Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lousy lintels

This is kind of a one-off post, but because it's spring and people are doing spring cleaning and home maintenance, I thought I'd insert it here.

I'd like to describe an issue that bedeviled a house purchase we attempted to make in the year before signing a build contract in Centerpointe.  It involved the issue of window lintels and once again, I must insert all of the usual disclaimers.  What I'm going to describe here includes a personal account of professional judgments that I received from a home inspection contractor and a masonry contractor with respect to a specific situation at a specific single-family residence that was for sale at the time.  Those contractors' interpretations are not necessarily applicable to anyone else's situation, because every house must be individually evaluated by a professional.  I'm not providing any specific advice with this blog post - I'm just relating a personal experience. 

First of all, what are window lintels?

They are specialized structural members that support the brick façade above a window.  They are inserted in line with the brick courses for this purpose.  It's that dark gray thing in the photo above, which was screengrabbed from this vendor site in the United Kingdom
Here's another well-done rendition as screengrabbed from the website of this Seattle-based home inspection provider

"Usually of steel, stone, or wood", but in Texas suburban construction, they seem to be most commonly made of steel.  This may have something to do with building codes - I don't know. 

Anyway, it is customary to hire a third party to do a home inspection before you buy any house.  Myself, I've used the local vendor Terry Black repeatedly over the years.  In fact, I retained Mr. Black to inspect our Centerpointe house while it was being constructed, because home construction is complicated and it proceeds very quickly and I think it's well worth a few hundred dollars in fees to have an extra pair of eyes checking to see if there's anything that might have been missed by accident.

But back to my previous failed purchase story.  Our inspector called out the condition of that home's lintels in his report. 
The problem with steel lintels is that steel is subject to rust.  Here is an unrelated photo from this Australian site showing such a condition on another house.  (I have not reproduced any content from Mr. Black's report in this blog post.) 
In the case of our prospective buy house, the steel had rusted to an extent that both our inspector and a mason I contacted to give me a repair bid alleged that it needed to be replaced ASAP. 
Here's a close-up of a lintel on the house we attempted to buy.  According to the masonry contractor who gave me a bid to repair it, what happens in a situation like this is that the steel swells as it oxidizes.  As it swells, it applies upward pressure that cracks the mortar in the section of exterior wall above it, and then the façade loses its structural integrity as those cracks physically separate those over-window sections from the rest of the wall. 
This is the result.  Do you see that crack extending upward from the corner of the lintel? 
In this case, the cracks were observed to zig-zag up the side of this two-story house, essentially above every window on that house.   
That house was substantially less than 10 years old, and according to the professionals with whom I consulted, this type of rusting and cracking does not represent a normal issue.  Compare with the lintel condition of a 20-year-old house that I examined, just so that I could wrap my mind around this issue of lousy lintels:
This is an example of a lintel on a house about three times the age of the house that had the rusted ones shown above.  Here you see a little bit of surface pitting on the lintel, but the lintel itself is intact and not swelling.  There were no cracks visible in the brick façade above this window. 
According to my masonry contractor, lintels left unrepaired will eventually fail and the section of brick façade above them will simply tumble off the house, because at that point, there's no structural integrity remaining to hold them. 

Badly rusted lintels can be replaced, but it's an extremely labor-intensive process.  It's essentially necessary to remove a significant amount of the façade so that they can retrofit a new lintel above each window, and then return the brick to the wall.  Some bricks might get damaged by the removal, necessitating replacement with new brick.  And it's not assured that you'll be able to perfectly-match a particular brick color.  So this whole process is a bit dicey. 

And expensive.  The bid given to me to repair that particular house was between $8,000 and $9,000.  We did want that house, and so we gave our sellers a choice:  either reduce the price by that amount so that we could hire for the repair, or go through the process of making a structural warranty claim themselves, given that the house was less than 10 years old.  But we ourselves were not prepared to get all wrapped up in the hassle and uncertainty of making a structural warranty claim (there's no guarantee that any given claim will be approved).  We were just trying to buy a house. 

Ultimately, those sellers were not willing to negotiate, and so we had to kill that contract.  At that point, I said to my husband, "That does it.  We're getting a one-story house, because I never want to see another builder-grade tract-home window lintel again in my life."  I said that because, on eight-foot stud walls, there's usually little or no façade structure to support above a window, so they can often just be framed in without steel lintels. 

And that is part of the colorful and roundabout tale of how we ended up in Centerpointe (with a one-story house to boot, thank you).  At this point you probably want to ask, "So what should I do to ensure that my lintels don't go bad?"  The answer is that I haven't got the faintest clue because I don't know what causes that kind of problem in the first place (improper construction? improper metallurgy? who knows?), and in fact the cause may vary case-to-case.  Some internet sites recommend keeping them painted, but of course some of the lintel is inserted back into the wall behind the brick and is inaccessible to a paint brush, so it's not clear how it should be dealt with, other than, if you think you might have an issue, talk to a qualified professional. 
Screengrabbed from this interesting thread

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