Monthly Archives: October 2010

Mending more masonry

I have learned a lot about masonry and its inner workings. One lesson I took home is how cement parging can ruin common brick.

Cement parging traps moisture, which then begins to deteriorate the brick over time, because it cannot dry out. The deterioration may manifest itself through freeze-thaw damage or spalling caused by efflorescence.

That is the theory and it makes sense. But I had the privilege, if you will, of witnessing the theory confirmed on our own building.

I wrote about moisture damage in the basement that was associated with the exterior cement parging, which led to the need for re-pointing. That parging covered the bottom two feet of the east and west elevations.


The darker spots on the parging are evidence of trapped moisture. The brick above the parging deteriorated under the pressure of moisture from below moving up and dissipating outwards.

We are about to install Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) insulation in the basement and there is a level of urgency to get the masonry moisture problems fixed. In short, the parging had to go … and we began to chip away.


Based on the uncovered deteriorated brick, we concluded that the parging was installed to cover it up minor damage. It’s one of those ‘sweeping it under the carpet’ things.

That brick elevation is three wythe wide at the bottom of the building. The inner wythe, facing the basement, was recently repaired and the middle wythe is still intact. The outer wythe needs our attention.

Ironically, the brick repair needed before the parging was applied was relatively minor. Now, with the extended deterioration, we have to replace the entire out layer or wythe.


I initially intended to leave this job for next year. But looking at the mess day in and day out became unbearable. I purchased good quality reclaimed common brick, but rather than having fun replacing the brick myself, I opted for enjoying the brick being replaced by someone else. I found a mason that had time to squeeze us in before it gets too cold.

With the intent to restore moisture balance and drying mechanisms in the mass assembly (the masonry wall), it is important to keep an eye on the following factors:

  • Match the original mortar (in our case Type O mortar)
  • Make sure that all bricks get thoroughly soaked in water to get the best bond to the mortar. If the brick is too dry, it will suck the moisture out of the mortar, which compromises its bonding strength and caused small fissures through which water may enter the assembly.

We are happy with the results. The building looks again like a house and not any more like a crumbling shack. And believe me; I now sleep much better at night.


Reuse reflection

Right or wrong, I feel that I own bragging rights to the amount of reclaimed lumber we’ve used on our sustainable rehab.

In all, I estimate that I purchased about 5% at a regular home improvement store or lumber yard. Those were specialty items, such as cedar trim or treated lumber. The remaining 95% is all reclaimed, whether from our deconstruction process or purchased.

So – how did it work out – the handling of reused framing material? Well, I learned a few things along the way.

  • Always purchase the lumber at least 6 inches longer that what you really need. It is pretty common to have split or perforated ends that you need to cut off. Even if the ends are sound, they may need to be squared off.
  • Working with reclaimed lumber involves a lot of cutting, as the note above implies. It is safe to assume that most pieces require a cut at both ends. Contrast that with new lumber that may not require any cutting at all, such as a pallet of 8 foot studs for an 8 foot wall.
  • Reclaimed lumber is usually carefully de-nailed. Still, it is advisable to watch out for remaining nails, screws and staples. You hit one of those with the circular saw, and you will need to run to get a new saw blade.
  • Pay attention to the lumber dimensions. Take studs for instance. Today they measure 1 ½ by 3 ½ inches. Reclaimed studs from older buildings are typically bigger. I have found true 2 by 4 inch old growth, as well as 1 ¾ by 3 ¾ and 1 5/8 by 3 5/8 inch studs. It’s a good idea to match material dimensions.


  • I always check to see if the material is bent or warped. That is for salvaged materials as well as for new studs.

Some of the older studs are good quality, hard wood with dense growth rings. The disadvantage, if you will, is that they are also heavier to haul around. Some of the material is so hard that it is difficult to sink a framing nail or even a screw without pre-drilling. I think sturdy is the word that I am looking for…

I think it is fair to say that it takes more time to handle and prepare reclaimed lumber. But it doesn’t outweigh the fact that this is material that otherwise would have been destined for the landfill, and you can purchase it for cheap!


Framing frenzy

I got myself some reclaimed lumber by the truckload. Rather than having it sitting in the basement while I dance around the pile like musical chairs, let’s use it and put up some walls.

We got the basement perimeter walls framed out and got somewhat of a start on the interior wall framing. But there is a whole stack of interior framing left to do: The storage rooms, pantry, corridor and bathroom.

I mentioned (at least once) the salvaged framing lumber. But we also got some nice salvaged doors at the ReBuilding Exchange.

Another special piece, for which we had to search a little longer, is the stained glass panel between the bathroom and kitchen. The bathroom has ample light with two windows. We thought we could borrow some of the light for the kitchen, thus the stained glass panel atop the wall between the bathroom and kitchen.


It feels really good to see the garden unit shaping up.


Grinding away…

Our green rehab is going pretty smoothly, with some exceptions. For example, I got into trouble with the basement bathroom floor.

Our plan is to tile the entire bathroom floor and walk-in shower area. The floor in the shower area should pitch to a dedicated floor drain while the rest of the bathroom should pitch to a second floor drain. After some investigating and learning more about the tiling process, I determined that the pitch or slopes towards those two floor drains were insufficient.

If I had been aware of the tiling process at the time of the concrete pour, I could have paid more attention to the floor pitch and avoided the trouble all together. But that train has left the station.

One solution would have been to build up the floor with mortar substrate before tiling until I have the slopes I need. But that would have created an awkward step at the door and would have left me with less than the required seven and a half foot ceiling height.

The only option I have now is to grind down the concrete floor until I have the right slopes. It’s also the most cumbersome, time consuming and dusty option.

I found myself a handheld concrete floor grinder with a diamond blade at a local equipment rental store. It comes with a shop-vac connection to suck up some of the dust, which helps a little.

I got to the floor pitch I need, but next time (if there is a next time) I will take the easy road and make sure to get the correct slopes while the concrete is fresh. That may only take 15 minutes, and not a full day of grinding.

Can you tell that I had a really fun day?