We hear a lot these days about "urban sprawl" - the unchecked, low-quality construction associated with many high-growth areas. Today, hundreds of communities have chosen to combat substandard development with masonry ordinances that require a percentage (50 to 100%) of each home to be sided with a masonry product, like brick or stone.
Some call it new urbanism. Some call it green building, and others call it just plain smart. However it's termed, many city planners and governments favor masonry standards because it gives them a tangible way to establish basic standards for the durability, safety and curb appeal of residential construction in their communities. Masonry guidelines ensure that homes are built to resist fire, hail and wind. They also guarantee that new homes will be built to last and require little or no exterior maintenance. And last but not least, masonry requirements leave plenty of room for individual expression and design choices.
Homeowners like the standards because they are an insurance policy of sorts on the future direction of their neighborhood or community. You never know what the neighbors next door will choose to build, but if you live in a community with a masonry ordinance, you can at least rest assured that it will be built with quality materials.
Benefits of Brick
In addition to the sheer beauty of a brick home, there are some "behind the scenes" benefits of that appeal to both homeowners and city officials:
- 35% energy savings when brick veneer is added to a wall (Construction Technology Laboratories, Skokie, Illinois)
- 32% decrease in fire insurance rates (Brick Home Building, Vol. 1, No. 2, Reston, Virginia)
- 5% to 10% increase in resale value - based on a study that showed brick homes commanded an average 6% higher resale price than non-brick homes in the same neighborhood (independent appraisers, Marshall & Swift, Tidewater, Virginia).
- Brick never needs repainting and it won't crack, rust, peel, corrode, melt, buckle, warp, bend or dent like other siding materials.
These benefits more than offset the small initial premium of a brick home. In fact, a home built with 50% brick costs just 4 to 6% more than the same home clad in 100% hardboard. The brick homebuyer can amortize the additional cost of brick over the life of the mortgage and will earn back the extra cost of brick in the first several years due to lower home maintenance and insurance costs.
The long-term cost benefits of a brick home are especially important to entry level buyers. Because buyers who have to stretch to purchase a home are usually the ones least able to spend money maintaining it, lower cost housing should be built to withstand little or no upkeep.
The Homeowner's Role
As a homeowner or buyer, what does all this mean to you? When shopping for a home, you should ask about masonry ordinances in any neighborhood you are considering. Remember that while most masonry ordinances are passed by a city or county government, these standards may also be implemented on a smaller scale in the form of building codes or deed restrictions in master planned or newly developed neighborhoods and communities.
If you already own a home in a community with a masonry ordinance, you can take comfort knowing that your town has made a commitment to smart growth and to maintaining or enhancing the long term value of your home and neighborhood.
If you live in a community without masonry requirements, you can become an activist for the quality of future growth in your neighborhood. Approach your city government or homeowners association about considering such an ordinance. The regional masonry councils listed at the bottom of this article are great resources for getting started. You can also reap the benefits of masonry by buying or building a masonry home, or by re-siding an existing home with brick.
Everything Old Is New Again
In this age of synthetic "advancements" and high-tech substitutes for natural products, the most sought-after homes and neighborhoods are still built with masonry, a time-tested material used for centuries. Brick and stone structures built more than a thousand years ago in Europe are still in use today, and our own country's architectural heritage was built, brick by brick, by the early colonists.
Today, many communities have embraced "New Urbanism," an approach to city planning that focuses on restoring and infilling our cities and creating compact new neighborhoods where homes, businesses, and public spaces are all within walking distance of each other.
Masonry is an integral part of this return to our architectural roots and to the new urbanism movement. Lowry, a former Air Force base redeveloped in Denver, Colorado, is a perfect example of a new urbanist community where masonry guidelines are helping to positively shape the traditional feel of the neighborhoods.
Hilarie Portell, a spokeswoman for the Lowry Redevelopment Authority, says the decision to choose masonry over other less durable materials was a deliberate one. "At Lowry, you'll see architecture that looks like old Denver, not a transplant from Anywhere, USA. Of course, that means lots of warm, red brick. Front porches. Tree-lined streets that are perfect for strolling or riding a bike or setting up a lemonade stand."
Finally, masonry ordinances themselves are nothing new. The leaders of Denver passed a sweeping masonry ordinance in 1863, just one day after the entire city was reduced to ashes by fire. The legislation stayed in place until it lapsed after WW II, opening the door for lower building standards that plague the city and nearby suburbs today.
The City of Aurora, Denver's fastest growing suburb, enacted its own masonry ordinance in 2000. The Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute notes that city council members were not happy with the "disposable housing" being built in its new neighborhoods and was concerned that its new housing stock would soon deteriorate and impact the city's future image and property values. A masonry ordinance fit the bill perfectly.
The Chicago area, also known for its fiery roots, is a mecca for masonry ordinances, with 75 ordinances in place in city neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs. The movement began in the 1970s with an interest in concrete block firewalls and has spread to include comprehensive masonry ordinances requiring brick exteriors.
In Texas, a state in which nearly 80% of all new homes are built with brick, masonry ordinances are a pretty standard practice. According to the SouthWestern Brick Institute's Glen Duncan, a 75% masonry requirement is very common in the Lone Star State. He notes that some of the tonier suburbs, like Dallas-area Plano, have 100% masonry requirements in place.
Move to Masonry
Masonry ordinances are growing in popularity in every part of the country. The benefits apply not only to single family residences, but increasingly to multi-family apartments, condominiums and town homes. In the upscale Chicago suburb of Naperville, councilmember Richard Fursenau, who introduced a masonry ordinance regulating multi-family dwellings, explains his motivation saying that non-masonry buildings don't age well and "after time, they start to look like barracks."
One of the most enduring testimonials for a masonry-built community comes from the pages of an 1860s edition of the Rocky Mountain News in which a reporter extols the virtues of "fireproof" [masonry] construction as a matter of community pride and a sign of the city's commitment to permanence.
More recently, Mayor Ed Zabrocki, of the Chicago-area Village of Tinley Park, has served as a spokesperson for masonry ordinances, making several radio testimonials about the success of Tinley Park's 14-year old masonry ordinance.
Contrary to fears that the ordinance would "scare away" builders or make the community's housing too expensive, Mayor Zabrocki notes that the number of homebuilding permits has increased every year since the ordinance passed and that home buyers from other areas have been attracted to Tinley Park because of its commitment to quality. Quality attracts quality.
Masonry Ordinances Case Studies
Requiring the use of masonry can lead to greater economic stability for communities.
- Case Study: Canton, Michigan
- Case Study: Carmel, Indiana
- Case Study: Orland Park, Illinois
- Concrete Masonry in Green Buildings
- Construction Quality, Externality, and Community
- Enacting a Masonry Planning Policy
- Find Out How Masonry Policies Help Build Stronger Communities
- Masonry Planning Policy
- Solid Communities are Built with Brick
- Specialty Retail Districts
- Sustainability Toolkit
- The Community Planner’s World
- University of Michigan Masonry Ordinance Research
- What it Really Costs to Build Your Home With Brick in Colorado
Frequently Asked Questions
Doesn't masonry greatly increase the cost of a home?
No. A home built with 50% brick costs approximately 4% to 6% more  than the same home clad in 100% hardboard. However, these initial costs are more than offset by homeowner savings in maintenance costs, lower insurance rates, and an average 6% premium on resale  for a brick home over a comparable non-brick home.
But even a small percentage increase in the cost of a new home could make that home unaffordable for some buyers. Is brick really worth it?
Yes, brick is really worth it. Buyers who have to stretch to purchase a home are usually the folks least able to spend money maintaining it. Therefore, lower cost housing should be built to withstand little or no upkeep. Brick never needs repainting and it won't crack, rust, peel, corrode, melt, buckle, warp, bend or dent like other siding materials. The most affordable house in the long run is a solid masonry structure. The homebuyer can amortize the additional cost of brick over the life of the mortgage, and will probably earn back the extra cost of brick in the first five to seven years due to lower home maintenance and insurance costs.
Time is money in construction. Won't the addition of another trade group on the job site slow down construction and increase costs?
With the proper project management and scheduling, NO. Masons can begin their work as soon as the framing and sheathing are up. Other interior work such as plumbing, electrical, and interior finish can be taking place at the same time. Also, if a builder constructs several masonry homes concurrently, the masons' mobilization costs are greatly reduced. Example: If a builder puts just 500 brick on a home as an accent, that job should take a mason a half-day to complete. But it takes the mason another half day to mobilize and de-mobilize for the job. That means that 50% of the cost of a small masonry job is mobilization cost. If a builder puts 5,000 brick on a home, the mason will complete the job in approx. 4 days. Mobilization and de-mobilization of his crew and equipment will take another half-day. For the larger job, mobilization costs total just 15% of the total job cost. Brick for brick, the large job is much less expensive to complete than the small job.
Doesn't the use of brick veneer reduce the net square footage of a home?
Slightly, but not as much as you would think. Consider a 2,000 square foot ranch home with outside dimensions of 40' by 50'. A wood-framed home with hardboard siding (4" walls) would enclose 1,940 square feet. A wood-framed brick veneer home (8" walls) would enclose 1,880 square feet, or 3% less area. To balance this, the brick veneer home has improved sound insulation, lower upkeep and lower energy costs for heating and cooling.
Doesn't the additional weight of the masonry veneer result in higher foundation costs for a home?
For a single or two-level residence, the weight of brick veneer results in an increase of 15-20% of typical vertical loads supported by the foundation. In most cases, the additional load is easily accommodated by widening the footing by the same proportion (approximately 2"). Brick veneer can also be supported on a continuous steel angle through-bolted to the existing foundation. In those communities in and around Denver that have swelling soils, the additional weight of a masonry veneer will actually reduce the required length of drilled piers and reduce foundation costs.
What is considered a "masonry" material?
In the most basic terms, masonry is "something which is constructed of substantial materials laid in units with mortar by a skilled worker, a mason." Masonry materials are also noteworthy for being made entirely or primarily of natural ingredients, such as clay, rock, sand and water. Traditional masonry materials include: clay brick, concrete masonry units, natural and cut stone, and traditional cementitious stucco that is applied over a concrete masonry base.
What about the stucco systems that are applied over rigid insulation? Aren't these also considered masonry?
Absolutely not. These systems are generically referred to as External Insulation and Finish System or EIFS. These types of synthetic stucco have none of the advantages of true masonry, such as: near zero maintenance, high durability and impact resistance, noise reduction for the interior, lower insurance costs, and low environmental impact.
Won't mandating the use of masonry tie the home designer's hands? Won't all neighborhoods begin to look the same?
Masonry is one of the most versatile building materials available. Over 70% of the buildings in the world are built of masonry . Denver alone sports such architecturally diverse all-masonry neighborhoods as Washington Park, Park Hill, Bonnie Brae and Lower Downtown. With its 10,000 shapes and colors, clay brick can achieve any architectural effect imaginable and combines beautifully with every other exterior material. Natural stone, such as flagstone, limestone, granite, or river rock, are in abundance in Colorado and have been used to create a number of western looks. Manufactured stone is becoming more consistent in its quality and appearance, and can be economical and easy to work with due to the modular nature (regular dimensions) of the product. It is very important, however, to choose a manufactured stone product that is integrally colored, adhered with mortar to a rigid base, and thick enough to endure our climate's frequent freeze thaw cycles. Cementitious stucco, which is best used in conjunction with a masonry backup, offers great design versatility, too. Concrete block is very economical when it doubles as both the load-bearing structure and exterior finish in buildings, and now comes in hundreds of colors and decorative finishes.
Will architects and homebuilders have to scrap their existing models and redesign their plans for homes to include masonry?
No. In order to make masonry cost-effective, the openings and wall dimensions should be some multiple of the masonry unit's dimensions. For standard brick, this means that openings and wall dimensions should fall on a superimposed grid that is 8" in height and 4" in width. Minor adjustments to elevations to line up with the grid will ensure minimal cuts and improve the mason's productivity.
How does masonry fit into the "Built Green" program?
Brick is hands-down the most environmentally-friendly building material available. Brick is simply fired clay, a material which is readily available, inexpensive and can be reused or recycled in making new bricks. The energy required to manufacture brick is from 300 to 1750 BTU per pound as compared to 19,200 BTU/lb for steel or 2,625 BTU/lb for wood . Quality clay deposits are abundant along Colorado's Front Range and are, for all practical purposes, inexhaustible. Brick during a fire emits no toxins, nor does brick require periodic painting with toxic paints. Concrete masonry also requires relatively low energy to produce at 2,900 BTU/lb. In addition, concrete can be easily recycled. Masonry materials do not emit volatile gases while many other construction materials do, such as wafer board, particle board, and plywood. The greatest gift to the environment is masonry's exceptional durability. Properly constructed, masonry buildings have been known to last for hundreds - even thousands - of years. While other houses are being "scraped off" for new construction, a masonry home can itself be recycled!
Masonry is usually a poor insulator. Won't adding a masonry veneer actually increase the energy used to heat or cool a home?
No. In fact, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) , masonry construction requires less insulation than other building systems because of its thermal mass. Because of its heavy weight, brick is slow to absorb or lose heat, reducing peak loads on heating and cooling systems. Low-mass walls, such as those with wood framing and wood siding, are unable to store energy in the wall. That leads to rapid temperature changes inside the home, and the need for additional heat or air conditioning. Simply put, masonry homes keep you cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Simple passive solar concepts can be used with masonry materials to greatly reduce energy requirements in residential construction.
- "What It Really Costs To Build Your Home With Brick In Colorado - Year 2000, Masonry Industry Worksheet, Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute & Colorado Brick Council. Note: An all-brick home is defined as one constructed with modular brick veneer, 8' high, four sides.
- Marshall & Swift's Residential Cost Handbook, Marshall & Swift, Inc., 1998.
- Beall, C., "Why Build in Masonry?" Masonry Construction, Concrete Construction Publications, Inc., Addison, Illinois, Vol. 1, No 1, April 1988.
- Environmental Resource Guide, American Institute of Architects, Washington D.C., 1994.
- ASHRAE 90.2, Energy Efficient Design of New Low-Rise Residential Building, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, Georgia.