a bulging brick wall & star-shaped bolts!

jaymeguokasMay 9, 2006

I've got a 3 story brick row home, circa 1880, and i recently noticed that the brick facade is bulging slightly, maybe 4-5 inches in the center of the house. I know they used to fix this problem with big star-shaped bolts. I am wondering how to find out if this is necessary, whether there is another solution, and whether these bolts are still used! Any advice would be appreciated...

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The tie rods and star- or s-shaped "washers" were often original measures used to connect the gable walls of masonry structures. The floor joists would hold the bearing walls from spreading, so another way had to be found for the non load bearing walls. I suppose they may have been retrofitted to earlier structures, too.
Four to five inches of bulge must make for some wildness at the wall/ceiling-floor intersection. Do you mean a bow (horizontal plane) rather than a bulge (vertical plane)?

    Bookmark   May 9, 2006 at 10:00PM
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A BULGE or a BOW, I'm not sure... the wall is pretty much where it should be at the top and bottom of the facade, but in the middle of the house (the 2nd floor) it has emerged from where it should be.

The facades of these old houses is a layer of "nicer" (harder, better quality) brick, that is "plugged in" to another interior brick wall every foot or so. When I took some moulding off a window, I could see that the plugs have pulled out of their sockets, and debris (mortar, brick dust) has tumbled down inside this gap to fill the bottom.

I should probably talk to an engineer to see if the bulge/bow is a structural problem. Ive heard these star bolts can fix it, but there is NO info online. Thanks for your help!

    Bookmark   May 10, 2006 at 12:05PM
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Those bolts were also added as protection from earth quakes. For example, all the old houses in Charlston, SC had these bolts installed after a large earthquake destroyed parts of the city.

I would definitely talk to an engineer. Even if they still use these bolts, I doubt its a DIY. Is there a possibility that the wall could fall? You may want to tape of the area until help arrives. Last thing you need is your house to fall on someone. That only works out in movies;)

Also, could this be water related? Did you recently treat the brick with a non-breathing product?

    Bookmark   May 12, 2006 at 7:43AM
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They are not actualy bolts at all, but the load spreading washers of tie rods that run all the way across the building from exterior wall to exterior wall.
It is a lot of work to install them if the ceilings are intact.
The rods are typically about 3/4 inch diameter and up and both the rod diameter and washer size need to be designed based on the anticipated loads.
They are not very effective at pulling bulges in walls back in.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2006 at 8:54AM
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The house was painted red years ago, maybe this paint is preventing the bricks from breathing? Also, there is an area under a window that needs re-pointing, its one of the many things on my list of things to do!

It sounds like once I deal with these moisture problems, all I can do is hope the wall don't fall down. Maybe I should talk to an engineer,

    Bookmark   May 12, 2006 at 10:46AM
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If the inner and outer wythes of brick are separating, you must have a world of woes. This will never happen under any normal circumstances. I can only imagine it taking place due to lots of water repeatedly entering the wall and freezing/expanding apart. The affected section will have to be relaid. I have worked with only one mason in 23 years who could or would attempt this. Unfortunately for us all, he died a fews years ago.
Good luck finding a mason with the confidence and ability to undertake your repair.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2006 at 7:06PM
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Is there an update on the bulging brick wall ?

I'd like to add to the advice strongly suggesting an inspection by a structural engineer asap. Around here when that happens, the building is vacated, the street is closed down, a sidewalk shed is put up, and the brick facade is replaced. It's not something to fool with.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2006 at 5:05PM
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We see this all the time in Philadelphia, mostly in 2 and 3 sty homes c.1900 and earlier.
The bolts are usually a "retrofit" when the wall starts moving. The wall generally looks "pregnant", but if you like we could call it a *pot-belly* as easily.
They drill back usually 5-6 joist, and as someone earlier said, fit the holes with about 3/4" all-thread, and then effectively bolt the Facade to teh joist.
Talk to a Mason and he'll tell you it may work, but it is only a sure fix to hold the surrounding 16 brick as they say.
Cause: Usually the foundation of that curtain wall has moved.
Sure Fix: Remove wall, support foundation, build new wall.
Sorry, but that's the truth of the matter.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2006 at 4:08PM
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Interesting thread.

The lime mortar (pre-1920 or so), as opposed to portland cement/lime mortar, is subject to water dissolving the lime, weakening the mortar, and letting it lose both compressive strength and bond strength. Foundation subsidance may also be found to blame.

We recently pulled a two-story row home back 2 1/2 inches (Wilmington, DE 2006). The rear wall (parallel to the joists) had bowed (vertically and horizontally; when the middle moves, it buckles in both planes). We formed a gridwork of 2x8 planks backed by 4x4 posts; cable come-alongs were attached to the 4x4s, and anchored through the stairwell inside with other timbers.

The wall bulge (or bow) was reduced to less than one inch. Old lime mortar falling into the void between the wythes (the brick layers) prevented the reduction all the way to plumb. Be sure to remove any impedance between the framing and the inner wythe (i.e., flooring, studs, drywall, etc.) before pulling in the brickwork.

Cracks were then ground out to 1 1/2 inch depth. These were repointed. Buckled sections over two arches were pulled and rebuilt.

Then, 10" diameter "star" plates were installed on 7/8" all-thread going back thru 4 3x10 rough-sawn joists, and washered and nutted. Solid bridgings (cats) were installed between the joists. This combined the strength of the joists; essentially letting a 12x10 framing member, and the yellow pine floor plane, to resist brick movement.

Finally, the cables were released and the "stars" held the wall.

A structural engineer should make an initial analysis and recommendation. On this house, the first engineer said that he would not approve bolts. Rather, it would cost $8,000 to demo and rebuild. A second engineer was called, and he approved the bolts as the only cost-effective manner in which to tackle the problem. It cost $2000.

When properly installed, these bolts prevent the brick facing from sagging toward the street. The framing plane and flooring create a structural anchor. The bricks can't move without dragging the framing out into the street.

We (my father, and then myself) have performed this operation since the 1960s in West Chester, PA and surrounding communities, and in Wilmington, DE. This method has stopped further movement and preserved the structural integrity of many buildings. Star bolting has been proven for over 100 years (either as original design, or as retrofit) to maintain structural integrity.

Finally, the bolts may be round, oval, square, diamond, or star shaped. They should be at least 1/4" plate, and at least large enough to hold against at least 6 or 8 bricks. Those bricks than apply drag to other bricks around them, etc. A 20 ft wide house face will usually require 3 bolts per floor.

Hope this helps.

A real mason and preservation technician.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2007 at 4:09PM
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Uncabilly, I don't want to hijack this thread. Since we are talking about mortar, can anyone discuss the proper lime mortar mix for old brick. Many of the guys who call themselves masons here in my town, do not seem to understand my desire for a mix that is appropriate for the hardness, or lack of, for my bricks. They also apply their mix and leave a wide and sloppy line. I keep thinking I could do a job that looks like that. I want to pay someone to do a job which looks more like the original line. Any suggestions?

We also see homes here with wood siding which looks like stone. One of these homes has a dramatic "bow" to the front of it while its "twin" does not have the problem. I shudder when I look at it and wonder what it must be doing to the entire wall from ceiling and windows to flooring. I know I would be losing sleep over it.

Good luck with the fix and please let us know what the final outcome is.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2007 at 6:16AM
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Please get in touch with me, it sounds like you can solve my problem for a reasonable price. I am in Philadelphia, and all the masons I talk to want to rebuild the wall. I would MUCH rather pull it back into place and secure it there. Send me an email: jayme@fastmail.us


    Bookmark   January 22, 2007 at 10:33AM
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I sure agree with Uncabilly. I live in a nearly two hundred year old brick home and it has been retrofitted with this system, long before we owned the home and that's been around thirty years. It's a pretty common site in old brick homes around here and yes the shifting and bulging may be due to subsidence. Can you say expansive clay soils? We do not, nor ever have had a water problem.

Whomever did this in our home, and I suspect many years back it was a mason, knew what they were doing. In Europe they call a home like mine a "character home". Not a window is square, nor any two of them the same size. But, when I went to an engineering school many years ago, we had the same system on our civil engineering building. LOL. Embarrassing, yes? And it was a newer building. Can you say earthquakes?

I suspect this old house will be around another couple hundred years when many of the newer ones are history.......not to say I'd trust all old brick buildings. So, I do recommend you get somebody who knows what they are doing.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2007 at 10:50PM
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Thanks for all the advice. I was actually losing sleep over this, then I realized that its not going to fall down anytime soon. Actually, what put it in perspective was noticing the problem in a lot of other row homes, sometimes worse off.

It IS something I need to deal with though. Again, Uncabilly, please contact me. It sounds like you are a professioinal who has dealt with this before and you are in my area. Thanks,

    Bookmark   January 23, 2007 at 9:33AM
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Check out a hi tech masonry stabilization product called 'Stablwall' - it can be used on bulges/bows up to 2' and is made from high tensile carbon fiber fabric that is epoxied diectly on to the wall. It holds the brick together as a cohesive unit & can be homeowner installed. It's been used commercially for years.

Here is a link that might be useful: Stablwall

    Bookmark   February 12, 2007 at 10:39PM
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That looks like it is for foundation walls, whereas this is a 3-story exterior wall, so i don't think Stablwall is my solution. I have done all kinds of renovation work, but the procedure Uncabilly recommends doesn't sound like a D.I.Y repair! I am hoping to find a professional who will attempt this pulling-back-in-place of the facade, and anchoring it with bolts. Here is a photo, though it is hard to see the problem unless you are at an angle:
(you can see the house to the right has star-bolts)

    Bookmark   February 13, 2007 at 11:11AM
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The photo helps considerably. A description of where the bulge is located would further assist in the discussion.

From your photo, I make the following observations:
1. there appears to be a problem with water infiltration apparent at all the sills and some of the lintels.
2. The visible portion of the foundation, albeit a small portion, appears to be sound (i.e. no great movement), though the paint and any patches may be hiding some structural cracks.
3. There appears to be some open joints below the middle story right window, where the mortar has been lost.
4. Spalling is minimal.

My personal opinion from the limited information in your postings and in the photo:
1. Since it is so widespread, I highly suspect the source(s) of water infiltration may include where the roof meets the top of the wall, or at the top of the parapet, rather than only localized leaks at each and every window. The leak(s) may not be very big and may look insignificant. However, a small leak into the gap between the wythes has a difficult time drying up between rainfalls.
2. Your description of a 4-5 inch bulge coupled with separated wall ties (i.e. plugs) indicates that this is serious. As others noted, do not take lightly. Partial collapses do happen, often without notice, and your facade is in the immediate vicinity of the public.
3. Removing the wall and rebuilding is a drastic solution that is sometimes necessary, perhaps seldom. Unless your house has significant value, the cost may be hard swallow, especially if the problem extends into the soil, but you must also consider liability. From the photo, I am not sure your facade falls into this category. I'd only let a structural engineer reach that conclusion.
4. The bulge may be due to freeze-thaw cycles, as Sombreuil Mongrel suggested, and may be due to coursing water weakening the lime mortar, as Uncabilly suggested. If water is infiltrating, then I think both are contributing to the problem.
5. Given your description of debris filling the widened space between the inner and outer brick wythes, this condition may prevent pulling the wall back in, depending on the proximity of the bulge to the collected debris.
6. Soil problems(expansive soils, subsidence, differential settlement, etc.) seem less likely due to the condition of the visible portion of the base of the facade. But, these cannot be ruled out by this photo.
7. The only reasonable way of determining if the problem is due to (a) soils beneath the foundation, (b) some other structural problem, (c) water infiltration, or (d) something else is to hire an experienced structural engineer.
8. If you have the wall rebuilt, you are likely to be disappointed with the result, with heavy joints that due to joint width, profile, and cement-rich Type N mortar will scream "mortar joint!" There are pictures on the web of some of these aesthetic disasters adjoining structures with original masonry. I doubt that contractors selling a rebuilt wall have any intention of providing an historic restoration. Repair and restoration is indeed difficult.
9. The discolored paint is probably more of a symptom than a cause. The paint is holding moisture in, which is detrimental to most brick. Spalling is a good indicator of the problem (which is not visible in the photo, maybe hidden by the paint). The moisture retained by the paint probably has less effect than the infiltration itself. Regardless, I would remove the paint.

My advice:
1. Determine the cause of the bulge before proceeding, or you will likely repeat the process.
2. Hire a licensed Structural Engineer who has significant experience with old masonry structures. What do I mean by significant experience? The engineer should have 20+ projects of varying size and complexity all relating to Pre-1930 masonry construction, some Pre-1900. Of these, 5 or more should be similar to your project in respect to (a) time period, (b) location and (c) materials. Proceed stepwise with the engineer to minimize costs.
3. Hire an experienced mason who has direct experience in old brick masonry construction. You already have the skill to discern - you identified Uncabilly as one of them. Discuss materials and methods, but don't let them get by on just talk. Ask for references and inspect their work in person. Look for carefully-tooled thin joints, matching courses, matching mortar, clean work with infrequent evidence of mortar smeared on the brick faces or the subsequent muriatic acid and wire brush cleaning. Your mason should have a source of old reclaimed brick (old brick dimensions are different than modern brick), appropriate sand, and should have experience mixing mortar from the base components of sand, lime and Portland cement.
4. Grab a few chunks of loose mortar (from the debris, not from the wall) and have it tested for composition. Check with local historical associations for information on mortar. I found a 2-page brochure produced by Montana Tech on "Repairing and Maintaining Historic Brick in the Butte Area," and another produced by the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association on paint removal.
5. Plan the work - all the details. Develop consensus between the homeowner, contractor and (if consulted) engineer before proceeding. Success is rarely an accident. If you start before you are ready, you are less likely to be happy with the result.
6. Be very careful about removing the paint. An entire subject on its own. As a general rule, use no power anything. If it's fast, it's probably a bad idea long-term.

General thoughts:
1. Three important issues with new vs. old masonry is composition of mortar, joint width, and joint profile (tooling). Mortar was discused earlier. Masons today use techniques that improve productivity. Fat joints are fast to lay. Curved recessed joint profiles are fast to tool. Thin mortar beds and raked profiles are time-consuming (these were at one time considered superior). Many historical renovations in Milwaukee clearly juxtapose old vs. new brickwork. I assume this is true elsewhere.
2. Good contractors are very hard to find. Why? Most of us choose the lowest bid. I'll bet dollars to donuts that the low bid usually walks away with the most profit. He undercuts the quality contractor's bid by 10%, but spends 20% less on man-hours and materials. Why does this happen? We live in a Wal-Mart society where we drive 30 miles to save 25 cents on a bottle of shampoo. Too often, we look only at the initial cost, and don't realize that the 30-yr rated roof lasts just 15. If prompted to think long-term, we use the excuse of moving within 10 years. Slowly, we edge out the quality tradesmen and more importantly, their kids don't follow in their footsteps.

Sorry it's so long. I hope it's useful.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 1:51AM
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I am considering buying a house in Philadelphia with a similar problem and am having difficulty locating a structural engineer or dependable contractor in the area with expertise in this matter. Does the City dept. of inspections provide any info? I tried to email Jayme, but the mail is being returned???

    Bookmark   June 26, 2007 at 6:07AM
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Hello Jackcob, Jayme, and others:

I just had the same experience in trying to email Jayme. It's no wonder that he/she didn't hear from uncabilly!

I have the same question, how to find a reliable engineer and or contractor in Philadelphia. I would like to get/stay in contact in order to share information on the bulging brick problem. (The post by civil_mike_o is very good, but he's apparently not near Philadelphia.)

    Bookmark   July 2, 2007 at 7:16AM
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Hi, Jayme here!
Sorry the emails were bounced back, that email address is dead. I actually got a bunch of email about this post already, lots of GardenWeb members with similar concerns in Philadelphia!! who knew.

My update (and THANKS civil mike for the information):
the wall has NOT fallen down (nor has the problem worsened in the past 2 years)
 I am still searching for a qualilfied mason to repoint and possibly install star bolts
 I bought the house on the right of mine, which DOES have star bolts. The ceilings are gone, so you can see them extending thru the joists, pretty cool! Im glad they're there!

If anyone finds a good Phila. area mason for this job, please lemme know, cheers...

    Bookmark   July 2, 2007 at 3:31PM
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It is Spring 2008 and I am looking for a mason who will travel to Philadelphia to install star bolts on the front of my 3-story twin in West Philadelphia. It is a stone face - not a brick face. At present, when it rains water is leaking in through the stone face and coming down through the ceiling of the front entryway.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 2:06PM
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Hello - the bulk of this post is older, but hopefully you guys can still give me some advice. We recently moved to Chicago and are renting a house - 2 days after we moved in we noticed a bulge in one of the walls. We own our house in San Francisco, and we've done a lot of work on it, but it's a framed house, so we have no experience with brick. My dad's a structural engineer in Eastern Europe - I sent him the pictures, and he said: break your lease/move out. Now, he has lots of experience, but might not be relevant.

The house was built in 1890, and several parts were added/remodeled since, as late as 2005. We contacted the property management company, and they said they'll pass the info to the owner, but there's been no response for several days. Does this look dangerous? Should we move out?

    Bookmark   September 11, 2011 at 6:10PM
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It looks like a brick veneer wall; and it looks like it's getting ready to fall off. The owner could face a huge liability issue when it does, whether he was warned or not. Unless he fixes it right away, heed the words of your father.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2011 at 8:10AM
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I would call a city building inspector as well, they may be able to force him to fix it, or else list the place as uninhabitable. At the very least, they would give you adequate documentation to back you up when you break your lease.

Check with the Chicago tenant resource center - I think it's Tenants Rights? They can also advise you, and give the correct folks to contact.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2011 at 7:12PM
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uncabilly, please contact me. we need work done or referrals to professionals in Vermont for this type of work on a 3000 sq ft federal!!

    Bookmark   May 5, 2013 at 10:39AM
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uncabilly, also would love to hear from you, i live right in your area...also looking for references on my home. thx :)

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 9:39PM
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Is anybody still following this spring? Are any interested parties aware of grout injection and stabilization of old masonry walls?

    Bookmark   August 26, 2013 at 8:41PM
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If you have a new question start a new thread. No one wants to read through a 7 year old thread to find your question.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2013 at 9:21PM
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