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Structural Brick Wall Design

From the seventeen hundreds to the nineteen hundreds, load bearing masonry construction was the most popular construction method for large buildings. However, nowadays this method doesn't enjoy the same popularity it did back in the day when it comes to large buildings, but it seems that it is a great choice for small residential scale constructions.

It basically consists of heavy and thick masonry walls made of either stone or brick that support the whole structure. This includes the horizontal floor slabs that can be made of steel members, wood or reinforced concrete.

On the other hand, it seems that the majority of constructions done today are frame structures of strong, yet light materials that are capable of supporting floor slabs. These also have very light and thin external and internal walls.

So what's the main idea behind this type of construction?

The answer is simple: each wall acts as a load carrying element. When it comes to load bearing structures, punching a hole in a wall for connecting 2 rooms is just not possible. By doing so, you're going to damage the structure. The great weight of the walls is what's stabilizing the building against external forces and also holding it together.

In the past, when building European load bearing masonry structures, horizontal planks, joists and wooden beams were used for making the floor slabs. The sloping wooden roofs of these structures were finished with metal plating, stone shingles, wood shingles or clay tile.

However, there were also buildings that featured flat terraces which were built by pouring a layer of concrete over a wooden floor and then using either stone or tile to provide a waterproof and durable finish. Below it, each wall featured a simple continuous strip foundation. In fact, if you visit Europe, you'll probably be quick to realize that the majority of classic buildings there are built using load bearing masonry construction.

Louis Khan, a famous American architect is famous for using load bearing construction for the IIM in Ahmadabad. Instead of concealing it under decorative skins, this structure deliberately expresses the construction system. For this project, he used concrete exclusively for members in tension. These are practically ties which tie together the 2 ends of the brick arches.

Panorama Ahmedabad via Wikimedia Commons
By Mahargh Shah (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Load bearing wall construction and why it's not that popular these days

There are quite a few reasons why load bearing masonry is not used so often nowadays:

  1. Load bearing construction is very material intensive, so constructing one such building requires a lot of bricks. This results in a building that’s definitely not green and one that’s also very heavy as well.
  1. It's very labor intensive, since it's generally built using handmade masonry. Compared to modern construction methods, the construction speed is also very low.
  1. Lastly, such buildings don't perform well in earthquakes and most of the times suffer the greatest damages. If you're currently living in one such building in a seismic area, you may want to think about moving into a modern structure that has better chances surviving and protecting you in case of a disaster.

Brick Structure BuildingIf you studied history for a bit, then you probably know that the base of the walls in massive 19th century buildings were up to 3 feet thick or even thicker and the reason for that was due to the big loads that had to be carried and the low strength of the joints.

However, these days, building strong masonry walls is possible by using mortar and high strength bricks, yet in most cases it seems that a framed structure will allow a lot more freedom in the facade's design, but also when it comes to interior planning.

If the structural wall is made of reinforced steel or concrete, then it can easily support the roof's and floors' load, including that of the non-load bearing walls.

Non-Load Bearing Walls and their Stability

Load bearing walls need to be reinforced very well in order to prevent overturning and also tension developing. Not only that, but due to the fact that the walls are connected with one another at the roof and each floor, it makes them act as a single wall that supports the entire structure. When it comes to non load bearing walls, they don't have this advantage.

Brick wall stability

If a brick wall were to be supported on a shelf angle or concrete beam at each floor level, the architects would need to play it safe and ensure that the load is not picked up by accident by the lower wall from the floor above.

Soft joints are generally used at the top of each wall in order to remove the restraining effect of the upper floor, but also to proven the transfer of vertical loads. In this particular situation, the wall panel is going to be freestanding from its base. On the other hand, if the wall is going to be constructed as an infill between columns, it's certainly going to lose support at the columns' sides.

In order to ensure these problems are prevented, architects came up with a wide range of special ties. The way they work is that they restrict movement in one direction and allow it on the other one. In this case, the use of a cavity wall will provide more stiffness compared to a single leaf wall, but it does require support back to the structural frame. Extra support can be easily provided by reinforcing the brickwork.

Brick Veneer Walls

When it comes to exterior brick walls, their best advantage is the fact that they are durable and look good as well, regardless if we're talking about a brick veneer or a cavity wall over a framed interior leaf. For instance, when it comes to the internal walls of commercial buildings, they generally use plasterboard on steel studs, while for the exterior leaf of perimeter walls they use brickwork. Stabilizing the brickwork in this particular case is done by using wall ties to the steel studs.

On top of that, it seems that using a brick veneer makes it possible to add thermal insulation between the studs which is a lot simple compared to insulating a brick cavity wall. However, compared to them being made entirely using brickwork, the durability of the internal walls is going to be lower.