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Movement Joints in Masonry

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Newly constructed buildings will nearly always be vulnerable to cracking for a variety of reasons. However, nowadays we understand much more about why this occurs and what particular controls can be put in place to minimise the effects of movement of building materials and components.

Shrinkage will occur in masonry structures, particularly if blockwork has not cured properly. However, the secondary control to accommodate this shrinkage is the installation of a movement joint.

Movement joints are generally formed to address either contraction (shrinkage) or expansion, whichever will occur first. These terms are used interchangeably in the industry although they are very different. For example, movement joints in concrete footpaths are often referred to as ‘expansion’ joints although they are in effect ‘contraction’ joints as contraction will always occur first as the concrete cures and loses its moisture content.

Unfortunately, buildings can be designed or constructed poorly, with less regard to these controls as identified in the Technical Guidance Documents or Homebond manual.

This crack has formed in the middle of two semi-detached houses in Ballyvolane, constructed in 2005. It is mirrored on the opposite side of the building which is to be expected. The whole building is about 16m in length and 6m in width. It is clear that a movement joint has not been installed and could have been neatly concealed behind the downpipe.

Homebond provide good guidance for movement joints in both brick and masonry buildings. It states that ‘Codes of Practice recommend that spacings of movement joints should be referred to by the building designer. It is not standard practice to incorporate movement joints in semi-detached houses. Based on traditional construction, the minimum recommendation is that in terraces of three or more houses, joints should be built in every two houses unless specified more frequuently by the designer.’ (Homebond, 2008). It also refers to joints at 12m centres or very two houses whichever is less.

Considering the geometry of this building, a movement joint should have been installed. As cracking will normally occur over weak points in a building, it was just unlucky for this homeowner that it occurred on his side.

Incorrectly installed tell-tales in Co. Tipperary

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Subsidence monitoring can take many different forms; from simple measurements with a crack gauge to continuous recordings with a wireless crack movement recorder, with built in data logger. Each system comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, which must be considered in order to apply the most appropriate and effective technique.

Crack monitors or ‘tell-tales’ are the most common form of subsidence monitoring used in Ireland. They are easily sourced online so anybody with a VISA card and a drill can install them. And that sometimes is the problem.

The cheaper alternatives do not possess pre-set pegs which allow for quick and easy fixing. However, the pre-set pegs do not always allow the cursor to be square to the grid so accurate recording on installation is paramount. This can occur on uneven finishes such as wet dash or where lateral movement has taken place.

To be fair, standard tell tales (without the pre-set pegs) require a bit more thought and this wasn’t applied on a property in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary where readings from crack monitors would suggest that all cracks have closed by a distance of over 25 mm!!!!!

This is just one example of how poorly installed and recorded monitors provide no data whatsoever and can be a complete waste of time and money for the consumer. Subsidence monitoring should be performed by qualified, experienced professionals for accurate results –

Substruck Ltd. is an approved installer of Avongard crack monitors.

Door Frame Wracking in Cork City

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Foundation movement can affect the serviceability of a building. This may include water penetration through cracks and sloping floors. It can also result in distortion of door and window frames. This can be as an indirect result of movement in the external walls or directly through movement of the internal walls. 

Such movement can take the form of ‘wracking’ where the frame loses its squareness (if that’s a word) and is demonstrated by tapered widening at one end of the gaps and a narrowing at the others. This results in the door jamming. The most common cause of doors jamming in older properties is normally temperature and moisture variations during the year.

This door frame in Cork City is about 20mm out of level!!!

But, interpretation of movement needs careful consideration. In this instance, it is evident that the top rail of the door and architrave have been significantly altered over a long period of time and this is disproportional to the cracking. This would suggest that the initial movement began quite some time ago, maybe when the building was constructed, and adjustments were made from or at that point.

Nonetheless, movement was rejuvenated for another reason thereafter and the result was a development of the original movement. This is demonstrated in the cracking. The weak points in the superstructure created during the settlement period will normally be the first to be compromised.

Therefore, it could be argued that the distortion in this situation represents both settlement and subsidence.

Progressive Movement in Cork City

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Cracking in walls is the most common sign of foundation movement and may form within or between components. Despite the width of any crack, a key aspect of any subsidence investigation is to determine if movement is ongoing or not.

When an extension begins to move away from a building, a vertical crack will usually form at the interface of the building and extension. This crack will be wider at the top as the extension rotates away from the original structure. The corner of the extension will normally act as the pivot point.

In terms of diagnosing progressive movement, there can be simple signs to suggest that the building is still moving e.g. cracks which have been repaired and re-opened can strongly suggest that movement is not historic. This crack in Blarney St was repaired at some point yet has continued to open and is now in the order of nearly 8mm!!!!!!

The building showed other signs of movement internally in the form of cracked floor tiles and ceiling cracking between the function of both buildings.

The remediation scope was a series of small diameter displacement piles known as Grundomat supporting RC ground beams beneath the foundation.

Cracking in glass in County Cork

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Diagnosing subsidence or foundation movement through a simple present condition survey may sometimes prove difficult without further investigation.

The most common sign of foundation movement is cracking. As a foundation moves, the building will become distorted, particularly around openings in walls.

The construction type of the building can also have an influence on how the building will react to such movement. Foundation movement in this conservatory in Co. Cork has resulted in the window frames becoming so distorted that the glass has cracked!!!!

Extension rotating in Cork City

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Extensions to existing buildings are always vulnerable to cracking where they meet the main structure, normally due to shrinkage or differential settlement. Such cracking is normally superficial and is not expected to deteriorate further.

Nowadays, movement joints are placed at specific locations in order to allow for such movement. Most movement joints in Ireland are in fact contraction joints as concrete blockwork will always shrink first. The degree to which shrinkage will occur will depend on a few factors, but particularly the time and conditions to which blocks are allowed to cure.

These movement joints, normally placed on the external leaf of a traditional cavity wall, are constructed with a proprietary joint bead to allow movement of ± 3mm. Homebond provide good details for the design and construction of movement joints in different forms of construction.

However, this extension in Capwell, Cork city has failed due to an escape of water from a vitreous clay drain at the rear. Services which are leaking over long periods gradually reduce the load bearing capacity of the soils by removal of the finer particles in granular soils.

Although sometimes diagnosing subsidence through a simple present condition survey may sometimes prove difficult without further investigation, the degree of cracking and evidence of a previous repair strongly suggests that movement is ongoing. Note the failure of the traditional ‘toothing in’ below eaves level. Movement of about 15mm was also noted internally.

This cracking is typical of subsidence in an extension where a vertical crack forms between both components; the crack being wider at the top as the extension rotates away from the original structure; the corner of the extension acting as the point to foundation movement.

The approach to this problem is to replace the drain and underpin the rear elevation through micropile supported reinforced concrete ground beams.

Movement joints in superstructure repair in Kilkenny

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Homebond identify foundations as ‘the most important structural element of any building and great care should be taken to ensure that they are constructed properly.’ Design and construction of foundations must be completed by competent persons and supervised accordingly. 

Superstructure cracking is caused by a variety of different reasons but rarely as a result of foundation movement. The measure sought to address this cracking on a commercial property in Kilkenny City by one engineering professional was the installation of a movement joint!!! 

However, most proprietary joints only allow for movement of ±3mm as the building expands and contracts over time. If the building exceeds this movement, then there is a more serious problem.

As cracking continued to deteriorate beyond the scope of a movement joint, the Client became more concerned and a second opinion was sought. Crack monitors were installed and confirmed that movement was progressive in one direction.

Substruck Ltd. was employed to complete further investigation in the form of trial holes and ground investigation. Trial holes revealed poorly formed foundations on non-engineered fill material. Dynamic probing and sampling identified the presence of boulders in poorly consolidated fill material to a depth of 3 metres. Probing to further depths was completed for micropile design.

It was now clear that the building was moving due to poorly designed and constructed foundations and underpinning works was required. This was specified as a series of 12 nr micropile supported straddle and cantilever ground beams beneath foundations along the area of distress.

Direct inspection of drainage systems

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Substruck Ltd. complete many types of drainage investigation, the nature of which will depend on the client brief or requirements. Generally, there are three types of investigation:

reactive – in response to a problem such as a blockage,

subsidence – investigation into a potential cause (i.e. leaking drains) or to provide information to form part of a scope of works where the drainage will have to be removed and replaced, or

general – in response to a recommendation of a house pre-purchase survey.

Our Phase 1 reports document a non-destructive investigation of the drainage system using one or a combination of direct observation, hydrostatic testing, CCTV surveying / inspection and drain tracing techniques.

On arrival to site, direct observation will tell you a lot about the current condition of the drainage and the standard of work applied during construction before any testing or surveying is carried out. We examine the system to determine compliance in relation to construction and siting of access points, ventilation, trip hazards, traps, etc.

Direct inspection of two vitreous clay drainage systems in Pouladuff and Lower Friars Walk in Cork tells us immediately that sections of each system is wholly not serviceable and will have to be replaced.

The photos show fractured and/or collapsed gullies and access junctions. 

Interceptor Trap in Cork City

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Interceptor traps can be found in many Irish properties constructed to up the 1970’s. It is normally located at the final chamber nearest the public sewer and may be provided with a fresh air inlet. 

The interceptor trap, or ‘winser trap’ as defined by the Water Research Centre, is a development of the buchan trap; the key difference being that the trap was now constructed in a chamber and access was provided both upstream and downstream. The original buchan trap could only be rodded from ground level through a rodding eye to clean the trap itself. Access to the trap would be provided by an inspection chamber upstream.

Buchan traps were originally used in Victorian times to prevent sewer gases entering the atmosphere or dwelling using a water seal. It was patented by a Scottish sanitary engineer, W.P Buchan, in 1875. Another function of the trap was to prevent (or rather limit) the ingress of our furry friends. However, as the winser trap was susceptible to blockages, many householders removed the stopper to the rodding eye allowing easy access for rats.

Winser and buchan traps are no longer installed due to much improvement in the design and construction of drainage systems, particularly from a ventilation point. Such traps can be a common cause of blockages so it’s worth while keeping an eye on it from time to time. 

Hand probe in Trial Holes in Cork City

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This trial hole was completed as part of a subsidence investigation project on behalf of Cork City Council in December 2018. It identified a traditional strip foundation founded at 0.95m with a projection of 0.33m-0.44m and a thickness of 0.3m.

The local gully was found to be installed incorrectly resulting in a continual escape of water from the first day of construction!! There was no actual pipe installed between the gully and the hopper!!! The presence of water was evident in the subsoil and leakage could be observed when water was placed in the gully!!!

In many cases, a crowbar is used by the designer to prise the ground locally to give an indication of the bearing capacity of the soil. There isn’t a lot of science to this procedure but if the crowbar can be easily pushed into the soil for its full length, then this would be a cause for concern!!!!!!!!!!

To provide some science to the bearing capacity of the soils, a dynamic probe was employed which showed very little resistance at formation level and to a depth of about 2.5m with no value exceeding N10H=1 before bedrock was encountered between 3 and 4 metres. For Dynamic Probe Heavy, values of N10H=1 in till are indicative of bearing pressures of less than 20kN/m2!!!!! 

A window sample showed that the building was founded on very soft SILT; Homebond recommend great care in the design of foundations in such soils. 

The design to address this problem was a reinforced concrete raft, needled through the rising walls, and supported by 20 nr R38-500 DYWI® micropiles drilled one metre into rock with a SLS of 100kN, with each needle dry-packed on completion with a proprietary non-shrink grout. All works were designed, constructed, tested and certified by Substruck Ltd.