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Spalling Bricks Explained

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23rd May 2024 (Last updated on 6th Jun 2024) 7 minute read

Spalling refers to the damage on bricks such as chipping and cracking. Spalling brickwork is a major problem that threatens the structural integrity of a property if left untreated. It can be found in any property but is especially prevalent in older and historical buildings.

Having a property survey carried out can highlight if any spalling has occurred over time. Equally, there are ways you can minimise the risk of spalled bricks once you have moved in.

In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about spalled brickwork. This includes what causes spalling and the preventative measures you can take.

  1. What is Spalling Brickwork?
  2. What are the Main Causes of Spalling Bricks?
  3. What Problems Can Come from Spalling Bricks?
  4. How to Identify Spalling Bricks
  5. Should You Repair Spalling Bricks?
  6. Tips to Prevent Spalling Bricks
  7. Finding a Surveyor

What is Spalling Brickwork?

Brickwork should typically last decades without needing to be maintained. However, over time, there are various elements that can contribute to the decay of your property’s bricks.

This is a major issue for homeowners as spalling bricks can be extremely costly to repair or replace, depending on the damage. There is also a risk of structural issues in severe cases.

If the bricks are left untreated, the cracks and crumbling are more likely to spread, causing even more damage.

What are the Main Causes of Spalling Bricks?

Knowing the causes of spalled brickwork will ensure you know what to look out for when examining your bricks. It's important to note that historic brickwork should be inspected regularly to promote a long life for your bricks.

Here are the main causes of spalled bricks:

Water

Water is the most common cause of spalled bricks. Absorption and moisture contribute to the decay of the brick and surrounding masonry. Not every brick is made from the same materials. The main materials used in bricks are clay, concrete, and sand. They may also contain iron oxide, lime, and magnesia.

Bricks containing concrete are ideal for interior structures but have a porous surface. They are more likely to trap moisture and spall when used in external walls. Clay bricks, on the other hand, are less porous.

When the water becomes trapped in bricks, this can cause freeze-thaw cycles. When exposed to freezing temperatures, the water damage increases. This can result in rapid deterioration and costly repair work.

Efflorescence

Efflorescence occurs when there is exposure to salt. It can form quickly in bricks made from porous materials such as concrete. However, efflorescence is likely to happen over time with bricks that are exposed to the weather, especially rain and snow.

Efflorescence is easily visible as it appears as a grey or white powder on bricks. If you come across any efflorescence on your brickwork, you will need a specialist to repair or replace the spalled bricks.

Pollution

Protective coats of masonry paint are essential when dealing with properties in busy areas. This includes cities and main roads. Traffic pollution can contribute to the speedy decay of unprotected bricks due to the levels of nitric acid.

The damage caused by pollution tends to be visible. In severe cases, this can create cracks which encourages moisture absorption. This can then generate movement and warping, causing damage to the bricks and surrounding masonry.

Pointing

Incorrect pointing or repointing can accelerate spalling in bricks. The bricks in question have lime mortar applied and any uneven surfaces are sanded down. The lime mortar will reinforce the brick and help prevent any flaking or crumbling.

There are some cases where cement pointing can lead to spalling. Lime mortar cannot be applied to every material such as concrete. If this occurs, it can cause major problems as the concrete will encourage the lime mortar to absorb all moisture.

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What Problems Can Come from Spalling Bricks?

One of the first signs of spalled brickwork is the changed appearance and crumbling. However, spalling bricks can cause major issues beyond the aesthetic if left untreated.

Here are some of the major problems caused by spalling bricks:

Health Risks

Spalled brickwork may cause mould which can lead to major health risks. If your bricks have absorbed too much moisture, this can seep into the masonry and result in mildew and damp.

Masonry Damage

Spalling not only affects the bricks themselves but can also spread to the surrounding masonry. This can lead to prominent cracks appearing which will let in more moisture, causing significant damage.

Structural Collapse

The worst-case scenario is that spalling can lead to structural collapses if left untreated. Depending on where the spalled brickwork is, this can be extremely dangerous. For example, if your spalling bricks are on the chimney, this can be a major hazard.

If any structural collapses occur, you must have the brickwork and masonry repaired and replaced. This can be extremely costly depending on how much damage and how many bricks have fallen.

How to Identify Spalling Bricks

The main signs of spalled bricks are if there is any chipping or peeling on the bricks. In severe cases, cracks may have spread to the surrounding masonry. This can potentially cause major structural damage.

Spalled bricks have a crumbly and fragile texture, so be wary when inspecting any chipping to avoid any further damage.

Having a RICS Home Survey Level 2 or 3 carried out can identify if you have spalling brickwork and the severity of the issue.

RICS Home Survey Level 2

The RICS Home Survey Level 2, also known as a HomeBuyers Report, is an intermediate survey. This is best suited for newer properties and buildings with standard construction and properties. If any spalling is found, your surveyor will include photographs in the report and a brief description.

RICS Home Survey Level 3

The RICS Home Survey Level 3, also known as a Building Survey, is the most comprehensive survey available. This option is suitable for all properties but is essential for historical and listed buildings. It can also be beneficial for properties with non-standard construction.

Like the Level 2, the Level 3 report will include photographs of any spalling found. Your surveyor will include a detailed description and advice on what reparations are needed. In some cases, your surveyor may provide estimated reparation costs.

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Should You Repair Spalling Bricks?

It is essential to have any spalled bricks repaired or replaced, especially if the surrounding masonry is damaged. Depending on the location and severity of the spalling, there could be risks of collapse and structural damage.

It is highly recommended to seek advice from a chartered surveyor if spalling is found. They can give you an outline of what damage has occurred and offer advice on how to proceed.

How Much Does it Cost to Repair it?

Spalled brickwork costs between £12 - £26, according to Checkatrade. The cost is dependent on the type of brick, the location of the bricks, and how many are damaged.

Your local brick specialist will carry out an inspection and determine an accurate quote based on these criteria.

If the bricks are located in an area that is difficult to access, such as halfway up a wall, you may be faced with high costs due to the amount of work involved.

Tips to Prevent Spalling Bricks

Even if your property doesn’t have spalled bricks, it’s best to take preventative measures to avoid spalling from occurring.

Here are some methods to minimise the risk of spalled brickwork:

  • Make sure your bricks are free from any plastic paint and apply a breathable masonry sealant. This will help minimise the amount of moisture.
  • Regularly check your home and repair any bricks that have been exposed to leaks and other issues.
  • Install a trellis or non-invasive plants to protect the bricks from any traffic pollution.
  • Reinforce exterior bricks by pruning any invasive plants or crawling vines.
  • Make sure your drains are clear of any blockages to prevent floods or leaks.

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