Deteriorated Brick FoundationThis article could never have been written without the guidance and support of my mentor and friend historic building preservation structural engineer Nels Roselund with over 50 years’ experience.  His help was instrumental in the writing of this article because masonry buildings were his specialty.  He was called upon to retrofit buildings such as the priceless Bradbury Building in Los Angeles.


                        THE BRADBURY BUILDING.

Why this article?

This article could never have been written without the guidance and support of my mentor and friend historic building preservation engineer Nels Roselund with over 50 years’ experience. He is best known for his contributions to Los Angeles’ regulations governing the seismic retrofit of masonry (brick) 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 International Building Code Guidelines for the Seismic Retrofit of Existing Buildings.  Not only is he a fine human being, but also the best seismic retrofit engineer I have ever worked with, and I have worked with some fancy pants engineers.

There are no footnotes.  The various links are my sources.


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.

The images on either side are of this text are from a FEMA handbook written for contractors and engineers.  I personally know the engineer who created these images and when I first saw them it was clear that he, like most engineers, had never seen an actual brick foundation.

Brick foundations do not look like this.  What you see here is a perfectly rectangular brick foundation with the base of the rectangle touching the earth.  In reality brick foundations sit on a brick footing or pad, two or 3 feet wide.  The rectangular brick foundation rests on this footing.  This is critical to understand because when brick foundations are replaced the original footing remains intact and the concrete foundation is built on top of it.

Some people are concerned that if a concrete foundation rests on a brick foundation this means the concrete foundation is not embedded the minimum of 12″ into the earth as required by the building code or that the concrete will slide on the brick.  The first thing to remember is that the 12″ embedment requirement is there primarily to protect the foundation from freezing and secondarily to make sure the foundation is not built on fill such as sand.

So far as the concrete sliding on the footing goes,  it must be remember that the house, earth, and foundation all move together.  If the earth moves six feet, the foundation will move six feet, the brick footing will move six feet, and the house will move along with it.   So long as the foundation and house are connected together with a retrofit it does not matter how much it slides.  Many years ago I asked the structural engineer who trained me what he saw when he was doing structural evaluations after the Northridge Earthquake.  He told me foundation might slide an inch or two on the earthquake but he had never seen it himself.

How It All Started

This article was a process of discovery.  I knew very little about brick foundations when I started.  All I knew is that there were a lot of opinions which divided themselves along two lines.  In one line were those who said, “always replace a brick foundation”.  In the other line were those who said, “consult a structural engineer.”  Where the engineers would land was anybody’s guess- but for the most part they were in line one.

I set out to discover the facts and see where they led me.

A foundation contractor recently told me a brick foundation replacement costs on average $85,000 for the typical house in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and that the average price in San Francisco proper is $160,000.  I looked at a brick foundation in San Francisco of a small San Francisco Victorian where a contractor gave the customer a bid of $250,000, so I am not really sure how much it costs.

Limitations in Research on 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 contractors built homes with fired brick foundation between 1870 and 1930. Homeowners replaced many of them over the years (probably unnecessarily), but since 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 further promotes the misconception that brick foundations perform badly in earthquakes because, well, because they are brick foundations. No science or evidence to back up this claim.  Just conjecture.

It All Comes Down to Testing

I was hoping to find a “rule of thumb” with which one could address retrofitting brick foundations. I discovered there are an almost infinite number of variables in brick foundation quality.  All these variables made developing a rule of thumb impossible.

In the final analysis, I concluded the only way to know if a brick foundation can withstand lateral earthquake forces is with testing.  Just Google “materials testing labs” and tell them you want your brick foundation tested.

Moving Further

The rest of this article explores the history of mortar (especially in America), brick quality, testing procedures, what these tests mean, the mechanics of retrofitting homes with brick foundations, etc.

What is the Author Trying to Say?

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 heavy house slides on top of the foundation, then the mortar will fail.” 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. The mudsill is mortared to the brick. The contractors use mortar to level 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 for the earthquake resistance of bolts are all done in concrete that does not have rebar. In addition, tests done by the Structural Engineer’s Association conclusively proved that the presence of rebar is irrelevant.

Second Misconception: The Foundation Must Be Replaced If the Mortar is Bad.

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.”

Mortar exposed to weather deteriorates.  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, if the mortar is not exposed to weather, the bricks can remain serviceable for centuries.


Ground movement caused by normal settling can cause cracking. In 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. Poor drainage causes cracking in most cases.

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.  Mortar uses several materials 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 Egyptians mortared the pyramids with plaster of Paris. The Great Wall of China used mortar made of lime and rice. 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 Europeans mortar originally mixed lime, sand, and water to create mortar.  This all changed in 1824 when Joseph Aspdin 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. The United States started producing Portland Cement 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 Area 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. Weak mortar could lose all cohesion could cause the bricks to slide on top of each and the house might lose vertical support with catastrophic consequences. 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 contractors sometimes mixed Portland Cement with salt water.

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 a 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 may be tedious. To skip 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.

How to Use This Information

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

The brick must also be tested to see if the bolts will crush the brick. Especially the top brick. The best way to do this is with a crush test. Do it just like you did the mortar test. First thing y0u do is Epoxy a 5/8″ piece of all-thread through at last three courses of brick with Hilti HY 270 epoxy. Lastly, push on the side of the bolt with the ram and see if the brick holds up.

Vertical all-thread has not been tested with epoxy or acrylic adhesives in brick walls. However, the epoxy manufacturer Hilti tested their Hy 270 epoxy horizontally and it performed well. Hilti HY 250 is the brand we use.



If Both Tests Prove Positive, or You Decide to Trust the Brick as Is.

  1. Determine the base shear on a particular wall line.
  2. Calculate the linear footage of plywood and bolts that will be required.
  3. Look at the mortar shear test results. Decide if the existing mortar is strong enough to keep all the bricks together.
  4. Test the brick.  If it passes the test, retrofit the house as you would a house with a concrete foundation
  5. In the event the brick fails the test, put in more bolts 2-3 feet apart along the entire length of the foundation.  The bolts distribute the earthquake force along the entire foundation.  This prevents the concentrated in any particular area.
  6. Do the same thing if you didn’t test the brick. This makes sure the earthquake force goes into the entire length of the foundation.  If each bolt resists a small part of the earthquake force, the bad foundation might be good enough. The image below shows bolts going into the foundation about every 2 feet.
  7. Make the plywood as long as possible to resist overturning. Do a pull test on the brick to see if hold-downs are an option.
  8. Finally, connect all mudsill breaks together with steel straps.

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 case, 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 a historic treasure using an untested brick foundation does not make sense.


Let’s assume tests prove the mortar shear strength is high and the brick passes the crush test. This means the foundation is suitable for an effective retrofit.  If you find out your foundation is fine, don’t forget to say a prayer of thanks to Mr. Aspdin of Leeds, England, for saving you thousands of dollars.  His Portland cement 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 not 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. I discovered brick and mortar interconnects all cultures together.