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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask the Builder: Nothing wrong with a brick foundation

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 18, 2021

This brick foundation was built in 1891 and has survived 130 harsh New Hampshire winters.  (Tribune Content Agency)
This brick foundation was built in 1891 and has survived 130 harsh New Hampshire winters. (Tribune Content Agency)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

A few weeks ago, a visitor to askthebuilder.com wanted to know about brick foundations. Karen has an ambitious desire to build a small 900-square-foot house by herself. She is well aware of her physical limitations and asked me if it was possible for her to construct the foundation using standard brick.

She had tried to lift an 8-by-8-by-16-inch concrete block and discovered those were too heavy. She feels she could handle brick. Karen asked me what she needs to know to build a strong brick foundation.

From time to time, you’ll hear me say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” When you apply this to your life experience about all things building, it’s easy to fall into a trap where you feel there are just one or two ways to do something.

Take house foundations, for example. You may live in a part of the country where the building contractors use concrete or precast concrete block. If you don’t travel or do research about foundations, you might come to the conclusion there are just two ways to build a foundation.

But travel to other parts of the U.S. or world, and you’ll discover there are other ways to build foundations that last generations. Each time I go into town to get groceries, I pass at least five old houses that have stacked stone foundations with no mortar between the stones.

The builder just created the gaps between stones with smaller stones. Most of these houses were built in the mid-1800s, and they look to me as good as the day they were built.

In Ashland, New Hampshire, the restored railroad train station built around the 1860s sits on top of a distinctive brick foundation. The foundation dates from 1891, when the station was moved about 100 feet.

The train depot foundation is in fantastic shape to this day with no signs of structural cracks or failure. It could use tuckpointing, but that’s a minor repair. So, Karen’s dream is going to come true.

It’s important to realize not all bricks are the same. Different varieties can have different hardness depending on the length of time the bricks are in the kiln and the firing temperature.

You can make bricks so hard and durable that they’re suitable for paving in streets. Just visit Athens, Ohio, to see its wonderful brick streets that have survived heavy trucks and brutal winters for decades.

Karen should use a nice strong brick. I told her to go to the Brick Industry Association website and download “Specifications for and Classification of Brick,” one of the series of Technical Notes on Brick Construction that the BIA publishes. This simple-to-read-and-understand free document shares the best brick to use in a structural situation such as her foundation. She should use a brick that’s rated for severe weathering.

I then shared with Karen that she should look at the entire list of free Technical Notes PDFs offered by the BIA. They contain a wealth of information about how to install brick of all types.

You should do the same if you’re planning on building a brick-veneer home. A vast majority of brick-veneer homes here in the U.S., based on my observations, are not built correctly. Homeowners routinely complain of water leaks. The BIA knows how to capture and control water that gets through brick and mortar.

One of the things I recommended to Karen was the use of steel in her brick walls. You can buy affordable pieces of reinforcing steel that add enormous strength to brick walls. This fabric comes in different widths and is made using two parallel pieces of thin wire that’s just about an inch less in width than the brick wall.

In between the two pieces of wire is more wire that looks like a continuous strip of the capital letter W with the tips of the letters touching one another.

This steel is only about 1/16 inch thick, and you lay it directly on top of a course of brick. You then put the mortar for the next row on the wire just as you would a course without the steel. The BIA Technical Notes talk about the spacing, but I told Karen to do it every 8 inches for extra strength.

The thickness of the brick foundation walls is important. If the foundation walls are more than 6 feet, I’d have the walls 12 inches thick. You only get one chance to get this right.

If the walls are long, I’d put in a brick buttress every 12 feet that’s 8 inches thick and 2 feet long. Cathedral builders in Europe hundreds of years ago discovered the benefits of buttresses. They’re easy to install, and they add enormous strength to the walls, preventing them from failing.

The last piece of advice I gave Karen was to build a short experimental wall so she gets comfortable laying brick. It’s not that difficult to do. It just requires the three Ds: diligence, determination and discipline. You can do it, too! I’d love for you to send me photos of any brick wall you decide to build.

Subscribe to Tim Carter’s free newsletter and listen to his new podcasts at askthebuilder.com.

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