Skip to main content

2007 | Book

Failed Stone

Problems and Solutions with Concrete and Masonry


About this book

Concrete and stone seem made to last forever. But the fact is they develop problems. It is not always as dramatic as the collapse of a section of the roof of the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in 2004. Gradual changes also occur that may compromise the appearance and structural soundness of buildings constructed with these materials. These changes can be created by efflorescence, thermal stress, weathering, leakage and corrosion.

This book explains how to avoid typical kinds of failure. With this in mind, it systematically analyzes cases of damage in contemporary international architecture. It also offers strategies for minimizing the risk of damage. Examples include such high-visibility structures as Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, Parco della Musica in Rome and Vontz Center for Molecular Studies in Cincinnatti. In eight chapters, typical kinds of damage are explained and illustrated with examples.

Table of Contents

Thermal Hysteresis
Approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Florence, Italy, is a city called Carrara in the province of Tuscany. Well known around the world for its white marble quarries, Carrara has provided its stone for such famous historic projects as the Trocadarro in Rome and the Marble Arch in London. In recent history, the white marble became infamous in modern architecture for being a failing cladding material for a number of contemporary large-scale projects. The stone failures have been attributed to a phenomenon known as thermal hysteresis.
People have the perception that brick, concrete and stone walls are impenetrable. This perception comes from historic buildings constructed with solid masonry walls 30cm (12 inches) in thickness. World War II bunkers were constructed with concrete walls measured in feet and not inches. Today’s modern construction rarely uses this type of wall assembly. Concrete structures have become much thinner with innovative ultrahigh performing concrete and fiber reinforcement systems, sometimes less than 2.5cm (1 inch) thick. Masonry construction has moved to non-load-bearing veneer walls comprising a 9.21cm (3 5/8 inch) wythe with stone cladding panels typically 3.18cm (1 1/4 inch) in thickness, or sometimes thinner. Designers have to anticipate how building materials are going to be used and misused. Careful consideration must be made toward maintaining material finishes. Everything, from luggage to shovels, will dull sharp edges.
Architects have used masonry materials since the beginning of time. The Egyptians built monuments to their kings, the Greeks built temples for their gods, and the Romans constructed arenas for assembling large groups. Today, masonry remains a staple for buildings that are intended to last. Although construction techniques have evolved, common problems in masonry still exist. One problem that brick, concrete and stone have in common is efflorescence. Efflorescence can be defined as the deposit of soluble compounds carried by water onto the surface of a building. Sometimes described as “new building bloom”, the chalky powder is a common nuisance for many architects, buildings and building owners. The sporadic blemishes can tarnish the rich texture of façades in new construction. Efflorescence can disappear after a short period of time, as the new building dries out and rainwater rinses the façade clean of the salt deposits.
Surface Defects
Surface defects can be a glaring distraction to the design of a building, just as a chipped tooth can distract from an otherwise perfect smile. Since the building’s exterior often displays an image of the owner to the world, the builder should have sufficient knowledge of potential surface defects to prevent their occurrence.
Architects may envisage their buildings as having the coat of a white stallion and be disappointed when finished surfaces take on the motley appearance of a pinto. With exposed construction materials like concrete, maintaining uniformity of color is extremely important. Color differences in concrete have several causes, from variation in mix design to curing methods. Uniformity can be achieved; however, tight quality control of construction materials and methods is required.
In the summer of 2000, Chicago experienced a series of stone-cladding failures that heightened people’s awareness of its deteriorating high-rise masonry buildings. In one incident, large chunks of masonry from Chicago’s La Salle Street Building fell to the street, damaging cars. New York City is faced with a similar risk. The root of the problem is found not in the stone, but in the metal connections that tie the stone cladding to the building. This mode of failure may be traced back to the history of construction for these great cities. Masonry cladding systems providing façades in materials such as brick, limestone and terra cotta were developed with the birth of skeleton construction methods for high-rise buildings in the late 1800s. Steel-frame construction quickly replaced load-bearing masonry walls at the turn of the century as a means of forming taller buildings. With time these innovative enclosures are showing their age.
Innovative structures made from concrete, masonry and stone have played a significant role in shaping the history of modern architecture. Many designs have been challenged along the way. When Frank Lloyd Wright presented his solution for the “great hall” at the Johnson Wax Building in 1937, he had few supporters. The hall was to be filled with a forest of thin white columns, which spread out at the ceiling like lily pads on a pond. The construction engineers and building inspectors of Racine, Wisconsin, were convinced that the slender concrete columns with narrow bases and hollow insides were incapable of supporting the roof of the building. Wright arranged for a full-scale mock-up to be constructed, and when the day came to test the column’s strength, the experts watched in disbelief as it withstood six times the weight anticipated. A famous photograph shows the vindicated architect below the test column loaded up with sand bags.
The Monadnock Building in Chicago, completed in 1891, represents the last unreinforced monolithic, load-bearing brick construction for a high-rise building. Towering 16 stories, with walls ranging from 30cm (12 inches) at the top and 1.8m (6 feet) at the ground floor, the Monadnock Building marked the culmination of a construction method that soon thereafter would become out of date.
Failed Stone
Patrick Loughran
Copyright Year
Birkhäuser Basel
Electronic ISBN
Print ISBN