Ask the builder: nothing wrong with a brick foundation

A few weeks ago a visitor to askthebuilder.com wanted to learn more about brick foundations. Karen has an ambitious desire to build a small 900 square foot home on her own. She is well aware of her physical limitations and asked me if it was possible for her to build the standard brick foundation.

She had tried to lift an 8 x 8 x 16 inch concrete block and found that they were too heavy. She feels she could handle the brick. Karen asked me what she needed to know to build a solid brick foundation.

Every now and then you will hear me say, “You don’t know what you don’t know. When you apply this to your life experience of whatever is being built, it’s easy to fall into a trap where you think there is only one or two ways to do something.

Take the foundations of houses, for example. You may live in a part of the country where building contractors use precast concrete or concrete blocks. If you don’t travel or do foundation research, you might come to the conclusion that there are only two ways to create a foundation.

But travel to other parts of the United States or the world, and you’ll find that there are other ways to build foundations that will last for generations. Whenever I go to town for groceries, I pass at least five old houses that have stone foundations stacked without mortar between the stones.

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

In Ashland, New Hampshire, the restored railway station built in the 1860s sits on a distinctive brick foundation. The foundation dates back to 1891, when the station was moved about 100 feet.

The foundation of the train depot is in fantastic condition to date with no signs of cracks or structural failure. He could use the scoring, but that’s a minor remedy. So Karen’s dream will come true.

It is important to realize that not all bricks are the same. Different varieties may have different hardness depending on how long the bricks are in the kiln and the baking temperature.

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

Karen should use a nice solid brick. I told him to go to the Brick Industry Association website and download “Specifications and Classification of Brick,” one of the series of technical notes on brick construction published by the BIA. This easy to read and understand free document shares the best brick to use in a structural situation such as its foundation. She should use a brick designed for inclement weather.

I then explained to Karen that she should check out the full list of free PDF Tech Notes offered by the BIA. They contain a wealth of information on how to install bricks of all types.

You should do the same if you plan to build a veneer brick house. A vast majority of veneer brick homes here in the United States, from my observations, are not built properly. The owners regularly complain of water leaks. The BIA knows how to capture and control the water that passes through the brick and mortar.

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

Between the two pieces of yarn there is more yarn that looks like a continuous strip of the capital letter W with the ends of the letters touching.

This steel is only about 1/16 of an inch thick and you lay it directly on top of a layer of bricks. You then put the mortar for the next row on the wire as you would for a course without the steel. The BIA tech notes talk about 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 would have walls 12 inches thick. You only have one chance to get it right.

If the walls are long, I would put a brick buttress every 12 feet that is 8 inches thick and 2 feet long. Hundreds of years ago, cathedral builders in Europe discovered the benefits of buttresses. They are easy to install and add tremendous strength to the walls, preventing them from breaking down.

The last tip I gave Karen was to build a small experimental wall so that she would feel comfortable with laying bricks. It’s not that hard to do. It just requires the three Ds: diligence, determination and discipline. You can do it too! I would like you to send me pictures of any brick wall you decide to build.

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