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articles / masonry repair and restoration

By: David Wright, Green Mountain Masonry, Rutland, VT 05701

There are many definitions of what constitutes masonry restoration, masonry rehabilitation or masonry repair. Let's start out by arriving at a different definition for each one of these terms.

Masonry Restoration

This is a term that implies methods and materials sometimes even techniques that are "of the period". In the case of masonry buildings, new methods and materials brought about by engineering and other advances in production are usually rendered irrelevant by the need to match the new materials with the existing. In the case of brick restoration, a careful analysis must be undertaken in order that the restored aspects of the building do not cause damage to the parts of the building that have weathered the test of time and there are many ways that improperly matched materials can do just that. In the case of stone restoration, we may be talking about restoring the individual stones themselves or an entire building or section thereof.

There are techniques and products developed whereby new surfaces can be built onto deteriorated carved stone, as if a new stone had been carved to replace a badly weathered piece of intricately carved stonework, say, a lintel stone or section of cornice. The Dept of the Interior for Stone Restoration approves only some of these products. So, if your building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is something that bears looking into.

The person most qualified to talk to about the range of materials; both approved and unapproved is an architect experienced in the restoration of stone and brick structures. Very few masonry contractors have the training to make considered technical decisions and the ones that have that training will always want to work with the architect instead of argue with him.

In the case of "solid construction" walls, as opposed to "veneer" or "cavity walls", water penetration is often a problem at or slightly above ground level, usually as a result of gradual deterioration of the mortar. Neglect and numerous freeze-thaw cycles cause further deterioration; eventually partial or complete restoration is the only alternative to demolition and replacement.

A recent project undertaken by Green Mountain Masonry was the restoration of the stone buttresses at ground level of the Rutland, Vermont, Methodist Church. This project involved dismantling and rebuilding virtually all the stone buttresses that surround the church, which is located at 73 Williams St, Rutland, VT 05701. In addition, the 45 degrees; corner buttresses at either side of the Chestnut Street gable were rebuilt and the pre-cast concrete copings were repaired (as opposed to restored). Please see the slideshow gallery named "Stone Restoration" which depicts work on the "Methodist Church column repair." (When you arrive at the slideshow - click the small "gallery box" icon on the lower left side of the slideshow frame. You can then choose individual galleries from there.)

Masonry Rehabilitation
This is a term that implies a change, perhaps due to changing needs or use. Floor plans and structural members may be relocated or rebuilt. Masonry rehabilitation may involve something like a few window openings being added or bricked up; it may involve applying a whole new facade because of inadequate anchoring or simply a desire for a different architectural look. Many national store chains have a distinctive masonry material that is a kind of corporate architectural trademark for them and these companies such as Home Depot or Wal-Mart will go to a great deal of trouble and expense in order to "get their look" in the instance of rehabilitating an otherwise appropriate building.

In the case of changing needs or improving traffic flow, a recent project undertaken by Green Mountain Masonry was the installation of a new door opening and door at Two Brother's Tavern in Middlebury, Vermont. The door was installed in order to facilitate access to a terrace. The project was complicated by the fact that the building is not only on the Historic Register, but is also located in the Historic District of the town. We needed to focus not only on the engineering of the door opening being in a 16" thick wall but the resulting aesthetic look as well. Nevertheless, this project would be termed rehabilitation, not a restoration due to the fact that the door opening did not originally exist when the building was new.

Masonry Repair
Generally, masonry repair implies masonry maintenance. Aside from the completion of normal punch-list items at or near the end of new construction projects, brick and stone structures require periodic maintenance in order to avoid large costs resulting from small problems. I suspect that chimney repair is the most common masonry repair, at least here in Vermont, where most homes rely on burning some kind of fuel in a furnace or wood stove which is vented to the outside by means of a (masonry) chimney. Each type of fuel places its own set of stresses on a chimney; hence the chimney should be built or retrofitted with a specific fuel in mind. With proper maintenance a chimney can last indefinitely. A qualified person should inspect chimneys, especially wood stove or fireplace chimneys at least annually.

Another problem that can occur in chimneys is that they can leak. I was called to a private residence in Dorset, VT where there was a leakage problem in the chimney. It looked as though there were some problems with the flashing, but upon closer inspection discovered that the chimney had become home to a large colony of honeybees and the stuff staining the interior woodwork wasn't rainwater- it was a mixture of honey and condensate which formed on the inside of the chimney and then worked its way to the inside of the house due to sloppy stonework. If the reader is interested in learning more about chimney repair. please see the article devoted entirely to that subject elsewhere on this website.

The second most common type of masonry repair in our area is tuck-pointing, or "pointing up". While it is quite common for a homeowner or handyman to undertake a small project of this sort (usually in the most visible location in need of repair), it is seldom that good results are obtained. Masonry repair of brick and stonewalls requires training and techniques learned over a period of time, usually in combination with working as a mason or mason's apprentice on new construction projects.

Additionally, in the case of assessment of cracks in mortar joints an engineer or home inspector will (or should) defer to the opinion of a mason experienced in such matters. Some cracks can be successfully repaired in a simple and straightforward manner; others are the result of periodic movement such as frost heaves and may require a more elaborate solution.

(We will be adding to this database of articles, so check back for more informative details regarding your next brick, step, or stone project.)