by Nick Gromicko, CMI®
Solid brick and brick veneer structures use some of the same construction materials, but their installation techniques are different.
Solid brick houses (also known as double-brick and solid masonry houses) are built from either two layers of brick, or a layer of concrete block and an adjacent layer of brick on the exterior. The brick is part of the building’s structural support system; if the brick were removed, the building would suffer structural failures.
Brick veneer is not, contrary to popular belief, composed of thin pieces of brick, such as is found in veneer floors, patios, and decorative interior elements. Brick veneer houses look almost identical to solid brick structures, except that they are built using a very different technique. The house itself is constructed from steel or wooden framing, and then covered with wood sheathing or insulation. A single layer of brick is built near each exterior wall and attached to the house with metal ties. Veneer brick does not support the structural load of the building; if the brick were removed, the house would continue to stand.
Solid brick and brick veneer both use the same bricks, although each style becomes defined during installation. Inspectors can use the presence of the following elements as evidence that a wall is solid brick rather than veneer:
- header bricks. These bricks appear smaller than the other bricks, but they are actually the same size; laid sideways, only the short end is visible. The header bricks act as a bridge between the outer wythe (layer) and the inner wythe, and prevent the two from separating, which is especially important as the wall increases in height. Header bricks are found in every sixth row in many solid masonry configurations, although other configurations are possible. On occasion, metal ties are used to hold wythes together and, in this case, no header bricks may have been required, allowing the wall to appear like a veneer.
- reinforced arches. Surrounding windows in solid brick houses, there will be reinforced arches with blocks that face in toward the house to reinforce the opening.
- older brick houses (older than 30 years) are much more likely to be solid brick than brick veneer.
Brick veneer, unlike solid brick, can be installed any time after building construction has been completed. The home's exterior sheathing is covered with special paper to protect it against moisture and wire ties are attached at intervals, per building codes. The bricks are all laid horizontally (no header bricks) and are located several inches to a foot from the home. Weep holes are used to allow the space between the brick and frame walls to breathe and to permit accumulated moisture in this area to escape. Unfortunately, weep holes are often clogged by mortar as a result of the construction process. Clogged weep holes will allow moisture to accumulate behind the bricks, leading to decay that attracts pest infestation. Special vents can be installed in the veneer surface to relieve this problem, although many people consider them unsightly.
Benefits of Solid Brick
- Solid brick is much more stable in the event of an earthquake or heavy winds. Solid brick houses are resilient and may last centuries.
- Because there is no interior wood framing system, termites and decay are not an issue.
Benefits of Brick Veneer
Builders specifically choose brick veneer for the following functional and stylistic qualities:
- It is relatively easy to install, since there is only one layer of masonry.
- It is generally more affordable.
- It requires a relatively simple foundation and support system. Solid brick homes, by contrast, are very heavy, and require substantial footing and foundation systems.
- The air cavity between the brick and the home helps to keep moisture out of the home and acts as an effective insulating space, especially if it is filled with insulation. Solid brick walls are poor insulators, and also may allow moisture to penetrate exterior walls and cause problems in the home. Note that the house wrap beneath veneer may leak during heavy rain, perhaps due to the holes that are placed in the wrap during installation.
- Like solid brick, veneer is durable and fireproof, it looks fancy, and it requires little maintenance and no paint or stain.
In summary, solid brick and brick veneer homes use many identical building materials, although they differ by their methods of installation.