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Preservation of Historic Concrete

The Old House Web

NPS Preservation Brief 15
By William B. Coney, AIA

Historical OverviewCauses of Concrete DeteriorationMajor Sign of Concrete DeteriorationPlanning for Concrete PreservationConcrete RepairSummaryTaking it further

"Concrete" is a name applied to any of a number of compositions consisting of sand, gravel, crushed stone, or other coarse material, bound together with various kinds of cementitious materials, such as lime or cements. When water is added, the mix undergoes a chemical reaction and hardens. An extraordinarily versatile building material, concrete is used for the utilitarian, the ornamental, and the monumental. While early proponents of modern concrete considered it to be permanent, it is, like all materials, subject to deterioration. This Brief surveys the principal problems posed by concrete deterioration, their likely causes, and approaches to their remedies. In almost every instance, remedial work should only be undertaken by qualified professionals. Faulty concrete repair can worsen structural problems and lead to further damage or safety hazards. Concrete repairs are not the province of do-it-yourselfers. Consequently, the corrective measures discussed here are included for general information purposes only; they do not provide "how to" advice.

Historical Overview

Coarse tabby was used to construct slave cabins at the 18th century Kingsley Plantation in Florida. Photo: Deborah Holmes, the Old House Web.

milton house
Milton House, Milton, Wisconsin (1844) is an early example of gravel wall construction with 12-to-15-inch thick monolithic concrete walls coated on the exterior with stucco. Photo: Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress.

falling water
"Fallingwater," a dramatic reinforced concrete residence by Frank Lloyd Wright, is anchored into bedrock on the hillside. Photo: HABS Collection, NPS.

This reinforced concrete pier at Meridian Hill, Washington, DC, has lost much of its projecting molding partly from accidental impact and partly from spallling induced by freeze-thaw action. Photo: NPS files.

The Romans found that the mixture of lime putty with pozzolana, a fine volcanic ash, would harden under water. The result was possibly the first hydraulic cement. It became a major feature of Roman building practice, and was used in many buildings and engineering projects such as bridges and aqueducts. Concrete technology was kept alive during the Middle Ages in Spain and Africa, with the Spanish introducing a form of concrete to the New World in the first decades of the 16th century. It was used by both the Spanish and English in coastal areas stretching from Florida to South Carolina. Called "tapia," or "tabby," the substance was a creamy white, monolithic masonry material composed of lime, sand, and an aggregate of shells, gravel, or stone mixed with water. This mass of material was placed between wooden forms, tamped, and allowed to dry, the building arising in layers, about one foot at a time.

Despite its early use, concrete was slow in achieving widespread acceptance as a building material in the United States. In 1853, the second edition of Orson S. Fowler's A Home for All publicized the advantages of "gravel wall" construction to a wide audience, and poured gravel wall buildings appeared across the United States. Seguin, Texas, 35 miles east of San Antonio, came to be called "The Mother of Concrete Cities" for some 90 concrete buildings made from local "lime water" and gravel. Impressed by the economic advantages of poured gravel wall or "limegrout" construction, the Quartermaster General's Office of the War Department embarked on a campaign to improve the quality of building for frontier military posts. As a result, lime-grout structures were built at several western posts, such as the buildings that were constructed with 12 or 18-inch-thick walls at Fort Laramie, Wyoming between 1872 and 1885. By the 1880s sufficient experience had been gained with unreinforced concrete to permit construction of much larger buildings. The Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, is a notable example from this period.

Reinforced concrete in the United States dates from 1860, when S.T. Fowler obtained a patent for a reinforced concrete wall. In the early 1870s William E. Ward built his own house in Port Chester, New York, using concrete reinforced with iron rods for all structural elements.

Despite these developments, such construction remained a novelty until after 1880, when innovations introduced by Ernest L. Ransome made reinforced concrete more practicable. The invention of the horizontal rotary kiln allowed production of a cheaper, more uniform and reliable cement, and led to the greatly increased acceptance of concrete after 1900. During the early 20th century Ransome in Beverly, Massachusetts, Albert Kahn in Detroit, and Richard E. Schmidt in Chicago promoted concrete for utilitarian buildings with their "factory style," featuring an exposed concrete skeleton filled with expanses of glass. Thomas Edison's cast-in-place reinforced concrete homes in Union Township, New Jersey, proclaimed a similarly functional emphasis in residential construction. From the 1920s onward, concrete began to be used with spectacular design results: in James J. Earley and Louis Bourgeois' exuberant, graceful Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, Illinois; and in Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece "Fallingwater" near Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Eero Saarinen's soaring Terminal Building at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., exemplifies the masterful use of concrete achieved in the Modern era.

Types of Concrete

  • Unreinforced concrete is a composite material containing aggregates (sand, gravel, crushed shell, or rock) held together by a cement combined with water to form a paste, and gets its name from the fact that it does not have any iron or steel reinforcing bars. It was the earliest form of concrete. The ingredients become a plastic mass that hardens as the concrete hydrates, or "cures." Unreinforced concrete, however, is relatively weak, and since the turn of the century has largely been replaced by reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete is concrete strengthened by the inclusion of metal bars which increase the tensile strength of concrete. Both unreinforced and reinforced concrete can be either cast in place or precast.
  • Cast-in-place concrete is poured onsite into a previously erected formwork that is removed after the concrete has set. Precast concrete is molded offsite into building components. More recent developments in concrete technology include post-tensioned concrete and prestressed concrete, which feature greater strength and reduced cracking in reinforced structural elements.

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Causes of Concrete Deterioration

Deterioration in concrete can be caused by environmental factors, inferior materials, poor workmanship, inherent structural design defects, and inadequate maintenance.

Environmental factors are a principal source of concrete deterioration. Concrete absorbs moisture readily, and this is particularly troublesome in regions of recurrent freeze-thaw cycles. Freezing water produces expansive pressure in the cement paste or in nondurable aggregates. Carbon dioxide, another atmospheric component, can cause the concrete to deteriorate by reacting with the cement paste at the surface.

Materials and workmanship in the construction of early concrete buildings are potential sources of problems. For example, aggregates used in early concrete, such as cinders from burned coal and certain crushed brick, absorb water and produce a weak and porous concrete. Alkali-aggregate reactions within the concrete can result in cracking and white surface staining. Aggregates were not always properly graded by size to ensure an even distribution of elements from small to large. The use of aggregates with similarly sized particles normally produced a poorly consolidated and therefore weaker concrete.

Early builders sometimes inadvertently compromised concrete by using seawater or beach sand in the mix or by using calcium chloride or a similar salt as an additive to make the concrete more "fireproof." A common practice, until recently, was to add salt to strengthen concrete or to lower the freezing point during cold-weather construction. These practices cause problems over the long term.

In addition, early concrete was not vibrated when poured into forms as it is today. More often it was tamped or rodded to consolidate it, and on floor slabs it was often rolled with increasingly heavier rollers filled with water. These practices tended to leave voids (areas of no concrete) at congested areas, such as at reinforcing bars at column heads and other critical structural locations. Areas of connecting voids seen when concrete forms are removed are known as "honeycombs" and can reduce the protective cover over the reinforcing bars.

Other problems caused by poor workmanship are not unknown today. If the first layer of concrete is allowed to harden before the next one is poured next to or on top of it, joints can form at the interface of the layers. In some cases, these "cold joints" visibly detract from the architecture, but are otherwise harmless. In other cases, "cold joints" can permit water to infiltrate, and subsequent freeze-thaw action can cause the joints to move. Dirt packed in the joints allows weeds to grow, further opening paths for water to enter. Inadequate curing can also lead to problems. If moisture leaves newly poured concrete too rapidly because of low humidity, excessive exposure to sun or wind, or use of too porous a substrate, the concrete will develop shrinkage cracks and will not reach its full potential strength.

Structural Design Defects in historic concrete structures can be an important cause of deterioration. For example, the amount of protective concrete cover around reinforcing bars was often insufficient. Another design problem in early concrete buildings is related to the absence of standards for expansion-contraction joints to prevent stresses caused by thermal movements, which may result in cracking.

Improper Maintenance of historic buildings can cause long-term deterioration of concrete. Water is a principal source of damage to historic concrete (as to almost every other material) and prolonged exposure to it can cause serious problems. Unrepaired roof and plumbing leaks, leaks through exterior cladding, and unchecked absorption of water from damp earth are potential sources of building problems. Deferred repair of cracks allowing water penetration and freeze-thaw attacks can even cause a structure to collapse. In some cases the application of waterproof surface coatings can aggravate moisture-related problems by trapping water vapor within the underlying material.

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Major Signs of Concrete Deterioration

Cracking occurs over time in virtually all concrete. Cracks vary in depth, width, direction, pattern, location, and cause. Cracks can be either active or dormant (inactive). Active cracks widen, deepen, or migrate through the concrete. Dormant cracks remain unchanged. Some dormant cracks, such as those caused by shrinkage during the curing process, pose no danger, but if left unrepaired, they can provide convenient channels for moisture penetration, which normally causes further damage.

This 1904 reinforced concrete tower (Battery Commander's Station, Fort Washington, Maryland) is showing serious deterioration. Water has penetrated the slab, causing freeze-thaw spalling around the posts and corrosion of the reinforcing bars. Photo: NPS files.

Structural cracks can result from temporary or continued overloads, uneven foundation settling, or original design inadequacies. Structural cracks are active if the overload is continued or if settlement is ongoing; they are dormant if the temporary overloads have been removed, or if differential settlement has stabilized. Thermally-induced cracks result from stresses produced by temperature changes. They frequently occur at the ends or corners of older concrete structures built without expansion joints capable of relieving such stresses. Random surface cracks (also called "map" cracks due to their resemblance to the lines on a road map) that deepen over time and exude a white gel that hardens on the surface are caused by an adverse reaction between the alkalis in a cement and some aggregates.

Since superficial repairs that do not eliminate underlying causes will only tend to aggravate problems, professional consultation is recommended in almost every instance where noticeable cracking occurs.

Spalling is the loss of surface material in patches of varying size. It occurs when reinforcing bars corrode, thus creating high stresses within the concrete. As a result, chunks of concrete pop off from the surface. Similar damage can occur when water absorbed by porous aggregates freezes. Vapor-proof paints or sealants, which trap moisture beneath the surface of the impermeable barrier, also can cause spalling. Spalling may also result from the improper consolidation of concrete during construction. In this case, water-rich cement paste rises to the surface (a condition known as laitance). The surface weakness encourages scaling, which is spalling in thin layers.

Deflection is the bending or sagging of concrete beams, columns, joists, or slabs, and can seriously affect both the strength and structural soundness of concrete. It can be produced by overloading, by corrosion, by inadequate construction techniques (use of low-strength concrete or undersized reinforcing bars, for example), or by concrete creep (long-term shrinkage). Corrosion may cause deflection by weakening and ultimately destroying the bond between the rebar and the concrete, and finally by destroying the reinforcing bars themselves. Deflection of this type is preceded by significant cracking at the bottom of the beams or at column supports. Deflection in a structure without widespread cracking, spalling, or corrosion is frequently due to concrete creep.

Stains can be produced by alkali-aggregate reaction, which forms a white gel exuding through cracks and hardening as a white stain on the surface. Efflorescence is a white, powdery stain produced by the leaching of lime from Portland cement, or by the pre-World War II practice of adding lime to whiten the concrete. Discoloration can also result from metals inserted into the concrete, or from corrosion products dripping onto the surface.

Erosion is the weathering of the concrete surface by wind, rain, snow, and salt air or spray. Erosion can also be caused by the mechanical action of water channeled over concrete, by the lack of drip grooves in beltcourses and sills, and by inadequate drainage.

Corrosion, the rusting of reinforcing bars in concrete, can be a most serious problem. Normally, embedded reinforcing bars are protected against corrosion by being buried within the mass of the concrete and by the high alkalinity of the concrete itself. This protection, however, can be destroyed in two ways. First, by carbonation, which occurs when carbon dioxide in the air reacts chemically with cement paste at the surface and reduces the alkalinity of the concrete. Second, chloride ions from salts combine with moisture to produce an electrolyte that effectively corrodes the reinforcing bars. Chlorides may come from seawater additives in the original mix, or from prolonged contact with salt spray or deicing salts. Regardless of the cause, corrosion of reinforcing bars produces rust, which occupies significantly more space than the original metal, and causes expansive forces within the concrete. Cracking and spalling are frequent results. In addition, the load-carrying capacity of the structure can be diminished by the loss of concrete, by the loss of bond between reinforcing bars and concrete, and by the decrease in thickness of the reinforcing bars themselves. Rust stains on the surface of the concrete are an indication that internal corrosion is taking place.

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Planning for Concrete Preservation

It is important to match the visual qualities, such as color and texture, when repairs or replacement sections are undertaken. Photo: NPS files.

Whatever the causes of deterioration, careful analysis, supplemented by testing, is vital to the success of any historic concrete repair project. Undertaken by experienced engineers or architects, the basic steps in a program of testing and analysis are 1) document review, 2) field survey, 3) testing, and 4) analysis.

1) Document Review. While plans and specifications for older concrete buildings are rarely extant, they can be an invaluable aid, and every attempt should be made to find them. They may provide information on the intended composition of the concrete mix, or on the type and location of reinforcing bars. Old photographs, records of previous repairs, documents for buildings of the same basic construction or age, and news reports may also document original construction or changes over time.

2) Field Survey. A thorough visual examination can assist in locating and recording the type, extent, and severity of stress, deterioration, and damage.

3) Testing. Two types of testing, onsite and laboratory, can supplement the field condition survey as necessary. Onsite, nondestructive testing may include use of a calibrated metal detector or sonic tests to locate the position, depth, and direction of reinforcing bars. Voids can frequently be detected by "sounding" with a metal hammer. Chains about 30 inches long attached to a 2-foot-long crossbar, dragged over the slabs while listening for hollow reverberations, can locate areas of slabs that have delaminated. In order to find areas of walls that allow moisture to penetrate to the building interior, areas may be tested from the outside by spraying water at the walls and then inspecting the interior for water. If leaks are not readily apparent, sophisticated equipment is available to measure the water permeability of concrete walls.

If more detailed examinations are required, nondestructive instruments are available that can assist in determining the presence of voids or internal cracks, the location and size of rebars, and the strength of the concrete. Laboratory testing can be invaluable in determining the composition and characteristics of historic concrete and in formulating a compatible design mix for repair materials. These tests, however, are expensive. A well-equipped concrete laboratory can analyze concrete samples for strength, alkalinity, carbonation, porosity, alkali-aggregate reaction, presence of chlorides, and past compostion.

4) Analysis. Analysis is probably the most important step in the process of evaluation. As survey and test results are revised in conjunction with available documentation, the analysis should focus on determining the nature and causes of the concrete problems, on assessing both the short-term and long-term effects of the deterioration, and on formulating proper remedial measures.

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Concrete Repair

At the Virginia Heating Plant, Arlington, Virginia (1941), narrow cracks needed to be widened to receive concrete patches. Photo: NPS files.

Deteriorated or redundant reinforcing bars are removed after evaluation by a structural engineer. An acetylene torch is being used to cut out the bars. Photo: NPS files.

Workmen are applying patching concrete and using a trowl to form ridges to match the appearance of the historic concrete ridges that were originally created by form boards. Photo: NPS files.

Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois (1906). Once all repair work was complete, the entire bulding was sprayed with a concrete mixture consisting of pea-gravel and sand, which was then hand-trowled. Finally, the building was grit-blasted to remove the cement paste and reproduce the exposted aggregate finish. Photo: NPS files.

Repairs should be undertaken only after the planning measures outlined above have been followed. Repair of historic concrete may consist of either patching the historic material or filling in with new material worked to match the historic material. If replacement is necessary, duplication of historic materials and detailing should be as exact as possible to assure a repair that is functionally and aesthetically acceptable.

The correction and elimination of concrete problems can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly. Yet the temptation to resort to temporary solutions should be avoided, since their failure can expose a building to further and more serious deterioration, and in some cases can mask underlying structural problems that could lead to serious safety hazards. Principal concrete repair treatments are discussed below. While they are presented separately here, in practice, preservation projects typically incorporate multiple treatments.

Repair of Cracking. Hairline, nonstructural cracks that show no sign of worsening normally need not be repaired. Cracks larger than hairline cracks, but less than approximately one-sixteenth of an inch, can be repaired with a mix of cement and water. If the crack is wider than one-sixteenth of an inch, fine sand should be added to the mix to allow for greater compactibility, and to reduce shrinkage during drying. Field trials will determine whether the crack should be routed (widened and deepened) minimally before patching to allow sufficient penetration of the patching material. To ensure a long-term repair, the patching materials should be carefully selected to be compatible with the existing concrete as well as with subsequent surface treatments such as paint or stucco.

When it is desirable to reestablish the structural integrity of a concrete structure involving dormant cracks, epoxy injection repair should be considered. An epoxy injection repair is made by sealing the crack on both sides of a wall or a structural member with an epoxy mortar, leaving small holes, or "ports" to receive the epoxy resin. After the surface mortar has hardened, epoxy is pumped into the ports. Once the epoxy in the crack has hardened, the surface mortar can be ground off, but the repair may be visually noticeable. (It is possible to inject epoxy without leaving noticeable patches, but the procedure is much more complex.)

Other cracks are active, changing their width and length. Active structural cracks will move as loads are added or removed. Thermal cracks will move as temperatures fluctuate. Thus, expansion-contraction joints may have to be introduced before repair is undertaken. Active cracks should be filled with sealants that will adhere to the sides of the cracks and will compress or expand during crack movement. The design, detailing, and execution of sealant-filled cracks require considerable attention, or else they will detract from the appearance of the historic building.

Random (map) cracks throughout a structure are difficult to correct, and may be unrepairable. Repair, if undertaken, requires removing the cracked concrete. A compatible concrete patch to replace the removed concrete is then installed. For some buildings without significant historic finishes, an effective and economical repair material is probably a sprayed concrete coating, troweled or brushed smooth. Because the original concrete will ultimately contaminate new concrete, buildings with map cracks will present continuing maintenance problems.

Repair of Spalling. Repair of spalling entails removing the loose, deteriorated concrete and installing a compatible patch that dovetails into the existing sound concrete. In order to prevent future crack development after the spall has been patched and to ensure that the patch matches the historic concrete, great attention must be paid to the treatment of rebars, the preparation of the existing concrete substrate, the selection of compatible patch material, the development of good contact between patch and substrate, and the curing of the patch.

Once the deteriorated concrete in a spalled area has been removed, rust on the exposed rebars must be removed by wire brush or sandblasting. An epoxy coating applied immediately over the cleaned rebars will diminish the possibility of further corrosion. As a general rule, if the rebars are so corroded that a structural engineer determines they should be replaced, new supplemental reinforcing bars will normally be required, assuming that the rebar is important to the strength of the concrete. If not, it is possible to cut away the rebar.

Proper preparation of the substrate will ensure a good bond between the patch and the existing concrete. If a large, clean break or other smooth surface is to be patched, the contact area should be roughened with a hammer and chisel. In all cases, the substrate should be kept moist with wet rags, sponges, or running water for at least an hour before placement of the patch. Bonding between the patch and substrate can be encouraged by scrubbing the substrate with cement paste, or by applying a liquid bonding agent to the surface of the substrate. Admixtures such as epoxy resins, latexes, and acrylics in the patch may also be used to increase bonding, but this may cause problems with color matching if the surfaces are to be left unpainted.

Compatible matching of patch material to the existing concrete is critical for both appearance and durability. In general, repair material should match the composition of the original material (as revealed by laboratory analysis) as closely as possible so that the properties of the two materials, such as coefficient of thermal expansion and strength, are compatible. Matching the color and texture of the existing concrete requires special care. Several test batches of patching material should be mixed by adding carefully selected mineral pigments that vary slightly in color. After the samples have cured, they can be compared to the historic concrete and the closest match selected.

Contact between the patch and the existing concrete can be enhanced through the use of anchors, preferably stainless steel hooked pins, placed in holes drilled into the structure and secured in place with epoxy. Good compaction of the patch material will encourage the contact. Compaction is difficult when the patch is ''laid-up" with a trowel without the use of forms; however, by building up thin layers of concrete, each layer can be worked with a trowel to achieve compaction. Board forms will be necessary for large patches. In cases where the existing concrete has a significant finish, care must be taken to pin the form to the existing concrete without marring the surface. The patch in the form can be consolidated by rodding or vibration.

Because formed concrete surfaces normally develop a sheen that does not match the surface texture of most historic concrete, the forms must be removed before the patch has fully set. The surface of the patch must then be finished to match the historic concrete. A brush or wet sponge is particularly useful in achieving matching textures. It may be difficult to match historic concrete surfaces that were textured, as a result of exposed aggregate for example, but it is important that these visual qualities be matched. Once the forms are removed, holes from the bolts must also be patched and finished to match adjacent surfaces.

Regardless of size, a patch containing cement binder (especially Portland cement) will tend to shrink during drying. Adequate curing of the patch may be achieved by keeping it wet for several days with damp burlap bags. It should be noted that although greater amounts of sand will reduce overall shrinkage, patches with a high sand content normally will not bond well to the substrate. The new concrete spindles have been installed.

Repair of Deflection. Deflection can indicate significant structural problems and often requires the strengthening or replacement of structural members. Because deflection can lead to structural failure and serious safety hazards, its repair should be left to engineering professionals.

Repair of Erosion. Repair of eroded concrete will normally require replacing lost surface material with a compatible patching material (as outlined above) and then applying an appropriate finish to match the historic appearance. The elimination of water coursing over concrete surfaces should be accomplished to prevent further erosion. If necessary, drip grooves at the underside of overhanging edges of sills, beltcourses, cornices, and projecting slabs should be installed.


Many early concrete buildings in the United States are threatened by deterioration. Effective protection and maintenance are the keys to the durability of concrete. Even when historic concrete structures are deteriorated, however, many can be saved through preservation projects involving sensitive repair  or replacement of deteriora

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