This article could never have been written without the guidance and support of my mentor and friend historic building preservation engineer Nels Roselund.  He is best known for his contributions to Los Angeles’ regulations governing the seismic retrofit of masonry  buildings, the seismic retrofit of the San Juan Capistrano Mission, the Big Sur Lighthouse, the historic Bradbury Building, and many other buildings of historical significance, not to mention his contributions to the IEBC Guidelines for the Seismic Retrofit of Existing Buildings.  There are no footnotes.  The various links are my sources.

House with brick foundation

Deteriorated Brick Foundation


Why This Article on Brick Foundations

This article was a process of discovery.  I knew very little about brick foundations when I started this investigation, except almost every professional I met said they are very vulnerable to earthquakes and their replacement should be a high priority for anyone living in earthquake country.  It led me to the Great Wall of China, Ancient Greece and the Pyramids.  I even paid a visit to the Tower of Babel and met a young mason and backyard inventor of Portland Cement, named Joseph Aspdin of Liverpool, who changed the history of the modern world.

It made me think of how arbitrary the universe is.  Life on this planet would be completely different if the molten orb that was once the earth had by chance created an abundance of limestone in the cooling process.  Mortar built kingdoms, the Roman Colosseum, and the lack of mortar caused other kingdoms to perish.

 The study of a humble brick led me all over the world and back into ancient and modern history. It showed how all cultures are interconnected through mortar, an idea I believe you will rarely see mentioned in a history book.

The study of a humble brick led me all over the world and back into ancient and modern history.  It showed me one more way all cultures are interconnected.

I believe my discoveries are important, especially for the home inspection industry, which advises new home buyers about retrofitting their homes with brick foundations whenever a house is sold.  Given a brick foundation replacement costs on average between $65,000 in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and $120,000 in San Francisco proper, I believe the information in this article will save Bay Area homeowners hundreds of thousands of dollars, and over time, probably millions of dollars in unnecessary foundation work.

Limitations in Research on Newer Brick Foundations

Building departments and other investigators have done very little research on the earthquake resistance of brick foundations.  This is surprising because many Bay Area homes built between 1870 and 1930 were built with fired brick foundations.  At least, very little that is available to the public.  Homeowners replaced many of them over the years, but foundation replacement is so expensive many are still there.

If you Google “retrofit, earthquakes, brick foundations” or similar keywords, almost nothing comes up.  After multiple searches the only thing I found is this very limited report. It should be noted the original source of this material is missing and therefore suspect.

On page 211 of the book, EARTHQUAKE STRENGTHENING: For Vulnerable Homes, structural engineer Thor Matteson concludes, “I am not aware of brick foundation failures that lead to a collapse of wood structures.”

The question to ask in response to this statement is: Has there been, or can there be, significant damage short of collapse caused by brick foundations?  If so, is it worth mitigating?

I, too, am not aware of any serious failures of brick foundations, nor have I met anyone who is.  However, I believe this is probably because post-earthquake investigative reports are almost non-existent, or at best, known only by a few specialists.  We simply don’t know enough to draw a definite conclusion.

It All Comes Down to Testing

I was hoping to find  a “rule of thumb” with which one could address retrofitting brick foundations, after a cursory examination of its condition.  I discovered to my surprise that there are an almost infinite number of variables in mortar and brick quality.  I quickly saw if there is no rule of thumb regarding brick foundation quality, it would be impossible to develop a rule of thumb for retrofitting them.

In the final analysis, I concluded the only way to know if a brick foundation could withstand lateral earthquake forces is with testing.  How this testing is done, and what it means, will be explored later on in this article.

If you want to know without further investigating if your brick foundation is sufficient as a base for a seismic retrofit, stop reading this article and simply Google “materials testing labs” and tell them what you want the mortar and brick tested as described in this article

Moving Further

If you happen to be a random oddball who is curious about the history of mortar, especially in America, brick quality, testing procedures, what these tests mean, the mechanics of retrofitting homes with brick foundations, etc. you might find this article fascinating.

Please forgive me if this article sometimes rambles onto seemingly irrelevant topics as I take you on the research path that led me to its conclusion.  I hit a few dead ends, but I think the information I uncovered will still be of interest to most readers (at least to the atypical oddball oddball like myself).

By way of warning from here on this article is extremely technical and the average reader might find it boring. I urge you to persevere.

First Misconception: Rebar Is Important And Floor Movement Will Always Cause the Mortar to Fail

Here is an excerpt from a San Francisco Chronicle article on brick foundations which exemplifies a common misconception.

“There are basically two things glaringly inadequate about brick foundations in general. Unlike rebar-reinforced concrete foundations that are monolithic, brick foundations are pieced together one brick at a time with no reinforcement. If the compressive load of the house shifts, the mortar joints in the brick will fail.

There is quite a bit of technical jargon here so let me do some translating.    A “compressive load” means pressure on top of the foundation caused by the building’s weight.  If the compressive load of the house shifts, the mortar joints in the brick will fail.  Is a fancy way of saying “if the house slides on top of the foundation, the mortar will fail.”   The author of this article holds the very common misconception that a brick foundation must fail if the house slides on top of it. Is there any evidence of this?  I certainly don’t know of any.

It is always the weakest shear plane that fails first.  The base of the house, called the mudsill, sits directly on the brick or is mortared to the brick.  If mortar is used at all, it is for leveling the mudsill on the brick.  Mortar will not stick to the wood mudsill because wood contracts and expands with moisture, breaking any wood to mortar bond.  Therefore, for the typical brick foundation, rather than the mortar joints failing, the mudsill to brick connection will be the weakest shear plane and will be the first failure point

I am not sure why the author even mentions rebar-reinforced foundations.  Most existing concrete foundations are not rebar-reinforced (rebar consists of long steel rods, usually 1/2 inch thick that are  inside the concrete foundation). Foundations without rebar  perform quite well in earthquakes.  Tests done by the Structural Engineer’s Association conclusively proved that the presence of rebar is irrelevant.

Second Misconception: Deteriorated Mortar Means The Foundation Must Be Replaced.

The article continues “The second point of failure is the mortar itself that binds the brick. Mortar is porous. One hundred years of moisture and ground movement weaken the mortar, compromising the foundation. The bottom line is that for total peace of mind, you’re looking at replacing the foundation. Of course, this is a huge, expensive job best left to experts.”

It is true that mortar exposed to weather can suffer severe deterioration.  However, most of the mortar is not exposed to weathering and repointing the brick is probably all it needs.  Bricks can remain serviceable for centuries.

It is true that mortar exposed to weather can suffer severe deterioration.  However, mortar not exposed to weather the bricks can remain serviceable for centuries.


Ground movement caused by normal settling, can cause cracking.  Inn some cases very large cracks ,but this should have minimal impact on ability of an otherwise healthy brick foundation to be part of a seismic retrofit.  Cracking is almost always caused by poor drainage and here is an article that explains what should do.

What is Mortar?

From the day the first person tried to build a structure out of soil or stone, man has been using mortar of some kind to hold these building materials together.  Several materials were used as mortar depending on what could be found in the area.  The first sun dried clay bricks with clay mortar date 8,300 B.C. E.  .  The pyramids were built were mortared with plaster of Paris.  The Great Wall of China used mortar made of rice flower and lime.  The Sumerians produced the first kiln dried bricks around 3,000 B.C.E. and used bitumen, a form of asphalt.  The first description for bitumen mortar can be found in the story of Tower of Babel  in the old testament.  The Romans created mortar using lime and volcanic ash as shown in this video.

Modern Mortar

Northern European mortar was originally made by mixing lime, sand, and water.  This all changed in 1824 when Joseph Aspid in Leeds England fired powdered limestone and clay together to make Portland cement.  This additive made the mortar much harder and significantly strengthened its ability to firmly bind bricks together.  Portland cement was introduced into the United States in 1871 and due to its superior bonding it quickly migrated all over the United States, including the San Francisco Bay Area.  Even so, mortar mixing was not uniform and there is still a lot of variation in Bay Are Homes.

Let’s Get Technical

As an introduction to the rest of the article I would like to share comments made by one of the scientists with The Masonry Society regarding the issue of mortar strength in brick foundations.

 “I think the issue being raised has been overly simplified. Shear bond (the bond of the brick to the mortar) would be a function of both the mortar and the brick itself, so the relationship between compression strength isn’t really applicable, but obviously both are impacted by including portland cement. Generalizing to the pre-1920s further complicates things. Variability of brick in that time period could vary widely depending on what part of the country the brick was being made/clays, fabrication method, etc. Further, the potential for portland cement to be included in the mortar also could vary wildly depending on the vintage and area of the building. My understand and experience has been indications of portland beginning in the 1870s and by the 1920s it was almost ubiquitous with mortar of the 1920s pushing well toward Type M. Speed of curing and of course the notion that ‘harder is better’ made it a popular additive. Further, we have also found natural cements in mortar in the same time period—so between the brick and the mortar it is complicated and testing would be necessary to verify…BUT….I believe if the foundation is in good condition and being maintained, replacement (???!!) and/or repointing aren’t/should be justified.”

Portland Cement and Mortar Strength

A scientist at the Portland Cement Association had this to say:

“Portland cement was beginning to be added to mortar around the time (early part of the century) of that construction. So it’s hard to know if the mortar in question does or does not contain portland cement. It might. Samples could be taken and tested for an idea of components and for strength. There is a good discussion of historic mortars in a National Park Service brief:

A simple scratch test would give an idea of how strong the mortar is. By that I mean take some hard piece of metal like a nail or screwdriver and see how hard it would be to scratch the surface of the mortar. That would be a very rudimentary way of assessing mortar strength.

Others on this inquiry can speak about the relative effect of mortar strength on wall strength. My inclination is to agree that if the mortar and wall are in decent shape, they likely don’t have to be replaced (for mortar, that means it doesn’t need to be ground out and repointed).

If there is concern about the wall’s structural resistance to earthquakes, there are surface-bonded wraps or strips that can improve out-of-plane resistance: Quakewrap is one example of that type of product.”


What Do We Know About Brick Foundations?

1)  Mortar binds the bricks together.  The stronger the bond, the more resistant to earthquakes the brick foundation will be.

2) Brick quality has an impact on mortar’s ability to bind bricks together.

3) Mortar deteriorates when exposed to weather.   The action of wetting and drying degrades mortar over time.  Therefore, mortar  exposed to the weather has more deterioration than the mortar below grade.

4) Mortar, like stucco, is brittle.  Once it loses its adhesion to brick, it has very little shear resistance.

5) Failure of the mortar bond holding the bricks together is the primary cause of damage.

6) Mortar quality varies significantly from foundation to foundation. Only testing can determine mortar bond shear strength

Why Do We Care About Mortar Condition?

As mentioned previously, mortar holds the bricks together.  if an earthquake shakes the foundation back and forth, weak mortar could lose all cohesion could cause the bricks to slide on top of each other such that the house would be sitting on loose bricks, and the house will be sitting on loose brick.  i have seen more than a few houses brick foundations where the mortar is similar to sand. This is especially true in San Francisco, where, according to professionals in the home inspection industry, concrete was often mixed with salt water.   If the mortar resembles sand, simple logic tells us serious damage can occur

The “Screwdriver Test”

Before conducting the mortar bond strength test recommended by the International Existing Building Code (IEBC),  examine the overall condition of the mortar.  Do this by prodding the mortar with a screwdriver or awl.  Mortar condition falls into 1 of 4 categories:

  1. The mortar is practically disintegrating. In these cases the mortar resembles something like sand.
  2. It is fairly easy to insert the screwdriver or awl into the mortar joints but eventually it hits hard mortar.
  3. The mortar chips away with difficulty.
  4. It is very hard to penetrate the mortar with a screwdriver.

What Do We Do Now?

In case 1 the foundation should not be considered as part of a retrofit strategy.

However, you may still be able to use the footing. Check the quality of the mortar in the footing, its width, and its depth below grade.  Mortar in good condition can contribute to an effective retrofit in two ways:  Where the foundation touches the ground at its base and side, resistance to sliding is provided by friction when the bottom of the brick footing tries to slide on the soil it sits. Sliding movement is resisted when it the foundation rams into the soil at each end.

If the brick is in poor condition, but the footing is in good condition, I recommend building a new concrete footing next to the existing brick footing in the crawl space. Be sure and key it into the brick footing on each end.  The keys allow the designer to take advantage of the soil bearing resistance and the end bearing resistance of the brick foundation.

Create a key like this: remove a segment of brick from the footing at each end of the new concrete foundation.  This will create two cavities, one on each end of the new foundation.

Pour the new concrete into the footing forms. Fill these cavities with concrete as part of the new footing.  To effectively connect the new footing to the existing footing, the brick foundation will need to be the form for the concrete on the inside of the footing, with wood form on the outside.


Brick foundation retrofit using new concrete


How to Check The Mortar Shear Strength Of a Brick Foundation

in cases 2,  3 and 4 of the screwdriver test,  where the mortar may be in serviceable condition, it should be tested  as described in the 2015 IEBC Appendix A, chapter 1 Seismic Retrofit Guidelines for Existing Buildings.  the Seattle edition of this appendix can be  downloaded here or you can view the IEBC edition online.  The two documents are identical.

  1. First of all, remove a single brick as shown by the red X.
  2. Next, remove the mortar from the head joint in the adjacent brick.
  3. Third, place an hydraulic jack with a pressure gauge inside the cavity left by the removed brick.
  4. Fourth, exert pressure on the head brick to the left of the jack.
  5. Lastly, as soon as any mortar falls from the horizontal grout lines above or below the brick, read the gauge to see how much  pressure measured in pounds was needed to move the brick.
  6. Divide the pounds of pressure by the surface area of both sides of the brick measured in square inches.  This is the shear strength of the mortar bond between the test brick and the bricks below and above it measured in pounds per square inch (psi).


Hydraulic ram used in brick foundation testLocation of bricks for brick foundation shear testPressure gauge for brick foundation shear test



What Exactly Does the Building Code Say About Brick Foundation Mortar Tests?

This is how it is described in Appendix A of the International Existing Building Code

“[BS] A106.3.3.1 Mortar tests

The quality of mortar in all masonry walls shall be determined by performing in-place shear tests in accordance with the following:

  1. The bed joints of the outer wythe of the masonry shall be tested in shear by laterally displacing a single brick relative to the adjacent bricks in the same wythe. The head joint (where two bricks meet at a corner) opposite the loaded end of the test brick shall be carefully excavated and cleared. The brick adjacent to the loaded end of the test brick shall be carefully removed by sawing or drilling and excavating to provide space for a hydraulic ram and steel loading blocks. Steel blocks, the size of the end of the brick, shall be used on each end of the ram to distribute the load to the brick. The blocks shall not contact the mortar joints. The load shall be applied horizontally, in the plane of the wythe. The load recorded at first movement of the test brick as indicated by spalling of the face of the mortar bed joints is Vtest in Equation A1-3.

Definition of quality mortar in brick foundation tests


Engineering formula to determine shear strength of brick foundations




Do this test in several locations, concentrating on those area where the mortar appears weakest.

We Did The Test, Now What?

I know this information made be tedious and If you want to forget about the following word problem and go straight to the answer, which is the important thing, skip down to the example in bold.

Let’s assume our test brick has a mortar test value Vto= 640psi.  This is the shear resistance of the mortar on the top and bottom of the brick.

We do not subtract PD +  L as shown in the formula.  For one thing it is not possible to subtract vertical loads from lateral loads.  And even if it were, the amount of weight on a single brick would be so insignificant, as well as impossible to measure or calculate, that it should be ignored.   In any event, the press (we assume they mean pressure), whatever it is, will increase, rather than decrease the shear resistance of the mortar joint.   If a brick  is 8″ by 4″ the surface area on each side is 32 square inches.

Only one shear plane of mortar fails due to sliding in an earthquake.  To determine the shear resistance of a single shear plane in our test brick,  divide 640 psi/ 2 = 320 psi.  This is the Vto  (tested mortar shear value) of  one face of the 4″ by 8″ (32 square inch) test brick.  320to/32 square inches = 10 psi.

For example, let’s figure out the shear resistance of a 10 feet long brick foundation.   10′ x 12″ (conversion of feet to inches of feet to inches) / 8 inches length for each brick), = 18 (bricks) x 320  psi tested shear resistance = 5,760 shear resistance over the 10 foot span.

This example is for educational purposes only.  As shown in this report, mortar is usually several  magnitudes  greater than 10 psi so the probability of the bricks becoming separated from each other is very small.

Mortar Test Table





You Also Need To Test The Brick

Historic building preservation engineer Nels Roselund told me the brick must also be tested to see if the bolt would crush it at the top.  The best way to do this is with a crush test where a bolt a bolt is epoxied into the brick and it is tested exactly like the mortar test mentioned earlier, except the ram pushes directly on the side of the bolt.

There is no epoxy or acrylic adhesive that has been tested in brick walls where a threaded rod (bolt) was installed vertically.  My choice would be to use Hilty Hy 270 expoxy because bolts have been tested horizontally in brick walls, as shown in the image above.

If you think the mortar is in great shape go straight to the brick best.  Epoxy a 5/8 piece of allthread through at least three courses of brick with HY 270 epoxy and test the bolt/brick connection directly as described above for a mortar shear test.



If Both Tests Prove Positive

  1. Determine the base shear on a particular wall line.
  2. Calculate the linear footage of plywood and bolts that will be required.
  3. Based on the mortar shear test results, decide if the entire existing mortar is strong enough to keep all the bricks together.
  4. Test the brick.  If the crush test demonstrates brick damage at bolt locations will be minimal, retrofit the house as you would a house with a concrete foundation.
  5. If the brick damage is unacceptable, install more bolts and distribute the load over a larger number of bricks as shown below.
  6. Make the plywood as long as possible to resist overturning. Do a pull test on the brick to see if holdowns are an option.
  7. Install bolts 2-3 feet apart along the entire foundation,, based on the results of the crush test.

Make sure and attach all the bolts to all the shear walls by tying all mudsill breaks together with steel straps. This distributes the earthquake force along the entire foundation so it isn’t concentrated in any particular area.

bolt locations on cripple wall for brick foundation retrofits

Brick Foundations and the California Historic Building Code

This code applies to a “qualified historical building or structure deemed of importance to the history, architecture, or culture of an area.”

According to table 8-805.1 in this cose, the mortar bond may be allowed, without testing a maximum ultimate strength of 9 pounds per square inch.

California historic building code brick shear test

I personally think this is quite odd.  Allowing a seismic retrofit of an  historic treasure using an untested brick foundation does not make sense.


If tests prove the mortar shear strength is high, and the brick does not crush in the brick crush test, there is no reason to believe brick foundation cannot be the foundation base of an effective seismic retrofit.  And don’t forget to say a prayer of thanks to Mr. Aspid of Leeds England for saving you thousands of dollars.