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Repairing A Brick Foundation

Homes over 100 years old usually have a brick foundation, including brick footers. While a brick foundation has some unique issues, which we’ll talk about, it can often be repaired like any other foundation, using the same repair solutions.

In this article, we’re going to cover what a brick foundation is, common problems with brick foundations, how brick foundations are repaired, and how to prevent problems with your brick foundation.

Photo of a large, brick house

What is a Brick Foundation?

A brick foundation is a foundation built from red brick and mortar. Brick foundations were the most common way of building houses over 100 years ago. Because nobody builds brick foundations anymore, the brick you see on newer homes is merely a veneer. The home’s foundation under the brick veneer is not made from brick.

The bricks used to build brick foundations are made from clay and fired in a kiln to harden them. The bricks used in buildings constructed before 1900 are softer than those used in newer brick buildings because, over time, the kiln firing process improved.

If you own a house with a brick foundation and want to determine the hardness of the bricks, you can use a screwdriver to scratch one of the bricks. The bricks used to build your home are soft if the screwdriver can easily create a mark at least 1/16 inch deep. If the bricks seem impossible to scratch with a screwdriver, they’re hard-fired bricks.

Common Problems With a Brick Foundation

Problems common to brick foundations include:

  • The bricks themselves break down over time – When this happens, you might notice that the surface of the bricks is peeling, cracking, or disintegrating in some way. In extreme cases, the bricks might even turn to powder.
  • The mortar holding the bricks together breaks down over time.
  • The foundation walls bow inward because of hydrostatic pressure. (We talk more about poor drainage and the build-up of hydrostatic pressure in the section on preventing problems with your brick foundation.)
  • Wet basements – Older homes rarely have a drain tile system installed. Therefore, they frequently have wet basements. We’ll talk more about drain tile systems in just a bit.
  • The bricks are wet and deteriorating from excess moisture.
  • The interior or exterior foundation walls are coated with cement or paint, and it’s flaking off. Applying cement or paint to a brick foundation wall can trap moisture in the brick and cause problems.
  • Stair step cracks in the foundation wall are a sure sign of trouble.
  • Efflorescence on foundation walls – This white, powdery substance might look like mold. However, it’s created when moisture in the bricks migrates to the surface and evaporates.
  • The bricks are moldy or have moss growing on them.
  • The bricks look like they’ve been around for a long time. You could call this wear and tear. Nothing lasts forever.
  • There’s evidence of differential foundation settlement (see below graphic)Signs of foundation settlement include – but aren’t limited to – windows and doors that no longer open and close properly, wall cracks, floor cracks, ceiling cracks, uneven floors, torn wallpaper, bowed walls, diagonal cracks from the corners of doors and windows, moldings that are no longer in contact with the wall or ceiling, or chimneys and porches that are pulling away from the rest of the home.

While some problems listed above are unique to brick foundations, others are found in non-brick foundations as well. If you see anything suspicious – even something not mentioned here – contact an experienced foundation repair contractor or structural engineer immediately for an inspection. Foundation problems get worse over time if they’re not repaired. Catching foundation issues early before they become major problems should be every homeowner’s goal because it will save you money on repair costs.

differential settlement infographic

How Are Brick Foundations Repaired?

Below are a few common repair solutions for brick foundations:

  • Mortar deterioration only – If a foundation repair professional has determined that the foundation walls aren’t cracked or bowed, and the only problem is mortar deterioration, cleaning and tucking the mortar joints may be all that’s needed.
  • Wet basement and damp bricks – If the bricks are damp or water has entered the basement, a drain tile system could be installed to control groundwater around the foundation, along with cleaning and tuckpointing. The exterior foundation wall could also be waterproofed. We’ll talk more about getting groundwater under control in the next section.
  • Interior walls have a layer of flaking cement or paint – If the interior walls have a coating of cement or paint, this prevents moisture in the wall from evaporating and can lead to deterioration of the mortar and the brick. Removing the cement or paint layer will enable moisture in the wall to evaporate.
  • Differential foundation settlement – If the brick foundation has settled, underpinning with push or helical piers might be necessary to strengthen and stabilize the foundation.

It’s often the case that a brick foundation over 100 years old also has a brick footer that’s in bad condition. It’s possible to use the same push or helical piers on a settled brick foundation that are used on other types of settled foundations. However, it’s sometimes necessary to either pour a supplemental footing or add more cement to the brick footer before underpinning. This doesn’t mean an older home is unstable. It simply means that it needs a bit of reinforcement before underpinning to lift the foundation.

For more information see, Ceiling Cracks When To Worry.

Preventing Problems With Your Brick Foundation

Believe it or not, water causes most foundation problems. This is true no matter the foundation type: brick, cinderblock, poured concrete, or something else. Excess moisture in the soil around a foundation can cause a lot of trouble. That’s why controlling groundwater around the home is essential to prevent foundation trouble. However, before we tell you how to control groundwater, we need to say a word about hydrostatic pressure.

What is hydrostatic pressure?

A build-up of hydrostatic pressure happens when there’s excess water in the soil around the foundation that can’t drain off. In other words, there is a lot of water in the soil and poor drainage.
Hydrostatic pressure – if it’s not relieved – pushes against foundation walls and can cause them to crack and even bow inward. Hydrostatic pressure can also push water through cracks in a brick foundation wall – even those that aren’t visible to the naked eye – and into your basement or crawl space.

Controlling groundwater is the best way to ensure hydrostatic pressure can’t build up in the soil around the foundation. The best way to do that is via a drain tile system.

How does a drain tile system work?

A drain tile system ensures that excess water can’t build up in the soil around the foundation. If there’s no excess water, there’s no hydrostatic pressure. Here’s how an exterior drain tile system works:

  • The foundation is excavated down to the level of the footer, and a sump pit is dug.
  • A shallow trench is dug around the foundation and then lined with gravel.
  • A perforated drainage pipe is placed into the trench and then covered with more gravel.
  • The excavated dirt is replaced.

Any excess moisture in the soil will flow into the drain pipe and get channeled into the sump pit. When the sump pit fills with water, a sump pump expels it away from the foundation.

Other ways to prevent water from building up in the soil around the foundation

When it comes to foundation waterproofing, a drain tile system is a gold standard. However, there are other things you can do to keep excess water out of the soil. These include:

  • Regrade your yard, if necessary, so it slopes away from your home. If the yard slopes toward your home, water will drain toward the foundation.
  • Clean your gutters regularly. Clogged gutters will cause water to flow over the side of the house and into the soil around the foundation.
  • If necessary, install downspout extensions to carry water away from the foundation before releasing it.
  • Keep trees, flowers, and shrubs away from the foundation so that when you water them, you’re not dumping water into the soil around the foundation.

If you’re concerned about your home’s brick foundation and you’re in our service area – Hampton Roads and the surrounding areas in Virginia – contact us today, and we’ll come out for an inspection.

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