Q&A / 

Solid Masonry Construction

I think many of us have days where we hate email. Often I get overloaded but fortunately I get precious gems sent to me on a daily basis. These unique emails pose questions that often uncover long-forgotten topics or building methods. Just today I was asked a question by John and Terry from Chicago. They are building a unique new home that blends old building methods with modern techniques.

Although the exterior of the home is brick, what is behind the brick facade in different places might surprise you. Their new home is a blend of solid masonry construction and brick veneer. John and Terry, though, wanted to know if they are making a mistake with respect to the solid masonry aspect of the construction.

Solid masonry construction in the residential marketplace is, in many regions, a disappearing building technique. Fifty years ago it was a very common practice to have exterior walls that were either solid concrete block or a combination of four inch thick concrete block that had an exterior face of split stone, brick or even stucco. This method of construction was a holdover from 80 to 100 years ago when many brick buildings were built two or three wythes or thicknesses of brick.

In many older buildings, the interior plaster was often applied directly to the masonry walls. Fifty years ago it was common for carpenters to nail furring strips to the masonry. Drywall or plaster was then attached to the wood strips.

The 8 inch or greater thickness of the walls was necessary to support the structure and roof above. Carpenters were part of the building team and often worked side by side with the masons so floor joists could be fit into the structure as it was being built.

But solid masonry was popular when heating fuels were cheap and before air conditioning was in widespread use. Solid masonry is a poor insulator and anyone who lives in an older solid masonry building will readily tell you how cold the exterior walls can get in the dead of winter.

Building a traditional masonry wall is often more costly than building a wood framed wall system. It often takes more time to build a masonry wall than to do the same thing with wood studs. If you compare traditional wood framed walls to traditional solid masonry walls both of the same finished thickness, you will readily discover a wood framed wall offers more insulation.

As construction practices begin to shift, so do the products used in the systems. Brick and concrete block have remained fairly consistent over time, but other building materials have changed radically. For example, standardized windows and doors have, for the most part, transitioned to a wood framed wall standard. The common extension jambs for both windows and doors favor a wall framed with 2x4s or one with 2x6s. You can get windows and doors for solid masonry construction, but the jambs and installation details will be different than if your builder was working with wood walls.

Solid masonry walls can indeed be insulated. There are any number of ways to achieve high insulating values. The outer layer of masonry can be separated from the inner layer by a 2.5 inch space where two-inch thick closed cell foam sheets can be installed. This foam, when combined with additional insulation on the inside of the wall, can create a very energy-efficient structure. But keep in mind that the cost to achieve this system will undoubtedly be higher than stuffing a 2x4 or 2x6 wall stud cavity with fiberglass, cellulose or even spray-foam insulation. You can also rapidly nail one-half inch thick closed cell foam to the exterior wood frame walls to add even more insulation to this wall system.

The bottom line is simply that the widespread use of solid masonry construction had its day in the sun. It still works well in parts of the USA where weather is moderate and solid masonry is favored for all sorts of reasons. For example, wood-consuming termites are so ferocious in the South and Southeast that solid masonry is one of the only acceptable building materials. Unrelenting summer heat in the Southwest makes solid masonry a darling because it mimics the adobe structures native Americans lived in to stay cool. But for many of us, wood framing has become the standard.

Solid masonry will stand the test of time as evidenced by many buildings that are well over one hundred years old. But building a home this way may set you back more money than you care to spend to build this type of legacy. Unfortunately, as with many things, the decision is controlled by money. If you have the money for solid masonry and wish to spend it, then do so with my blessing!


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