Masonry — Preventative Maintenance, Restoration & Tuck Pointing

What are the warning signs of masonry issues? What steps can be taken for preventative maintenance of association masonry? What goes into the repair process? What should an association look for from their masonry restoration contractor? We spoke with Chuck McCrimmon, President of Dakota Evans Restoration, Inc., in Palatine, IL, to answer these questions.

Masonry restoration encompasses much of the basis of a homeowners association and the buildings within its property, including individual units and structures in the common areas. It involves all aspects of the exterior building envelope, including general masonry, caulking, tuck-pointing (i.e. removing and replacing defective mortar joints between bricks), tearing down and rebuilding portions of brick, and exterior coatings and waterproofing. Masonry restoration contractors also perform concrete repair on balconies, parking structures, and other similar structures.

Buildings and structures within associations undergo general wear and tear from the environment, but there are certain things that associations can do as preventative maintenance to prolong the life of their structures. McCrimmon explained that one of the main issues with building deterioration begins with benign neglect, wherein a structure is not necessarily neglected; it just never comes up on the association’s radar to begin with. Limited common elements usually fall prey to benign neglect, especially balconies within fifteen to thirty years old on a building. The potential for failure of a neglected common element forces the association to repair it. Those costs can be astronomical. Working with a masonry contractor to determine which elements are neglected, and which have been over- looked, can help associations to avoid unnecessary costs.

Oftentimes, dissimilar materials are used or there are different building elements, including, for example, limestone meeting brick, or the concrete of a balcony slab abutting with the main unit. When dissimilar mate- rials meet, caulking can be put in that is factory-tested to last up to thirty years, but in an environment such as the Midwest, that lifetime could be reduced to eight to eleven years, a significant difference.

Another warning sign of a maintenance issue is efflorescence, which is a calcium chloride deposit that appears as a white substance on the face of brick. It occurs as a result of moisture seeping into the wall. “Basically, concrete and brick are a hard sponge. The Brick Institute of America has tolerances for how much water the brick and the concrete can take,” McCrimmon said. “It’s when you get beyond those tolerances that it starts to get inside the wall or inside the slab and starts to do some real damage.” Remaining proactive towards the various structures throughout an association can help prevent some of these issues.

How long do different materials generally last? The life of masonry materials depends on the environmental conditions and climate, as well as the quality of installation and the technology used, but they can last for extended periods of time. A concrete slab is best maintained if moisture and calcium chloride are kept out. McCrimmon explained that technological advances have changed the masonry industry and its materials in a big way. New mortar, for instance, is harder than the brick on many historical buildings. If the proper mortar is not used, it can damage the brick. “You have to match the materials to the building that you’re working on. Typically, if it’s maintained, the structure can last indefinitely,” McCrimmon said.

Preventative maintenance, ultimately, is critical to the survival of a building. If a structure is not constructed with skill, it may need work in a mere two to three years. McCrimmon recommended that the property manager or board members have a masonry contractor inspect the association on an annual basis. Some of the managers themselves come from the masonry industry and can even do this walkthrough on their own. They should examine the caulking areas, the flashings, and make sure that everything is still tight. Some companies charge for this, while others do not charge for the initial service. “You’re going to go a long way toward keeping your building in good shape,” McCrimmon said.

Once it is determined that a building needs repair, associations tend to go one of two ways. In the first route, the association hires an engineering firm to draft the specifications and procure the bids. McCrimmon recommended that, if an engineer is indeed hired, they be brought through to the end of the project. Another route is to have the association contact multiple masonry companies. These can be recommended by the board or the management firm. Before hiring a particular company, go through the specifications. McCrimmon also recommended that either the association board or the manager conduct an interview with each company. They should find out the company history, how long they have been in business, what their certifications are, and if they belong to any trade associations. The International Concrete Repair Institute (ICRI) is a good one to look for from a mason. An association should be comfortable with the company that it chooses.

McCrimmon underscored the importance of hiring a contractor with the proper certifications. In Chicago, they must be certified in order to use swing stages and scaffolding. Each worker must wear a badge and have gone through the required classes. “Safety is tantamount to anything,” McCrimmon said.

Safety red flags can include ladders used as working platforms, staff unfamiliar with the working equipment, and workers taking shortcuts rather than doing a thorough job. Associations should look at the condition of vehicles and equipment. Other small things can contribute to a good comfort level with a masonry company, including workers in uni- form or wearing shirts with the company name. These more general items show an attention to professionalism, something that extends to the way the company executes installations and repairs.

Insurance is also a big requirement for buildings in Illinois. For work that goes over three stories, the insurance costs jump astronomically and, therefore, many will not do work above that cut-off point. Associations should make sure that a masonry company doing work above the three- story mark has all of the required insurance.

When comparing bids, most contractors will not differ in a big way. Associations, however, should ask certain questions. What percentage of the wall are they going to work on? How many bricks are they replacing? “If they don’t have quantities in their bid, you should try to get it quantified ahead of time so you can get an idea of the work,” McCrimmon said. Look for quantities and unit costs in a contract. Determine how the con- tractor will handle a situation where something turns out to be more than allowed for in the contract.

Once a contractor has been selected, the association can expect certain things from their work, be it an installation or a repair. Buildings are typically rigged with scaffolding built up from the ground or down from the roof. Ladders should not be used as a work platform because of safety issues, McCrimmon said. In a public workspace, a pedestrian canopy will be constructed. This can be a temporary rolling canopy, about thirty feet long, or a canopy placed along the length of the sidewalk. A sidewalk canopy is considered a specialized trade now and is another cost to the association. Lights on the canopy must be plugged in throughout the night. When work is done in an alley or street, parking may have to be purchased.

McCrimmon stressed the necessity of permits for a range of work. This includes tuck-pointing, sidewalk canopies, environmental permits, and dust permits for the silica put in the air from grinding out mortar. “Along with your permit fees, some contractors, including myself, will use an expeditor so that we can get the permit quicker than in three weeks,” McCrimmon said. Work must be done correctly, safely, and properly, he said.

Project timeframes vary, mainly depending on the weather. Days can be lost to cold weather and precipitation. McCrimmon factored in about one day per week that will be lost due to poor weather.
“After you meet with the contractors and select who you’re going to go with, I think it’s important that, as a project goes on, you at least have a contact person,” McCrimmon said. The manager or board should stay informed of the project’s progress. That also allows them to keep association residents informed. The manager should walk the project with the foreman or contact person throughout the duration of the project.

Tuck-pointing is the removal and replacement of eroded and damaged mortar, which breaks down over time. The mortar is ground back between the bricks to a sound base. This can be done at the bed joint, which is the horizontal joint, or the head joint, which is the vertical joint between the bricks. According to McCrimmon, the rule of thumb to grind back to is 3/4 inch and as much more as is necessary to reach a sound base. “Like anything, you have to start from a sound basis,” McCrimmon said. “You then flush it with water and layer in a new tuck pointing mortar. Again, depending on the age of the structure and the type of structure, the actual type of mortar will be dictated by the structure you’re working on. Then you literally just take the pointing tools and lay in a new bed of mortar and strike it to match the adjacent surfaces.”

Generally, tuck-pointing will not be done on the entire wall, but rather on the defective mortar joints. Tuck-point mortar is not as strong as original mortar, so any remaining mortar without any issues should be left alone.