Has time run out for glazed brick?

Examples of glazed brick that has cracked and spalled due to water infiltration, thermal cycling, and restricted movement, among other factors.
Photos courtesy Hoffmann Architects

Glazed brick has had a love/hate relationship with the real estate, design, and construction community for well over a century. In 2011, the New York Times ran an article in the real estate section stating that during the middle of the last century, “glazed brick was supposed to make [buildings] look like beacons of clean, shiny modernism in the midst of the dirty city,” but that “now some of them are falling apart.”

Over the years, glazed brick on aging buildings has concerned design professionals, building officials, and property owners because of a propensity to crack and spall (a condition where the front of the brick pops off), creating hazardous conditions and requiring costly repairs. Often, those repairs only address the symptoms of the problem—evident façade deterioration—and leave the root causes unaddressed, ensuring the cycle of decay and repair repeats.

However, glazed brick was and continues to be an attractive, viable, and—under the right circumstances—durable façade material. In Technical Notes on Brick Construction 13, Ceramic Glazed Brick Exterior Walls, the Brick Industry Association (BIA) affirms:

proper wall design, detailing, and material selection, along with quality construction, will result in attractive glazed brick applications exhibiting durability, structural stability, and virtually maintenance-free aesthetics.

Whether it is a new or existing building, the key to a durable glazed brick façade starts with water management. Per BIA, glazed brick should not be used in areas where it is likely to become saturated. Water penetrating the façade must be limited to the greatest extent possible, and water that does infiltrate must be given an effective means of exiting. For instance, BIA recommends glazed brick on new buildings be designed as a veneer with a vented drainage cavity behind it. While the incorporation of such a system may be impractical on an existing building, there are a host of other strategies that can be employed. To help arrest the conditions causing decay, a repair campaign should include aggressive water management (including selection of an appropriately flexible and durable mortar) and installation of integral and well-drained flashings at horizontal transitions such as lintels and relieving angles.

Uncontrolled movement of the building’s exterior is also a concern. Parapets, for instance, are exposed to the elements on both their outboard and inboard faces, increasing thermal cycling and reducing the tempering effects of the building’s interior climate. The result is movement that, if not properly accommodated, can lead to cracking. Water infiltration through these cracks accelerates the rate and severity of the deterioration. A façade that anticipates such movement through use of expansion joints and limits the potential for water infiltration through the incorporation of methods discussed above will prove much more durable over the life of the building.

Finally, owners of buildings with glazed brick façades are encouraged to undertake repairs to visible distress early and often. Left unattended, such deterioration advances at an increasing rate. Preventive maintenance is the key to mitigating the need for large, costly capital projects.

Craig A. Hargrove, AIA, LEED AP, is a senior vice president and director, architecture, with Hoffmann Architects Inc. in New York City, specializing in the rehabilitation of building exteriors and enclosure consultation for new construction. He can be reached at c.hargrove@hoffarch.com.

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