Name: Dan Bailey
Type of Project: Kitchen remodel
Location: East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
Type of building: 2nd Floor Condo in a Greek-Revival Row House
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Up until last week, I figured I was long done with demolition and had moved on to more productive aspects of the renovation. But after a mason took a look at the gap-filled exterior brick wall in the corner of the kitchen, he told me I would need to strip the interior of the wall so that it can be repaired inside and out. So this week, I reluctantly ripped out this section of wall. Before I began, my contractor, Gregg, stopped by and covered the shiny, new floors with some lovely mauve paper. He taped the seams to prevent any dust from working its way under the paper and damaging the floor.
With the floor protected, I got to work opening the wall. Fortunately, the original plaster had long since been stripped and replaced with drywall, so I didn't have to worry about unleashing a plaster dust storm. The drywall came down in a few big chunks, revealing the old wood lath and a large section of missing brick where the wall had been patched. The missing bricks were taken from the center of the wall, and the bricks above appeared to be at least partially supported by a 2x4. As I began pulling down the lath, piece by piece, I noticed that a lot of fine brick dust had accumulated behind it. The source of this dust quickly became apparent. Several bricks had almost completely disintegrated, leaving rectangular openings behind, while many more bricks were soft and crumbly to the touch. Needless to say, the whole thing was pretty scary looking. The framing for the wall, placed over the brick, was shimmed with wood wedges and some rolled-up wads of newspaper. One of these chunks of newspaper was dated October 23, 1952. So the wall was probably last repaired in 1952.
Uncovering this large swath of damaged brickwork was an anxiety-inducing experience. After all, the wall looked fine before I removed the drywall. It made me wonder what was lurking behind all of the other walls in my condo. So I turned to Google for some reassurance. It turns out that this sort of damage to brickwork is called spalling. It happens when bricks absorb moisture, causing them to slowly crumble from the outside in. Soft or otherwise compromised bricks are particularly susceptible to spalling. Back in the bad old days when my building was built, bricks were handmade, and variations in firing meant that some bricks ended up softer than others. Masons at the time were aware of this, and reserved softer bricks for use in the interior portions of walls. As long as the exterior of the wall was properly maintained, the soft bricks on the interior would never be exposed to water and would remain intact. Unfortunately, the exterior wall in the corner of my kitchen was poorly patched decades ago, allowing water to seep into the interior courses of brick. Over the years, this water exposure has completely degraded the interior brickwork.
So I need a mason to replace and repoint the damaged brick. As I mentioned last week, this is a common area repair, which is the responsibility of the condo association. My neighbors and I want to gather several quotes for this repair. I’ve had a few masons look at the wall, but I’m still waiting to receive their estimates for the work.
In the meantime, I began the process of covering up the awful textured plaster treatment on the fireplace surround in the dining room. I attached some metal corner bead to either side of the surround and spread the first layer of joint compound over it. The corners were lumpy, rounded, and dumpy looking, but now they’re straight and sharp. Next I’ll skim coat the entire surround with joint compound until the texturing is covered and the surface is smooth.
Estimated time for project: 18 weeks
Time remaining: 6 weeks
(Images and diary text: Dan Bailey)