What is your opinion on the use of split-face block in residential property in Chicago?

Asked by WS, 60614 Fri Jun 20, 2008

If properly installed and cared for, is it a reasonable option? Would you personally buy such a house?

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Ross Neag, Other Pro, Chicago, IL
Thu Jun 23, 2011
What no one really brings up is that architects are as much to blame in this fiasco as the builders and the City for allowing them to go up. Firstly, it's not a good product for our weather climate. We go through 200 +/- freeze thaw cycles in an average winter here in Chicago with several recent winters near 300. That is pretty harsh on a single width masonry system (remember, concrete shrinks over time) with no back up system for water intrusion. Second, the specifications (for most of the buildings we see) have been calling for plastic vapor barriers/sheeting behind drywall which is NOT RECOMMENDED for climates that are "mixed-humid" which ours is; drying potential is then limited based on weather. Thirdly, for insulation we routinely see unfaced fiberglass--wicks moisture inward once wet-- and cellulose--which stores water in a closed cavity with little potential for drying-- plus the wonderful multitude of recessed can lights which allow conditioned air into interstitial spaces and attic plenums where it can then condense and rot out roof sheathing and trusses because the developer decided to use two coke can breathers for roof venting and then cover them with a deck. Anyone that glosses over the seriousness of the needed details for these buildings to perform is doing their client an injustice.

We will all soon see that the easiest way to get out of this conundrum may be to add siding of some sort over split face as you will only be able to apply so many coats of elastomeric finish or sealer before you give up on guessing where water is getting in. Just my .02
1 vote
Tom McCarey, Agent, Chicago, IL
Sat Jun 21, 2008
The previous respondent did you and all Chicago consumers a favor by alluding to Steve Hier (Miller Hier) to inspect split faced block. In a word split faced block "sucks." I tell my buying clients that it is essentially a rocky sponge, soaking up precipitation unless it has been properly treated with a water repellent that lasts anywhere from three to ten years to keep water out (and to have little ropy stubs (called wicks or weeps) extending from the block to allow water within to make its way out).

Unfortunately, most condo associations being made up of new or first time buyers don't have a checklist regarding association maintenance. One of the unfortunate things that can happen when split faced block is untreated is that it gets wet, and when it gets wet there is a possibility of damage on the other side of the block (the condo's inner wall). There is also the risk of mold. But look, I don't want to be too dire - if this stuff is maintained properly, you don't have to worry about being a nightmare anecdote that friends tell friends about some split faced block building in the city.

By the way, having worked with Steve Hier to inspect the bulk of my buying clients' places I have heard nightmare stories. The reason builders choose block is that it is considerably less expensive than an all-masonry building. And most consumers aren't educated as to the value of brick and the risk of block.

Knowing the value of brick or the aesthetics of frame, I would not buy a home with split faced block.

Good luck with the purchase process.

Tom McCarey
The Real Estate Lounge Chicago
1 vote
Thomas Hall, , Chicago, IL
Fri Jun 20, 2008
Hi WS - split-fsce block is common in many new construction units in Chicago. I have sold buildings built with split-block with no issue - if it is properly installed an cared for. Split-block is pourous and requires maintenance, sealing etc. If you are considering the purchase of a building built with split-block, I highly recommend Steve Hier or Miller-Hier Enterprises. Steve is a highly reputable inspector who has written articles about split-block. He has inspected many of my past clients' properties with split-block. One in particular did not make the cut due to lack of maintenance.

Hope that helps.
Web Reference:  http://www.thomasjhall.com
1 vote
Decker Home…, Other Pro, Skokie, IL
Mon Feb 27, 2012
The largest area of water infiltration is through unflashed parapet wall coping. Water just pours in. There are very few problems with split faced block and CMU buildings that have sloped roofs, and therefore no parapet walls.

Other new developments include vented termination bar for the roof membrane, elastomeric paint sealing, vented copings (the 21st century version of clay coping tiles. Go figure!) and professional home inspectors who are really building scientists and can properly evaluate the buildings as a whole.

The next step in this problem is structural collapse of the trusses. See here: http://deckerhomeservices.com/Split_faced_block_update.htm

Hope this helps;
0 votes
This is something to be aware of. Proper insulation can do a lot for a roof, especially in a wet area. It's not a deal-breaker, but you might have to install your own insulation after buying. http://www.dodgefoamandcoatings.com
Flag Fri Apr 17, 2015
Seth Captain, Agent, Chicago, IL
Thu Jun 23, 2011
There are such an abundance of beautiful and structurally sound buildings/homes in Chicago that it's a shame anybody would even consider buying a home made with split-face block. Beyond the moisture issues, and poor building techniques that were used in building many of these rapid speed monstrosities, they are just plain ugly. Sure, a few split-face dwellings had their Stalinist facades replaced with appealing cloaks, but why not consider even more square footage for the same price, in a subdivision, just minutes walk to the Schaumburg metra where nobody even bothers debating the merits of brick.
0 votes
Accurate Ins…, Other Pro, Chicago, IL
Thu May 26, 2011
Let me start by saying that split face block or CMU buildings can be built properly, be viable and last.
Now to reality, they are typically garbage buildings and most won't be standing in the next 30-40 years. I've spoken with many professionals who feel the same way.
It's the next mortgage crisis that will come down the line for owners of such buildings. They'll have a mortgage on a building that is ready for demolition.
Now to what will probably get me kicked off of here. CMU is one of the great ethical crimes committed by developers and real estate agents against consumers. In 11 years I have yet to hear a single developer or real estate agent explain to buyers that CMU buildings need ongoing maintenance. I have never seen a document given to a buyer that explains the ongoing maintenance needs. Whenever I inspect a CMU building I always ask the buyers, 'has your agent or the developer given you any documentation or talked with you about maintenance?' The answer is always NO.
Agents have consistently made CMU new construction out to be such a great thing. I realize you don't get paid unless the deal closes but there should be limitations on the amount of BS someone is willing to shovel onto the consumer.
Your question of whether it is a reasonable option if properly installed and cared for is larger than you may realize.
Let's look at the other CMU myth everyone is spouting out now to cover their butts - 'it just needs proper maintenance'. On paper that is true. Unfortunately many are using that statement as a scapegoat tactic to put the building failure blame back onto the consumer. 'Mr. Condo owner or Condo Association its YOUR fault the building leaks, YOU didn't maintain it'. Of course no one ever told the buyers they needed to maintain a brand new building. Of course liability isn't why the developer let the LLC lapse as soon as possible after the project was done.
The terrible reality of the situation is that many of the buildings are built so wrong from the start that maintenance barely works if at all. The condo owners can do all the maintenance they want and it may not help. Why? Because In order for the water repellants to work properly the building has to be built right from the start. I've inspected CMU while they were under construction and rarely found crews doing it right. There are a lot of inherent defects built into many of these buildings. Poor workmanship, lack of knowledge about materials, correct procedures and cost cutting in the name of profit.
Epoxy coatings are likely to be the product of choice in the future. I've spoken with Mason's who install water repellants and all have stated coatings last 1-3 years regardless of what the label may claim.
Buy vintage, stay away from CMU. It can be done right but rarely is.
Web Reference:  http://www.aic-chicago.com
0 votes
Well said. Not much to add, but another practical reality which has compounded the split faced block problem is the fact that so much of the split faced buildings are 3 or 4 flats where owners are simply less committed to rigorous ongoing maintenance required by this terrible material. Many of these condos are simple regarded as 'starter homes' so lots of people simply want to sell and get out.
As an architect, I do my best to avoid this stuff, but sometimes I may draw it as brick but a developer will choose block for cost-cutting reasons (its 2015, we've all seen the problems with this material, and yet one such building is being built right now). Really unfortunate IMHO.
Flag Sat Jul 11, 2015
Been There, Renter, Chicago Heights, IL
Thu Jun 24, 2010
There's a company in the Chicago area that uses a sealant with a 30 year warranty. Not a topical sealant. Theirs sinks into the block. Seal Chicago in Lombard.
0 votes
Ross Neag, Other Pro, Chicago, IL
Mon Nov 30, 2009

There are a variety of reasons that split face block is not performing and understanding how a particular building was built is very important. In cavity wall construction you are relying upon a drainage plane and several VITAL flashing and moisture moving materials to be properly installed (if at all present) as well as functioning. Too often we come across buildings with poorly installed flashings, painted or caulked over weep holes, overly projected door and window frames, missing capstone or parapet flashings, etc. Yet some buildings with some of these missing details have not had any moisture issues.

Recent studies are moving away from spray applications for single wythe concrete block construction sealing to high-build, elastomeric coatings which hold up better and reduce moisture "loading" of porous block. If you do a search for "Masonry Institute BC PDF 2.7.2" you will see what one of the governing bodies is leaning towards. Good luck...
0 votes
Wayne Beals, Agent, Chicago, IL
Sun Jun 22, 2008
Newer building materials are just that, newer. They have not withstood the test of time like many other materials used (old chicago brick, stucco, wood/aluminum/vinyl siding). Every material requires specific maintenance practices to maintain the integrity of the building shell, especially when it comes to water and freeze/thaw cycles. Porous materials such as split face block value appearance over practicality. They create the appearance of stone, at a much lower cost, but like any exterior siding, need to be maintained. I would imagine that many of the problems with split face block relate to poor installation and or poor maintenance (home-buyers who own homes of this material likely believe it is very durable and don't pay attention). Go with an inspector who can adequately evaluate the installation and make sure it isn't doomed from the start. Not my first choice of material, but it is prevalent in new Chicago construction.
0 votes
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