornerstone Restoration, and we hired Cornerstone because of schedule availability. Cornerstone did great work. If you need a masonry specialist, either contractor would be great. They’re both busy, so plan ahead. Your old brick building deserves to be maintained by an expert. While you’re the caretaker of an old brick building, do the right thing for your brick.