Low-Quality Mexican Brick Showing Up in North Texas; Brick Failures Spur Builders to Repair Homes; Hundreds at Risk

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With the onset of winter and the multiple freeze/thaw cycles in North Texas, some homeowners may get an unwelcome surprise: their houses - built with defective Mexican brick -- might literally fall apart around them. Hundreds of homes in the North Texas area - estimates range from 400 to 600 -- have already, or may experience brick failure this year as a result of poor-quality imported Mexican brick in some tract developments and on some custom homes over the past few years, according to the Brick Industry Association - Southwest.

With the onset of winter and the multiple freeze/thaw cycles in North Texas, some homeowners may get an unwelcome surprise: their houses - built with defective Mexican brick -- might literally fall apart around them.

Hundreds of homes in the North Texas area - estimates range from 400 to 600 -- have already, or may experience brick failure this year as a result of poor-quality imported Mexican brick in some tract developments and on some custom homes over the past few years, according to the Brick Industry Association - Southwest.

Because of apparent poor manufacturing, the Mexican brick used in recent years by some builders in North Texas is literally falling apart, according to Rudy Garza, executive director of BIA-SW. The defective brick, he said, might not have been fired properly. As a result, moisture could penetrate the brick and expand when it freezes making it more susceptible to deterioration caused by the hard freezes of North Texas winters.

"After two or three winters, the face of the brick literally just starts to fall off - a process referred to as spalling," Garza said, "and all the brick may have to be replaced, which is no simple matter. It's very disruptive for the homeowner's family."

In the case of the North Texas homes, he said, a distributor of the Mexican brick apparently declared bankruptcy and the builders were left holding the bag. Some of the builders have "done the right thing" and replaced brick on damaged homes, Garza said.

In contrast to the poor-quality Mexican brick, American-made brick is manufactured to meet specific "severe weather" standards established by ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) and normally lasts for more than 100 years without deteriorating. Experts speculate that the Mexican brick in question was not manufactured according to the recommended standard.

In the 1980s, there was a major problem with the use of poor quality Mexican brick used in the Houston area and thousands of houses were affected. The recent problem in North Texas appears to be the largest in magnitude since the 1980s, Garza said.

"Not all Mexican brick is of poor quality," he said, "but it's very difficult for consumers or even builders to tell the difference without having it tested by a professional lab. In most cases builders rely on the reputation of the manufacturer and any warranty they may provide."

Texas is the main state in which Mexican brick is used, because transportation costs make it uneconomical to be used elsewhere, Garza said.

The builders did not violate the state building code by using the Mexican brick, because the code allows untested brick to be used as far north as the North Texas area, but ASTM specifications for brick and other technical experts say the moderate weather/severe weather line should be drawn no further north than Corpus Christi.

"Our organization is working with and asking all the local municipalities in the greater DFW area to amend their local masonry ordinances or building codes to require the use of SW grade brick. The last thing they should want to happen is to get blamed by the homeowners for allowing this inferior brick to be used in their respective city. They need to act now and keep this from happening again in the future", said Garza.

In the meantime, Texas home buyers are left on their own and caveat emptor. Professional engineer Gregg Borchelt, vice president, Engineering & Research, for the national Brick Industry Association says there are a few things home buyers can do to avoid buying a house made of poor quality brick:

  •     Ask - is the brick used Genuine Fired Clay Brick from an American manufacturer? And, if the answer is affirmative, get it in writing.
  •     Documentation -- ask the builder for written verification that the brick used meets the ASTM C 216 or C 652 physical property standards for Grade SW;
  •     The scratch test - see if the brick can be scratched with a nail or screwdriver; if it can, run the other way;
  •     Knock heads, er, bricks - knock two bricks together: a dull thud may mean under-fired brick (bad); a sharp ringing sound is music to your ears.

And another warning: It is not possible to detect poor quality brick simply from the color, Borchelt adds. For more information on brick manufacturing and testing standards, visit http://www.gobrick.com > Technical Notes > 9A.

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