Painter’s Corner: Being Right with Masonry

Jerry Painter

I have an uncle who, when he sees bad work or a real screw up, will say “that is the beatenest thing I have ever seen.” In turn, I would always respond that it would be, until he saw the next “beatenest thing.” Speaking of how just bad things can be, I still don’t know how we can continue to do the same thing repeatedly for years, and still make mistakes.  

I have always believed that most mistakes in masonry were simply due to a lack of instruction and training. That is still mostly correct today, and a lack of supervision also contributes to issues and problems. That being said, I have found yet another reason that mistakes seem to be getting worse. I describe it as a lack of responsibility in creating a culture within a crew or company of correctness. To state it another way, it would be just doing things right.  

But what is right? In masonry, right could be doing our work according to the plans, specifications, and building codes provided. When dealing with the project plan, we must understand that ALL drawings, details and notes are included. When I say ALL drawings, I mean the mechanical drawings as well. When the contractor, project manager, estimator, and especially the superintendent fails to review those drawings and compare them to the structural and architectural drawings ahead of time, there will certainly have conflicts.  

At a pre-bid meeting (and definitely at the preconstruction meeting), it’s always been my standing joke to ask if the architect, mechanical engineers, and structural engineer have been introduced to each other. If you have been in this business very longyou have discovered plenty of conflicts.  

One common conflict occurs when an electrician attempts to install a light switch in the first cell adjacent a door opening. In our area, that is a reinforced and grouted cell. The electrician cannot put the switch in my structural frame that is on both sides and over the top, and this creates a conflict on the jobsite. Another conflict crops up when everyone tries to put their work into rated walls. These types of issues cost you time, and money. 

Another troubling aspect of doing something right is the concept of disregarding or refusing to worry about anything an inspector cannot see. With CMU work, it is generally good practice to have the rebar lap start at the floor level. Most often, if the foundation is the height of the rebar lap or less, a dowel the length of the foundation height plus lap plus concrete coverage will be installed. If those dowels are not properly anchored in the depth in the footing, they can create a lap above the floor that is longer or shorter than required by the structural drawings or building code. Reality isthere are no structural drawings for residential masonry.  

As these dowels are inspected with the concrete footing rebar, it may not be obvious that there is a problem in the making. The easiest way to start is to visually sight down the line of top of the rebar. If there is very much difference in the tops, you must take out the ruler and measure them.  

A real serious issue occurs when a contractor gets an inspector to agree to let the dowels be “wet set,which is when dowels are set into the wet concrete. Since these dowels were not tied in place, great care must be taken to ensure they are positioned properly. The dowels are required to have a bend at the buried end to prevent pullout through uplift. If the concrete is too wet, the dowels will have to be supported another way 

If the concrete has begun to cure, it may be difficult to get the dowels in and reconsolidate the concrete around the rebar. The worst possible scenario occurs when the concrete has begun curing and workers take straight rebar and tap them straight down into the stiff concrete. There is hardly any pullout resistance at all. While some may believe this never happens because someone else could see it, most masonry footings and masonry grout are not being inspected. The fact is, oftentimes inspectors have done their work, signed the permit, and left the jobsite. 

With little or no inspection, how do we know the masonry is being done correctly? Well, the character and quality of a person or company is shown by what they do when no one is watching– that is where the culture of doing things the right, or correct, way comes in. This culture can only come from instruction, training, and demanding responsibility.  

A final contributing factor could sometimes result from peer pressure by some of the crew/team members on the jobsite, possibly the dreaded “company men.” The next time you are looking around the jobsite, sight the rebar, ask the crew if they have a vibrator, and if they know how to use it. Then, next check to see if they have a standby vibrator. If anyone reading this does not understand what I have been writing about, please get a copy of TMS 602 and read with comprehension Part 3.3.5. There will be a test. 

Raise the line and come on around the corner.