Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI

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Are composite walls simpler?

Editor's note: This special edition of Troubleshooting is occasioned by a letter we received a while back from a Michigan architectural firm. The letter contended that the development of the cavity wall system has made masonry more complicated, more expensive, and more prone to problems than it was when solid walls were the norm. It suggested that a return to solid wall construction might be a good idea, and asked what problems such a plan might involve. We forwarded the letter to members of our editorial advisory board and asked for their opinions. Here, we're publishing excerpts from their responces. Our company provides architectural services on jobs typically ranging from $5 million to $50 million. Masonry has traditionally been one of our chief material resources. Prior to the '60s, it was used as a matter of course with little concern for details. The mason knew what to do to make a wall work. Specifications were very detailed with few changes from job to job. Problems related to masonry construction were virtually nonexistent. With the development of cavity wall systems in response to the energy crunch of the mid-'60s, problems with water leakage, efflorescence, cracking, and movement increased dramatically. Members of our firm have spent many hours trying to improve our knowledge of masonry materials and how to use them. We believe we are on the cutting edge of the current technology, but now find the masonry wall to be expensive, hard to build, and highly dependent upon the technique of the mason. It requires intense supervision to assure that all of the elements are installed and in the proper order. For some time, the company's "Old Timers" have asked, "Why not return to the masonry walls of old when they didn't have all of these problems?" At first, we had all of the answers for them, but now we are wondering the same thing ourselves. When circumstances permit, we are proposing to build an exterior wall without an insulated cavity and provide the insulation, vapor barrier, and plaster on the inside wall surface. We don't intend to abandon the cavity wall in applications where it is the logical choice. We will still have flashings, weep holes, movement joints, anchors, and the like, but things would be much simpler again. We recognize that masonry materials are made differently today than they were years ago. We also realize that differential movements will be a great concern. Do you foresee any additional problems with returning to a masonry system that served us well for many years? Dick SedleckyGreiner Inc.Grand Rapids, Mich. More

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