Based on my personal experience over the past three decades of inspecting houses, I would say that differential brick expansion is the most common cause of cracking in brick veneer homes. The second is sag in double-wide garage door steel lintel beams. The third is steel lintel expansion. The fourth is differential foundation settlement and rounding out the list at fifth is reflective cracking.
As I’ve said many times, foundation repair contractors lump all five of these into one category: foundation settlement or foundation failure. This is literally the farthest thing from the truth when talking about cracks in brick veneer homes. We seldom see any differential foundation settlement problems that warrant expensive foundation underpinning repairs!
The Top 5 Causes of Cracks in Brick Veneer Homes:
#1: Differential Brick Expansion
Differential brick expansion is by far the most common cause of cracking in brick veneer. It is pretty easy to understand and spot. It can be stair-step or vertical but it always has a nearly uniform crack width, and you will not find corresponding cracks or signs of building distortion inside the home, directly opposite these cracks. These cracks form in nearly all clay brick masonry veneer houses because builders in our area don’t understand the need for expansion joints. The Brick Industry Association explains this in their Tech Note 18A. Hence, if the builder does not provide expansion joints in brick veneer construction at the proper locations, the brick veneer will nearly always develop expansion cracks (create its own expansion joints). Clay brick masonry undergoes irreversible expansion during its early life and then expands/contracts forever thereafter due to seasonal and daily environmental changes. This creates stress concentrations around door and window openings or at offsets in walls. These cracks are nothing to worry about (structurally) but form the basis of nearly all foundation repairs made in our geographic area, pathetically and unfortunately. It’s truly a tragedy!
Cause #2: Sag in Double-Wide Garage Door Lintel Beams
Sag in double-wide garage door lintel beams can be tragic. Again, this is attributable to builder error or stupidity. The steel angle lintel that supports the brick located above the garage door opening must be bolted or welded to a structural back up that carries or supports the entire weight of the brick. There is no fabricated or rolled structural steel angle (lintel) that can span 16 to 18 feet and support any significant brick veneer weight (several feet tall), without sagging and, ultimately, cracking the brick veneer. In many circumstances, it may be necessary to perform stabilizing repairs and in the worst cases, remove/replace the brick veneer as well as the lintel with a much stronger one often comprised of tall steel plates with welded angles, which are bolted to the existing wood header for stability. The new weldment lintel is designed to support the entire brick veneer weight without deflecting more than 0.3 inches as recommended by the Brick Industry Association to prevent cosmetic cracking.
Many foundation contractors look at these cracks and recommend foundation underpinning. Whenever I hear of this, I genuinely question their knowledge and/or Code of Ethics.
Cause #3: Steel Lintel Expansion
Steel lintel expansion results in vertical cracks or stair-step cracks above the upper corners of window and door openings. Steel expands and contracts with changes in temperature. During the hot summers, the steel expands and will push outward on the adjacent brick veneer if the mason does not provide an expansion space, thus generating small cracks. Again, many foundation repair contractors call these settlement cracks and recommend expensive repairs. Nothing needs to be done!
Cause #4: Differential Foundation Settlement
Although, differential foundation settlement can and does occur, I argue that more than 90+ percent of the time, the settlement is so small that it does not represent foundation failure and therefore does not represent a structural problem. Unless the settlement causes windows and doors to wrack/bind, or floors to slope excessively, or adversely affect the wood frame superstructure in some way, no repair is needed! So, if you know of many homes that have been underpinned due to settlement-related brick veneer cracks, there’s a very good chance that someone paid for this unnecessarily. Or, they were duped into paying for one of the other four causes unnecessarily!
Cause #5: Reflective Cracking
Brick veneer is often constructed atop a concrete slab – such as an elevated porch slab or exterior patio. If shrinkage cracks develop in these slabs and the cracks extend to and below the brick veneer, they will nearly always cause cracks in brick veneer to form—hence the name: reflective cracking. Just like tile flooring on concrete slabs. The tile cracks whenever the underlying slab cracks. No repair is needed!
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