Above-ground masonry walls

The Old House Web

Editor's note: This story is adapted from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Residential Rehabilitation Inspection Guide, 2000.Click here for other stories in this series.

Parts of this story: Introduction ~~ Seismic and wind resistance ~~Cracking and deterioration of masonry, general issues ~~Masonry foundations & piers~~ Above ground masonry walls ~~Chimneys ~~Wood structural components ~~Iron and steel structural components ~~Concrete structural components

Inspect above-ground stone, brick, or concrete block walls for signs of the following problems (each of which is explained in detail in this story):

Wall cracking associated with thermal and moisture movement

Above-ground brick walls expand in warm weather (particularly if facing south or west) and contract in cool weather. This builds up stresses in the walls that may cause a variety of cracking patterns, depending on the configuration of the wall and the number and location of openings. Such cracks are normally cyclical and will open and close with the season.

They will grow wider in cold weather and narrower in hot weather. Look for cracking at the corners of long walls, walls with abrupt changes in cross section (such as at a row of windows), walls with abrupt turns or jogs, and in transitions from one- to two-story walls. These are the weak points that have the least capacity for stress. Common moisture and thermal movement cracking includes:

  • Horizontal or diagonal cracks near the ground at piers in long walls due to horizontal shearing stresses between the upper wall and the wall where it enters the ground. The upper wall can thermally expand but its movement at ground level is moderated by earth temperatures. Such cracks extend across the piers from one opening to another along the line of least resistance. This condition is normally found only in walls of substantial length.
  • Vertical cracks near the end walls due to thermal movement. A contracting wall does not have the tensile strength to pull its end walls with it as it moves inward, causing it or the end walls to crack vertically where they meet.
  • Vertical cracks in short offsets and setbacks caused by the thermal expansion of the longer walls that are adjacent to them. The shorter walls are bent by this thermal movement and crack vertically.
  • Vertical cracks near the top and ends of the facade due to the thermal movement of the wall. This may indicate poorly bonded masonry. Cracks will tend to follow openings upward.
  • Cracks around stone sills or lintels caused by the expansion of the masonry against both ends of a tight-fitting stone piece that cannot be compressed. Cracks associated with thermal and moisture movement often present only cosmetic problems. After their cause has been determined, they should be repaired with a flexible sealant, since filling such cyclic cracks with mortar will simply cause the masonry to crack in another location. Cracks should be examined by a structural engineer and may require the installation of expansion joints.
  • Brick wall cracking associated with freeze-thaw cycles and corrosion. Brick walls often exhibit distress due to the expansion of freezing water or the rusting of embedded metals. Such distress includes:

Cracking around sills, cornices, eaves, chimneys, parapets, and other elements subject to water penetration, which is usually due to the migration of water into the masonry. The water expands upon freezing, breaking the bond between the mortar and the masonry and eventually displacing the masonry itself.

The path of the water through the wall is indicated by the pattern of deterioration.

Cracking around iron or steel lintels, which is caused by the expansive force of corrosion that builds up on the surface of the metal. This exerts great pressure on the surrounding masonry and displaces it, since corroded iron can expand to many times its original thickness. Structural iron and steel concealed within the masonry, if exposed to moisture, can also corrode, and cause cracking and displacement of its masonry cover. Rust stains usually indicate that corrosion is the cause of the problem. Check to make sure the joint between the masonry and the steel lintel that supports the masonry over an opening is clear and open. If the joint has been sealed, the sealant or mortar should be removed.

These conditions usually can be corrected by repairing or replacing corroded metal components and by repairing and pointing the masonry. Where cracking is severe, portions of the wall may have to be reconstructed. Cracks should be examined by a structural engineer.

  • Wall cracking or displacement associated with the structural failure of building elements. Structure-related problems, aside from those caused by differential settlement or earth-quakes, are usually found over openings and (less commonly) under roof eaves or in areas of structural overloading. Such problems include:

Cracking or displacement of masonry over openings, resulting from the deflection or failure of the lintels or arches that span the openings. In older masonry walls with wood lintels, cracking will occur as the wood sags or decays. Iron and steel lintels also cause cracking as they deflect over time. Concrete and stone lintels occasionally bow and sometimes crack. Masonry arches of brick or stone may crack or fail when there is wall movement or when their mortar joints deteriorate.

cracked arch

Despite the loss of masonry, this arch is intact and can be repaired with matching bricks.

When such lintel deflections or arch failures occur, the masonry above may be supporting itself and will exhibit step cracks beginning at the edges of the opening and joining in an inverted V above the openings midpoint. Correcting such problems usually means replacing failed components and rebuilding the area above the opening.

Occasionally masonry arches fail because the walls that surround them cannot provide an adequate counterthrust to the arch action. This sometimes happens on windows that are too close to the corners of a wall or bay. In such cases, the masonry arch pushes the un-braced wall outward, causing it to crack above the opening near or just above the spring of the arch. When this occurs, the end walls must be strengthened.

Cracking or outward displacement under the eaves of a pitched roof due to failure in the horizontal roof ties that results in the roof spreading outward. The lateral thrust of the roof on the masonry wall may cause it to crack horizontally just below the eaves or to move outward with the roof. The roof will probably be leaking as well. When this occurs, examine the roof structure carefully to ascertain whether there is a tying failure. If so, additional horizontal ties or tension members will have to be added and, if possible, the roof pulled back into place. The damaged masonry can then be repaired. The weight also can be transferred to interior walls. Jacking of the ridge and rafters is possible too.

joist graphic

Walls that extend above ceiling joists

Cracking due to overloading (or interior movement), which is fairly uncommon, but may be caused by a point load (often added during an alteration) bearing on a wall of insufficient thickness. If the member has been concealed, such a problem will be difficult to investigate. The addition of interior wall supports or bracing, however, may correct the source of the problem by relieving the load.

Cracking due to ground tremors from nearby construction, heavy vehicular traffic, or earthquakes, which is roughly vertical in direction and occurs more toward the center of the building. Buildings exhibiting such cracking should be treated on a case-by-case basis, since serious structural damage has possibly taken place. Consult a structural engineer experienced in such matters.

Bulging of walls. Masonry walls sometimes show signs of bulging as they age. A wall itself may bulge, or the bulge may only be in the outer withe. Bulging often takes place so slowly that the masonry doesnt crack, and therefore it may go unnoticed over a long period of time. The bulging of the whole wall is usually due to thermal or moisture expansion of the walls outer surface, or to contraction of the inner withe. This expansion is not completely reversible because once the wall and its associated structural components are pushed out of place, they can rarely be completely pulled back to their original positions.

The effects of the cyclical expansion of the wall are cumulative, and after many years the wall will show a detectable bulge. Inside the building, separation cracks will occur on the inside face of the wall at floors, walls, and ceilings. Bulging of only the outer masonry withe is usually due to the same gradual process of thermal or moisture expansion: masonry debris accumulates behind the bulge and prevents the course from returning to its original position.

In very old buildings, small wall bulges may result from the decay and collapse of an internal wood lintel or wood-bonding course, which can cause the inner course to settle and the outer course to bulge outward. When wall bulges occur in solid masonry walls, the walls may be insufficiently tied to the structure or their mortar may have lost its bond strength. Large bulges must be tied back to the structure; the star-shaped anchors on the exterior of masonry walls of many older buildings are examples of such ties (check with local building ordinances on their use).

Small bulges in the outer masonry course often can be pinned to the inner course or dismantled and rebuilt.

Leaning of walls. Masonry walls that lean (invariably outward) represent a serious, but uncommon, condition that is usually caused by poor design and construction practices, particularly inadequate structural tying or poor foundation work. When tilting or leaning occurs, it is often associated with parapets and other upper wall areas, especially those with heavy masonry cornices cantilevered from the wall. Leaning can produce separation cracking on the end walls and cracking on the interior wall face along floors, walls and ceilings. Leaning walls can sometimes be tied back to the structure and thereby restrained. In such cases, the bearing and connections of interior beams, joist, floors and roof should be examined.

When large areas or whole walls lean, rebuilding the wall, and possibly the foundation, may be the only answer.


A wall is usually considered unsafe if it leans to such an extent that a plumb line passing through its center of gravity does not fall inside the middle one-third of its base (called the V-3 rule). In such an event, consult a structural engineer.

The V3 rule for wall stability

v3 rule

Procedure: Measure the amount that the wall is out of plumb. Make a scale diagram, drawing a line representing the force of gravity through the center of the structure. If the line does not lie within the center one third of the wall, the wall is unstable. The same concept applies to bowing and leaning walls. If there are joists resting on the walls, even less lean is allowed before the wall is unstable.

Problems associated with brick veneer walls. Brick veneer walls are subject to forces of differential settlement, moisture- and thermal-related cracking, and the effects of freezing and corrosion. Common problems peculiar to brick veneer walls include:
  • Cracks caused by wood frame shrinkage, which are most likely to be found around fixed openings, where the independent movement of the veneer wall is restrained. These cracks are also formed early in the life of the building and can be repaired by pointing.
  • Bulging, which is caused by inadequate or deteriorated ties between the brick and the wall to which it is held.
  • Vertical cracking at corners or horizontal cracking near the ground caused by thermal movement of the wall, which is similar to that in solid masonry or masonry cavity walls, but possibly more pronounced in well-insulated buildings because of the reduction in the moderating effect from interior temperatures. Thermal cracks are cyclic and should be filled with a flexible sealant. Where there is severe cracking, expansion joints may have to be installed.

brick veneer

A bowed brick veneer wall

Problems associated with parapet walls. Parapet walls often exhibit signs of distress and deterioration due to their full exposure to the weather, the splashing of water from the roof, differential movement, the lack of restraint by vertical loads or horizontal bracing, and the lack of adequate expansion joints. Typical parapet problems include:

  • Horizontal cracking at the roof line due to differential thermal movement between the roof line and the wall below, which is exposed to moderating interior temperatures. The parapet may eventually lose all bond except that due to friction and its own weight and may be pushed out by ice formation on the roof.
  • Bowing due to thermal and moisture expansion when the parapet is restrained from lengthwise expansion by end walls or adjacent buildings. The wall will usually bow out-ward since that is the direction of least resistance.
  • Overhanging the end walls when the parapet is not restrained on its ends. The problem is often the most severe when one end is restrained and the other is not.
  • Random vertical cracking near the center of the wall due to thermal contraction.
  • Deterioration of parapet masonry due to excessive water penetration through inadequate coping or flashing, if any, which when followed by freeze-thaw cycles causes masonry spalling and mortar deterioration.

Carefully examine all parapet walls. Check their coping and flashing for water-tightness and overall integrity. In some cases, structurally unsound parapets can be stabilized and their moisture and thermal movements brought under control by the addition of expansion joints. In other cases, the wall may require extensive repair or rebuilding. All repairs should include adequate expansion joints.


A deteriorated parapet wall that badly needs re-pointing. Fortunately, the wall has not yet exhibited serious movement, but it will if not repaired.

Fire damage to brick masonry walls. Masonry walls exposed to fire will resist damage in proportion to their thickness. Examine the texture and color of the masonry units and probe their mortar. If they are intact and their basic color is unchanged, they can be considered serviceable. If they under-go a color change, consult a qualified structural engineer for further appraisal. Hollow masonry units should be examined for internal cracking, where possible, by cutting into the wall. Such units may need replacement if seriously dam-aged. Masonry walls plastered on the fire side may have been sufficiently protected and will have suffered few, if any, ill effects.

>>To next story in this series
>> Back to introduction

About the Author
The Old House Web

Search Improvement Project