Signs of Impending Masonry & Mortar Failure

There is no substitute for a thorough and professional inspection; however, we encourage Burlington and Oakville masonry property owners to inspect their buildings regularly and check for signs of deterioration.

The masonry joints are a common starting point, as deteriorating mortar and gaps between the masonry units are easily visible and indicative of the need for maintenance and restoration. If the bricks have started cracking and damage or deterioration of the outside bricks is visible, it is highly recommended that you call a professional for Oakville and Burlington masonry restorations immediately – this is a clear indicator that repairs have been neglected for an extended period of time.

We also recommend scanning the building interior: cracking plaster on the walls, deformed edges along doors and windows, and moisture spots on the ceilings can often be traced down to masonry related issues. Maintenance of a masonry structure and its components is a preventative measure that yields significant long-run cost savings – we echo the advice of experts around the world that masonry building owners in Burlington and Oakville conduct regular and thorough inspections of their structures.

We are masons that have been serving the Hamilton, Burlington and Oakville regions for over 15 years with a code of conduct that is centered around the preservation and restoration of Ontario’s masonry heritage. We practice what we preach, and encourage our neighboring citizens to select masonry specialists that not only operate in accordance with the provincial building codes, but with experience in a sound craft and a love for the art of masonry in Oakville and Burlington.

Masonry Restoration and Repointing

As Canadians, we place considerable value and importance on heritage and masonry buildings in our country. Disappointingly, the same values are not always used to judge the work and quality of masons in our region, and due to the unregulated nature of the industry, repairs are often completed without adequate skill and regard for the underlying structure and its proprietor.

Our everlasting view on the matter persists: we have a fiduciary duty to the owners of Oakville and Burlington’s masonry buildings, and to the art of masonry as it has been practiced for thousands of years. As experienced masons – based out of the Hamilton, Burlington and Oakville regions – we have a responsibility to restore the historic and contemporary masonry structures which were built using skills refined over centuries of experimentation and tradition.

Repointing and Restoration

As with all other construction types, all masonry will eventually deteriorate. Points particularly susceptible to deterioration are located at the mortar joints – this is the sole reason why repointing masonry units with appropriate mortar is one of the most important features in a successful restoration. Finding the appropriate mortar can require considerable experience and industry know-how; even so, contracts are often rewarded to the lowest bidder.

To the residents of Burlington and Oakville, we stress the importance of repointing and it’s recognition as a technically demanding procedure, with considerations that include but are not limited to mortar that is: no stronger than needed; resistant to freeze and thaw cycles; with texture and color that match the existing mortar; and applied using a refined technique. Full contact between the existing mortar and the masonry units is absolutely essential in preventing water from infiltrating gaps and mortar must be selected with the worst possible environmental circumstances in mind. Our country’s unique and high varied climate often results in temperature fluctuations which catalyze the expansion and contraction of units, leading to cracking.

Criteria used by property owners and managers to evaluate masonry specialists in Burlington and Oakville must be stringent if we are to preserve our existing masonry buildings and our heritage.

Concrete vs. Clay Bricks

Clay Brick vs. Concrete Block

When compared to other forms of construction, the durability and resistance of masonry structures is seldom questioned. Masonry systems have stood the test of time, and rightfully earned a reputation for resilience against the elements. Considering even man-made perils, such as fire, masonry still consistently outperforms all other constructions; resisting against outright destruction which is characteristic of wood frame buildings, and outlasting the warping and ultimate collapse of steel-skeleton structures. Notwithstanding these irrefutable benefits, a masonry structure’s environmental and mechanical resistance will naturally vary and depend on the construction method and the materials employed.

Clay Brick

Undoubtedly one of the most fundamental and durable building materials ever invented, clay bricks have been used in construction for thousands of years. The method of construction and materials have been perfected over centuries, and the durability of clay brick is dependent on the following five factors:

1. The quality of the raw/fabrication material;
2. The manufacturing process and firing condition;
3. The resultant properties of the hardened brick;
4. The conditions to which the bricks were exposed since construction; and
5. The rate of maintenance and repair.

The naturally-occurring raw material known as raw clay consists of a complex mixture of minerals in varying proportions. Production begins with selection of the clay materials and ends with the firing of the clay units; with mixing, molding and drying occurring in between. Optimal proportions of sand, clay and water along with the drying and firing temperature are integral to the quality of the hardened brick.

The clay’s composition and the manufacturing process significantly affect the dimension and distribution of the brick’s pores which has a significant impact on its durability. Consequently, treatments to enhance durability after construction is reduced to acting on external conditions – as changing the brick’s composition post-production is not possible. Preventing the invasion of water in to the brick’s mass, controlling moisture and managing the brick’s salt content are the main methods of managing the brick’s exposure to harmful conditions and increasing its durability.

Concrete

Unlike clay brickwork, concrete block masonry is a relatively recent development which started being used as a building material in the mid-19th century. Concrete block walls provide sound structural resistance along with thermal and acoustic insulation all while accommodating for fast and easy installations – facilitated by the block’s precise unit measurements and modular characteristics.

Concrete blocks are composed of Portland cement, aggregates and water with production being highly automated in large industrial plants. The mix of materials is placed in a metallic mold, vibrated in to shape, and cured at an average temperature of 70°C for up to 18 hours. The durability of concrete block masonry is less dependant on externalities, and more on design and construction errors. While concrete can fall susceptible to things like efflorescence (the migration of salts from the interior to the surface material of the masonry) the effects are mainly aesthetic, and without compromise to structural integrity. Furthermore, pathologies can be prevented by deploying low-absorption blocks with high compressive strength and rebar protection.

While both concrete blocks and clay bricks can serve similar functions, skilled masons understand the inherent strengths and weaknesses which influence the conditions in which they are deployed.

Source: Ghiassi, Bahman, and Lourenc̦o Paulo B. Long-Term Performance and Durability of Masonry Structures: Degradation Mechanisms, Health Monitoring and Service Life Design. Woodhead Publishing, 2019.

Masonry in Hamilton

Along with Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Ontario is one of the original provinces, and in 1867 it formed part of the federated colony which was to become a sovereign nation. Although not known for its architectural qualities and still quite young compared to it’s global, sovereign confederates, Ontario is home to some of Canada’s oldest and most unique structures.
Among these historic and celebrated structures is Dundurn Castle, the 18,000 square-foot neoclassical mansion located on York Boulevard in Hamilton Ontario. The castle was raised over a period of 3 years -ending in 1835 – and its construction costs totaled $175,000; equivalent today to over $6,000,000. Established at the former site of a British military encampment, the castle’s heritage and stunning masonry façade overlooks the city of Hamilton, while the back graciously faces Burlington Bay. Hamilton’s masonry marvel is situated on grounds which feature many historically and architecturally significant structures; their heritage value lying in their Italianate, Gothic revival and Classical style design and in the prominent politician and businessman, Sir Alan Napier MacNab for whom they were built. The prominent and picturesque qualities of the buildings and landscape include the 19th century front entrance gates which were originally imported from England and the stone pillars which were cut from the Dundas Mountain. Purchased by the city of Hamilton in 1900 and receiving a significant investment for the renovation of its brick construction, the castle’s halls and rooms along with their characteristic panoramic views are now open to the public.

Hamilton’s ancient architectural implications extend to the English Gothic style St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church: designed by one of the founders of the Canadian architectural profession, William Thomas.  Receiving his architectural training in England, the Anglo-Canadian architect was renowned for designing some of the finest decorated Gothic Revival architecture in Canada. St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church – erected over the years from 1854 to 1857 – boasts a spire that now towers over neighboring structures at 180 feet, and the church holds the title for the highest steeple sculpted entirely out of stone in Canada. Features like the cut-stone masonry and meticulously-proportioned buttresses which reinforce the corners of the tower contribute to preserving its provincial and municipal heritage.  With most of the church’s grey limestone being sourced from Hamilton’s quarries, it is regarded as one of Hamilton’s finest masonry buildings, and was federally designated as a National Historic Site in Canada.

Hamilton’s lands bear some of Ontario’s richest stone-cut masonry formations, dating back to the early days of Canadian settlement, and confederation. With many locations being designated as National Historic Sites, the city has dedicated considerable resources to maintain, repair and restore its historically significant masonry structures.

The History of Masonry & Notable Masonry Structures – Part 1

The art of masonry dates back to the earliest moments in human civilization, when out of need, man sought to supplement the rare, naturally-occurring caves with artificial structures created from piles of stone. The natural availability of stones has been responsible for their early use and contribution to the oldest known structures in human history. This early form of construction was comprised of dry masonry rubble with stones of various sizes being stacked on top of each other to create walls; smaller stones were used to fill empty voids, with mud sometimes being used to bind the stones together. Over time, bricks were created from local clay and silts – as stones were not always available – and by the 4th millennium BC, ancient civilizations including the Mesopotamian people, were constructing palaces and temples of stone and sun-dried brick.

As human civilization continued to advanced, so did ancient masons and their mastering of the art to quarry, cut and hand chisel stone with increasing precision. We need not look far to appreciate the skill and fortitude demonstrated by ancient masons to erect some of the most impressive structures still standing today. The Egyptians, for one, constructed the pyramids at Giza roughly 4,500 years ago in the 3rd millennium, with the largest of the three towering over 480 feet, and built out of an estimated 2.3 million lime stone blocks, each weighing an average 2.5 to 15 tons. They used granite for the construction of the roofs and walls of the burial chambers, and gypsum as mortar, despite it having almost no binding properties.

The choice of masonry materials throughout history has been influenced mainly by availability and prevailing geological formations and conditions of surrounding areas. The ancient Egyptians relied mainly on limestone, sandstone, alabaster, granite and basalt, quarried from the hills along the Nile River, while in the last centuries leading up to the birth of Christ, the Greeks were sourcing materials for mud-brick locally, and also constructing temples of limestone and marble. Among them was the Parthenon, which was completed in 438 BC. With a limestone foundation and a roof covered with large overlapping marble, the Parthenon has been regarded as the finest example of Greek architecture and construction, with many aspects of the structure praised in terms of their precision and innovative design.

Our discussion would not be complete without a mention of the Great Wall of China, the construction of which began roughly around this same time period. Demanding transportation of over 100 million tonnes of brick and a labour force comprised of soldiers, peasants, slaves and animals, it remains today as one of the most impressive feats of engineering and masonry construction. As the longest building on earth (6,350 kilometers) the wall consists of several sections that differ in age and construction method. In its early construction, the wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones and wood; however, during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), brick and stone started to replace tamped earth, due to the superior durability and protection it provided – most of the wall as it remains today dates from the Ming dynasty.
By 117 AD, control of Europe was ceded to the Romans and evidence of their stone, roman brick and concrete engineering remains scattered across their land and once-occupied colonies. Their meticulous masonry techniques can be seen in structures like the Colosseum, which was build mainly of travertine limestone with a core brick. In their ancient brickyards, the Romans produced fired clay bricks – replacing earlier sun-dried mud bricks –which featured longer and flatter dimensions than those of standard modern brick. Roman concrete also differed from modern concrete due to the incorporation of volcanic ash to provide fracture resisting properties, and create what some have called the most durable building material in human history.

Although advancements in masonry have been made throughout the millennia, the basic principles of stone, aggregate or brick combined with a binding material remain the same. It comes to no surprise that the most notable historical structures in human history still standing today were raised out of durable masonry materials. In the next part of our series, we will continue to explore how masonry construction has evolved throughout history, and dive in to the details of the industrial revolution, and its radical effects on the way modern masonry structures are built.

Masonry Structures in Property Insurance

As the most populous province in Canada, Ontarians are known for many things; unfortunately, low insurance costs is not one of them. Experts predict that the long, soft market for property insurance (a period of low insurance rates & premiums) is coming to an end, which will bring about a rise in property insurance rates, and ultimately higher premiums for homeowners across Canada. What can we do as homeowners, and property insurance buyers to lock in our rates with our insurance brokers, and possibly even see rate reductions on our policies?

To evaluate the factors affecting our property insurance premiums, it is first important to understand the underwriting process. Underwriting is the act of signing, and accepting liability, thus guaranteeing payment in the event of a loss or damage to an owner’s property. When an underwriter reviews a property risk – in our case as homeowners, our homes – they look at a number of aspects; among them, is what is called COPE information.

Construction – The construction of the property,e.g. wood frame, steel frame, masonry, etc…

Occupancy – The occupant of the property, e.g. residential or commercial.

Protection – Fire protection factors such as fire hydrants and fire stations.

Exposure – Neighbouring exposures that present their own risk to the property.

In this discussion, we will focus on Construction, and more importantly the class of buildings that are erected out of brick and mortar. This is arguably the most important factor in rating a homeowner’s insurance policy, and masonry structures stand out as some of the most reliable, and fire-resistive components in home building. Combined with a steel frame, and other fire-resistive materials, masonry structures can see significant savings when compared to wood frame properties with siding. It is not unheard of for insurance premiums on masonry built homes to be half of those on wood frame homes for the same insurance coverage.

Among other factors underwriters consider when pricing property insurance policies, are when the home was last updated. Updates to consider are electrical, roof, plumbing and structural tech-wonders. Updating your home to maintain its structural integrity can even qualify you for enhanced coverage, offering protection against a broader range of natural perils and hazards. Fixing chimneys along with porches and walkways can be a unique way to reduce your policy’s liability premium – the premium paid for liability coverage; in which the buyer is protected in case they become liable for a third party’s injury such as a slip and fall. Individuals are often asked to send pictures of their homes to the underwriters for review. A well-managed property, free of clutter and visible damage is likely to sit well with the underwriter’s criteria and be factored favourably in to his pricing.

Preserving the functional integrity of your property and restoring areas where signs of age and damage are apparent, can reduce the premium on your property and liability insurance coverage. Whether you are considering a new build, or contemplating renovating or repairing an existing structure, employing the right masons can have a significant impact on your home’s aesthetics, value and the costs of your insurance policy