Brick + Beam Detroit

Need specialized expertise on Victorian balloon-frame / masonry foundation structural issues

Asked by Adam at 4:03pm on Jun 19 2016

I have a 2-story house in Mexicantown that was built in the 1870s, and we are doing a historic restoration, since the interior is essentially all original still. It sits on a soft brick foundation which most likely has issues, and the framing is balloon-style and has suffered damage from both carpenter ants and carpenter bees.

I had the highly-rated Foundation Systems of Michigan out to look at the foundation since they've done work on my previous house, but I got the impression that they weren't especially gung-ho to deal with a brick foundation. He said it "looked good for its age." However even my untrained eyes can see that there are issues that need to be addressed, I just think that they only really deal with modern concrete and block foundations, and don't really do much work with soft, historic brick.

I can see in the basement that there has been ant damage to structural members and was shored up at some point, but i have a feeling that when I pull the siding off I will find that the studs are compromised as well, which in a balloon-framed 2-story house will present structural issues concerning load. I don't want to start jacking the house up to replace rotted wood since it might cause more damage. Not to mention our thin concrete "floor" was added on top of a dirt floor, and might not be strong enough to bear much weight.

Is there some contractor or consultant out there who specializes in historic restoration and would be able/willing to analyze/address such issues holistically, the proper way?


at 10:19am on Jun 24 2016

Hmm...I'm slightly leery of giving advice without pics or seeing the building myself so take this as my general thoughts only.

Generally when I see brick foundation issues they come in two forms: first, efflorescence, spalling, and a general breakdown of brick from a combo of paint, too much moisture, and the use of cement-based renders or mortars in previous repointing and repairs. The real only option if significant is to address underlying cause of problem, replace badly damaged brick, and treat efflorescence. The second brick foundation issue is more problematic and would relate to movement/heaving of the wall...which requires an engineer evaluation.

With regard to balloon framing, I am assuming that the stud walls and basement floor jousts are sitting on top of a sill plate on top of the brick foundation perhaps with an additional center beam on posts (ideally) sitting on footings in the floor. The real question seems to be how bad is any rot, moisture, and bug damage (they like food and water like us - so they are a symptom of other issues) and if it's limited can those areas be replaced (in the case of the sill plate) and sistered or restructured (in the case of studs and floor joists). I seem to recall that in 2012 This Old House did a rehab in Cambridge that was balloon framed. Old House Web may also be a good source for more guidance on balloon framing structural issues.

If you are looking for preservation-minded trades in Michigan that may be able to assists you, check out the Michigan Historic Preservation Network's Historic Resource Council Member Directory:

at 5:08pm on Jun 24 2016

Matt, thanks.
Yes there is a little efflorescence, but not much spalling. The brick has apparently never been painted (or at least it is bare now), and there is no evidence of improper hard-concrete-mortar repairs. My main concerns with it are that there are portions that are clearly no longer plumb, and there are some large cracks, and the mortar is decaying in spots. We have determined that in at least one area a bulge was caused by a tree (that i have since killed), and in another area there was probably frost heave occurring due to standing water being allowed to slope toward the foundation. I guess I just want to make sure that the house isn't trying to migrate off of the foundation because of being no longer properly supported by its wooden members.

And yes there is a center beam supported by posts (actually several steel basement jacks, and one brick pillar), which are resting on footings, sort-of. The center beam itself has seen extensive rot, and has been propped / braced in multiple locations in the past, apparently in response to this. Whether it is actually sufficiently supported now, I can't say.

I believe i pulled up the episode of This Old House you referenced on Youtube, but it was of limited usefulness.

at 5:54pm on Jun 24 2016


You need an experienced engineer and/or preservation minded contractor to come in assess the basement and framing. This should be done sooner rather than later if there is any sign of continued active movement in the foundation, if the floor joists appear to be moving away from the sill plate, or sections of the exterior walls are out of plumb. Hopefully that MHPN contractor resource can help you find someone. At a minimum, it sounds like the house will need to be braced and maybe lightly jacked (not lifted off the foundation) to allow for replacement of the center beam, post placement, and any needed proper footings. Hopefully any foundation issues will be minor and can be dealt at same time.

at 1:02pm on Jun 25 2016

Thanks again.
I tried opening that MHPN link, but my computer just freezes up. i managed to find some local contractors on Google that might be worth looking at.

these guys specialize in masonry foundations:

these guys do general restoration contracting, specializing in historic sites:

at 10:22pm on Jun 26 2016

Adam, you can also find the MHPN directory on our resources page:

I think it's a great place to start, and if you have questions about a firm, you could always ask the MHPN staff what they know of the firm and if they can connect you with others who have used them.

Good luck and let us know how things turn out!

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