Masonry is probably the oldest of the building trades. Civilizations have used stone, adobe and brick to build homes, temples, forts, walls, bridges and roads. In many basic ways the skills and tools have not changed over the centuries.
Masonry fireplace construction has broad and lasting appeal and can be used in a variety of ways, including structural and aesthetic application. Today the quality of building products has greatly improved over previously produced materials. Generally, each material is designed to be used for a certain type of construction use.
Q: I'd love to add some brick or other masonry around my home and yard, but it seems so much more expensive than other alternatives that it's hard to justify. Any suggestions to get the rich look of masonry within my budget?
A: Brick is desirable because it's a traditional building material that gives a look and feel of permanence and stability to a home or building.
Although frequently used as a structural material up to about 50 years ago, brick is now used primarily for appearance's sake. This is due to the high cost of materials and labor necessary to build brick structural walls to satisfy today's building code requirements. However, there are many cost effective ways to achieve the timely beauty of masonry. Clay brick products are available in a wide range of colors, sizes and textures. The quality is more consistent than the hand made brick of the past; however, real bricks are often used because of their rustic, non-uniform appearance.
Concrete Block Masonry Units: Concrete block has pretty much replaced clay brick for structural purposes because of its practicality and economy.
Today concrete block is not just the gray industrial material that usually comes to mind, but is also available in a variety of attractive colors and textures, including splitface, scored and slumpstone block.
Paving: Brick is frequently used on patios and walkways. Brick paving should be laid on a concrete base to avoid later problems with movement or settling. To lower the cost, brick detailing or inserts can be used in a concrete slab to improve the appearance. Interlocking paving units are available in a variety of colors and shapes for use in both commercial and residential work.
Walls: Masonry walls have many advantages over wood fences; they require little maintenance, they block sound and they provide much more privacy. Concrete block wall systems are now available which are competitive in price with quality wood fences.
Fireplaces: Although not relied upon primarily as a heat source today as they were in the past, people enjoy having a fireplace in their home. It's often the centerpiece of a room because of the warmth and charm it adds.
Q: The mortar between the bricks of the fireplace of my older home seems to be crumbling away outside. Can anything be done to repair that?
A: Absolutely! Homeowners tend to forget about their fireplaces once the weather warms up, but summer is the ideal time to make repairs.
Typically considered to be indestructible, even brick masonry fireplaces require some regular maintenance, and like anything else will wear out with prolonged use. Over time and extended use, the yellow firebrick inside the firebox can burn out, requiring that the firebox be rebuilt with new materials.
On the outside, the brick chimney is exposed to weathering and particularly in older homes, the mortar may deteriorate or crumble, causing bricks to become loose or water to leak into the fireplace. Water can also find its way through inadequate flashing or cracks in the top of the chimney. These repairs should also be done by a qualified mason.
Fireplaces that are in poor shape can be retrofitted with a stove insert and lined with metal flues. Wood stoves and inserts are very energy efficient and are frequently used as a primary heat source. Double wall steel firebox inserts known as Heatforms can also be built into a masonry fireplace and equipped with electric blowers to greatly increase the amount of heat gain.
Although metal fireplaces have been replacing masonry ones in recent years, they cannot compare to real masonry fireplaces for time honored quality and beauty. If you will be having a new masonry fireplace built in your home, consider an alternative masonry fireplace design, such a Rumford or Rosin style. These fireplaces were developed in the 1700s when fireplaces were essential for winter survival, and are considered more efficient than conventional designs used today.