MCAA Magazine

Jerry Painter  

Question: How Close is Too Close?  Part II

Hopefully, you have had a good month because no one has complained about your work on any job. Great! But that wasn’t the case in my world, as I’ve had four contacts about workmanship issues this month. So, let’s discuss what we can do to prevent these types of calls.

As I said last month, there is no ASTM standard for workmanship. Also, remember that workmanship has other components beside tolerances. The ability to provide a quality masonry job starts very early. It starts with the decision to bid or negotiate. Have you completed this type of work before? Do you have experience with the materials specified? Do you have the manpower qualified to do the installation? These are very important questions for the start of the job process.

The next part of the process is to determine if the materials specified are compatible. With all the use of multiple materials as accents and variety of mortars, you cannot rely on the design team to understand because they could be considering visual effects only. This is like having two or three doctors prescribing your meds. You must have a doctor or more likely a pharmacist to tell you the compatibility of the various drugs. One of the most important compatibility issues is the initial rate of absorption (IRA) that the use of brick, CMU, stone, tile, and other masonry units can cause joint color variations because of the various moisture absorption rates of these products. This can even happen within the same range of brick because the burning of some brick are less absorbent than others in the same range!

This can be corrected by the submittal process. Most specifications allow for the substitutions. If the specifier refuses your substitution make sure you have expressed your concerns in writing, so you cannot be blamed for later problems. Don’t forget accessories can also affect appearance (ie; flashing, expansion joint, control joints, anchors, and ties) of your masonry.

Once everything has been accepted you can then proceed with the work. You may have noticed that I didn’t say “approved.” Most architects, engineers, general contractors, and construction managers will not provide approval. They will simply say the item “meets the requirement of the specs” or it is “accepted.” There must be some legal disconnect between approved and accepted.

You are now ready for construction, but you need to verify your crew’s experience with the material and/or provide the necessary training. In this era where fewer and fewer masons – and I use the term loosely – are traditionally trained, some may not have the skill to lay some of the specified material.

The next item in our quest for a quality masonry system is the mockup. I didn’t us the term “sample panel” because I believe there is a difference. A mockup will contain all items of the wall system. We’ve had projects that we supplied multiple mockups. Some with just the wall system as designed and some with a specific detail. We bid a project once that had four separate mockups. Each representing a specific location of the building to show the use of accessories and connectivity of the brick and stone. We did not get that job because I’m pretty sure, we had too much cost associated with mockups! I cannot overstress the importance of the mockup. We have strapped, protected, and moved the project mockup to our yard when the contractor wanted it moved before the masonry was completed. We have required the owner’s field rep to use a permanent marker and sign the mockup because there’s potential for a disconnect in the paper train or change of project management personnel. Regardless of how the mockup is handled, my first question as a consultant when I get a call regarding workmanship/appearance is to ask about the mockup. If there was/is not a mock up, appearance just became totally subjective.

Naturally, other things factor into the appearance of masonry, such as tooling, unit blending, and cleaning. There was an excellent article in the June Issue of Masonry by Michael Schuller, P.E. on “How to Inspect a Brick Wall”. Most of what Mr. Schuller wrote could be used for other masonry units. You should keep his article for a reference document, and, with his permission, share it with your project’s Quality Assurance personnel.

As ministers often say, “In conclusion, I would like to make the following points.” First, do all your preliminary work religiously, making sure your material and personnel are compatible and acceptable. Second, build a mockup. I recently had a call from a masonry contractor that wanted to build a mock up and the architect told them it wasn’t necessary. They felt there was going to be problems with the joints being different shades. We agreed, he should build the mockup.

Lastly, I want you to take a stroll through an art gallery or museum. Look at all the variety of art forms, styles, and mediums. People will like some art and not like other art forms for a variety of reasons. What is beautiful to some is not to others. Masonry is an art form, and when compared to drawings, paintings, carvings, or sculptures, our art will compete with the masters. As they tell you in museums and galleries, back up and view the art as a whole to properly enjoy the artist’s work.

Contractors need to remind everyone our canvas is dimensional and our medium is masonry, so back up and enjoy those well done masterpieces!

Until then, “Raise the line and come on around the corner.”