basement brick entry- water elimination?

fausonkMarch 26, 2008

We have a nearly 100 year old row house, and our basement is only about 1/4 above grade. We have steps that go down into a "breezeway"-- about 5' x 18'. This is a brick foundation that creates an entryway/storage area before entering the finished basement part of the house. It is directly under our front porch.

We just tore down the wood paneling that was covering up this brick foundation, and intended to repoint the bricks. Our contractor, however, said that while he's happy to repoint it for us, he suggests that the water that seeps into the ground (from rain, watering the lawn, etc), is going to still come seeping through the mortar, deteriorating the mortar that they put in. He recommends just covering up the brick foundation with a 1/2" layer of cement. I'm not so sure this is a good idea either, though... wouldn't the water still come through the mortar, hit the cement and stream down, weakening the foundation because there's no place for the moisture to escape?

Can anyone advise us what is the best solution to this problem?



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No offensive, but I think this contractor is setting you up for more problems than you might already be facing. First off, does this contractor know about working with historic brick and masonry? Using modern day techniques will old brick and mortar will be a problem in itself. Secondly, brick is meant to "breath". Covering it with cement will very likely introduce water problems inside your basement.

I live in a 90 year old brick bungalow. A previous owner enclosed our steps, like the ones you describe. This brilliant previous owner poured concrete over the old bottom step/platform. We have water leakage every time it rains and it comes from between the 2 surfaces. Getting this fixed is on our to do list.

Part of what should determine your best solution is knowing what the soil is like in your area. I would not proceed with the guy you've spoken to so far, and instead do some research for historical restoration contractors in your area as well as structural engineers who know the soil in your area. What part of the country are you in? I can recommend folks in the Chicago and Minneapolis areas, if that helps.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 6:40AM
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No offense taken. We're in DC. Actually, we're all very familiar with historic mortar and how to work with old delicate bricks and using the right mortar without all the portland cement in it, which we know would crush the bricks.

Why is our soil type important? It's got a lot of clay.

I thought that covering up the existing brick with mortar was probably not a good idea, but wondering if you, or anyone, has suggestions on what IS a good idea to do in this case.


    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 11:21AM
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Soil is really important because different types of soil have different drainage capabilities. The soil around us is also very much clay and that means that water doesn't drain well naturally and it definitely drains slowly. Everyone on our street of 1915-1920ish bungalows who has had foundation work done to stop basement leaks has had french drains installed around the perimeter of their homes - to assist with drainage. A landscaper can do that.

You don't mention if you are already having water in your basement. If you are, another solution is a drain tile around the inside perimeter of your basement. There are speciality companies who do this work around us, but I don't know what type of company they'd be considered.

And then there is always the basic regrading of the land around your home so that the earth is higher at the foundation and slopes down away from it. Gravity will "pull" the water away from your home.

And last of all, our neighbors who still have exposed outdoor stairways have a drain in the center of the very bottom "step" (the platform before you enter the door). Do you have a drain in yours?

Definitely get the tuckpointing done. Could you tell us more about any specific problems that you are having?

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 6:18PM
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We're not really having a specific problem. The breezeway used to get very wet because there were downspout/gutter issues. But those have been resolved. I also regraded the yard last May, so it now does slope away from the house. So it is not an area that is continuing to get wet.

We have in our renovation contract that they are to repoint our whole house, this includes the breezeway. They have done the front and back of the house, and were moving on to the breezeway, which has probably not been touched other than to cover up the bricks with wood paneling, since the foundation was built 95 years ago. The contractor said he's willing to point it up, but is concerned that any water seepage will make us think that he hasn't done a good job in there, and is therefore suggesting to cover it up. I think that is probably a worse way to go since if we get a torrential downpour, water will still likely find a way through the mortar, but will then be stuck behind this wall of cement. At least if water does come through, it could drain through and wouldn't keep the bricks wet (the breezeway does have a drain, so the water won't be coming into the finished part of the basement).

So just was curious whether pointing (doable, but difficult) is the way to go, or if we should consider the layer of cement, or if we should think about something else. No serious water issues with this part of the house.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 8:59PM
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I say skip the concrete. Post over on the forums at There's loads of other knowledgeable old homeowners out there who will be able to help, too.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2008 at 5:58AM
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We have a similar issue - almost all the back wall and side walls of the basement (is on same level as kitchen and living room but they aren't buried - were on a hill) are taking on water from the hill behind our house. We're thinking of diging up around the back of the house to install an outdoor french drain, but digging by hand 6 feet or so down is not an easy thing to do. We can't use any mechanical stuff because the weight might cave in the basement wall. It's old clay tile - which I know won't last forever with the water problem, although it's lasted so far.

We already have an internal sump that takes care of some of it, but the damage is done and we have a mold problem in our basement. It has been there a while, and the PO painted over it so we had no idea walking into the sale there was a problem. It showed up about 2 weeks after living there - and we have no recourse on it either.

For now we run a dehumidifyer which takes care of some of it. They also apparently used concrete around most of the wall they could get to from what I've seen digging around the house trying to get a better look at things.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2008 at 9:33PM
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Consult a LOCAL preservation expert. This can be free from your local preservation society, a local university or similar. The advice may even be free.

(You could also consult your local county extension and see if they have any advice about drainage as well. Not every CE does everything.)

Cement is not always a good thing.

I'm oversimplifying here, but a top preservation expert told me that pointing with modern cement is bad: that modern cement is impermeable to water. The water has to go somewhere. So it takes the path of least resistance -- THROUGH the brick. Bye bye brick. But the pointing looks Fab!

I would definitely not cover the wall in it.

He said he even has to tell this to supposed "experts" sometimes. A lot of people will take your money, do things the way their dad did them, not even mean any harm, and not see the damage 10 years later. You'll just assume the brick was "too old".

But ask a preservation expert.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2008 at 5:44PM
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