Tag Archives: building science

Analyzing Historic Masonry Wall Performance

Wilmer-Davis Hall is a residential complex on the Washington State University (WSU) Pullman campus. Built in 1937 by Architect Stanly Smith, with John Maloney, the six-story structure is composed of masonry and concrete with a masonry/brick veneer in the classical and Georgian Revival architectural styles. For a recent feasibility study of the complex, PMA provided an exterior assessment and a limited moisture study utilizing Wärme Und Feuchte Instationär (WUFI), an industry standard application in predicting wall performance to determine how additional insulation may impact the existing constructions and wall performance.

The primary concerns of this analysis included increased potential for freeze thaw action and increased mold growth as a result of added insulation. When historic buildings are insulated the insulation is typically added to the interior of the structure to prevent alterations to the exterior appearance. This often causes the outer layers of the wall to be both colder and wetter as the materials are no longer warmed and dried by the interior heating system. The additional water and more extreme temperatures can result in an increase in freeze thaw action, corrosion of metal reinforcement, and/or increased mold growth.

Additionally adding insulation to a wall changes the location of the dew point within that construction (the point at which vapor in the air condenses into water). A dew point within the middle of the wall can also result in increased moisture within the wall cavity. If a wall has difficulties drying due to any of the above causes it is possible that over the course of several years the quantity of water within the wall will consistently increase. Accumulation of water will exacerbate reinforcement corrosion and mold growth and can result in increased freeze thaw action. This study focused on the following metrics to analyze proposed wall performance: quantity of water in the assembly, quantity of water in each material layer, relative humidity in layers susceptible to mold growth, and isopleths.

As in any simulation analysis a number of assumptions were made regarding the existing wall construction and the proposed design conditions. A variety of different conditions were analyzed in order to explore the range of conditions and variables. Below is a description of the inputs as well as an analysis of the results.

Four (4) proposed wall constructions were analyzed to determine how different types, quantities, and configurations of insulation would impact the existing constructions. The configurations were based on outlined solutions for meeting Washington State Energy Code (WSEC) or providing improved thermal comfort. Two of the proposed constructions meet WSEC (Option 1 and Option 2), while two of the solutions (Option A and Option B) fall short of fully meeting WSEC, but would provide improved insulation values. The options simulated included:

Base Case (Existing Conditions) (R-4.8)
3-1/2” Masonry
1” Air Gap
7-1/2” Hollow Clay Tile Back-Up Wall
1-1/2” Plaster

Option 1 (Meets WSEC) (R-15.4, continuous insulation)
3-1/2” Masonry
1” Air Gap
7-1/2” Hollow Clay Tile Back-Up Wall
1-1/2” Plaster
2” Expanded Polystyrene
Vapor Retarder (1perm)
0” Gypsum

Option 2 (Meets WSEC) (R-20.9, insulation is not continuous)
3-1/2” Masonry
1” Air Gap
7-1/2” Hollow Clay Tile Back-Up Wall
1-1/2” Plaster
3” Batt Insulation
0-1/2” Expanded Polystyrene
Vapor Retarder (1perm)
0-5/8” Gypsum

Option A (R 17.4, insulation is not continuous)
3-1/2” Masonry
1” Air Gap
7-1/2” Hollow Clay Tile Back-Up Wall
1-1/2 Plaster
2” Foamed-In-Place Polyurethane
Vapor Retarder (1perm)
0-5/8” Gypsum

Option B (R-18.4, insulation is not continuous)
3-1/2” Masonry
1” Air Gap
7-1/2” Hollow Clay Tile Back-Up Wall
1-1/2” Plaster
3-1/2” Batt Insulation
Vapor Retarder (1perm)
0-5/8” Gypsum

Materials It should be noted that no material testing was performed during this phase of the project – instead default material properties were chosen from the WUFI database. Materials used include:

  • Masonry: The material ‘Brick (Old)’ was used to simulate the existing masonry. The material is a generic historic brick material compiled from a variety of different bricks and included in the WUFI database.
  • Airspaces: All airspaces were modeled without additional moisture capacity which according to WUFI, models more realistic moisture storage in air cavities.
  • Hollow Clay Tile: The historic drawings indicate that behind the masonry is hollow clay tile. WUFI does not have a default material for hollow clay tile. Instead a masonry material ‘Red Matt Clay Brick’ was used to represent the solid portions of the clay tile. Air spaces were used to simulate the hollow portions of the tile.
  • Historic Plaster: The WUFI database does not have a default historic plaster material. The ‘Regular Lime Stucco’ material was used to simulate the existing plaster.
  • Batt Insulation: ‘Low Density Glass Fiber Batt Insulation’ was used in simulations.
  • Rigid Insulation/Expanded Polystrene: ‘Expanded Polystyrene’ was used in simulations.
  • Fomed-In-Place: ‘Sprayed Polyurethane Closed-Cell’ was used in simulations
  • Gypsum: ‘Interior Gypsum Board’ was used in simulations.

  • Weather/Interior Conditions In each simulation the model was set to mimic extreme situations to verify that the existing walls will perform in all conditions. The Spokane, Washington weather file indicates that the south elevation should have the most wind driven rain and moisture impacting the wall. Given this information the analysis used south exposure and the Spokane weather file to simulate exterior conditions. For the interior climate conditions the following profiles were used:

  • Interior temperatures ranging from 69 °F to 72 °F
  • Relative humidity ranging from 50% – 60%

  • The above values represent a relatively high moisture load which is consistent with the existing use as a residential facility.

    Water Intrusion Additionally as per ASHRAE 160 a small leak (1% of driving rain) was introduced into the exterior assembly to simulation a scenario where water was penetrating the exterior surface. This could occur at bondline failures in the mortar or penetrations through the wall assembly. The leak was placed past the masonry veneer on the face of the hollow clay tile backup wall.

    Initial Conditions Lastly the initial conditions of the materials were determined using ASHRAE 160. For existing wall materials EMC80 was used as the initial moisture content. (EMC80 is a value expressing an equilibrium of water and material masses at 80% humidity). For new components the expectation was that the materials would be installed from the interior and would remain dry during the construction process – thus EMC80 was used for new components as well.

    Four metrics were used to interpret and analyze the following WUFI results: Total Water Content/Water Content in Material Layers, Temperature, Relative Humidity, and Isopleths.

    Total-Water-Contents-WSU-Wilmer-Davis-WUFI-Report-6Total Water Content WUFI can predict the total accumulation of water over the time frame of the simulation, in this case five years. Over the course of each year a wall assembly will be wetted by the rain, and dry over the summer months. Differences in humidity and temperature between spaces may cause water condensation within the walls. If conditions do not allow condensation or other water to dry, materials may accumulate water over a period of time.

    The chart above shows how each of the different simulations performed. Note that total water content is measured per ft2 of wall. Walls that are thinner (existing construction) will inherently have less capacity to hold water. In general all of the walls performed in a similar manner – an indication that the retrofit strategies should perform in a comparable manner when compared to the existing walls. As can be seen in the chart, all of the simulations, including the base case showed some accumulation of water over the five year simulation. These results, however, do not conclusively show that the proposed walls will accumulate water. The results indicate that even the base case is accumulating water over time. During PMA’s site visit, however, the existing exterior walls appeared to be performing well – which would not be the case if they were consistently accumulating water. Additional analysis showed that the gradual accumulation of Total Water Content appears to be a result of initial instability within the wall construction that equalizes over time. A 20 year simulation showed accumulation over the first five years, after which the water content stabilizes.

    Water Content in Material Layers Each of the individual layers of material in a wall assembly have the capacity to hold and retain water. A high water content in any individual layer can indicate the potential for mold growth, the possibility for damage associated with freeze thaw, and a reduction in R-Value based on moisture content. Mold growth is possible when the moisture content is above 20% and if the material has the capacity to feed mold growth. The charts below show how each simulation performed for each layer within the wall.

    Water-Content-Materials-WSU-Wilmer-Davis-WUFI-ReportIn general most layers remained well below the 20% threshold for mold growth. The insulation layers, however, are an exception. Options 2 and B both had batt and/or foam insulation which yearly exceeded 20% water. This quantity of water is somewhat concerning for the batt insulation as it may reduce the material’s R-Value and/or contribute to mold growth depending on the composition of the material. Solutions that used foam insulation performed better than those with batt insulation.

    Temperature One common result of insulating a historic building from the interior is increased freeze thaw action. Insulation prevents the interior conditioned space from heating and drying the exterior masonry. As a result the masonry is typically saturated with more water and exposed to colder temperatures. The analysis looked at the temperature within the middle of the masonry to determine how added insulation would impact the material. A chart comparing the base case to the four options for insulation is located below. As can be seen the brick temperature remains consistent with the base case in all retrofit options. This is an indication that the masonry may not by exposed to additional weathering as a result of added interior insulation. It should be noted that not all masonry reacts to water saturation and freezing conditions in the same manner. To further analyze the masonry’s susceptibility to freeze-thaw action lab analysis is recommended to determine material performance. If results indicate that the masonry is susceptible to freeze-thaw it will be critical to ensure new constructions do not lead to a significantly colder/wetter exterior wall.

    Relative Humidity The relative humidity of the air within the wall construction also has an impact on material longevity and mold potential. A high relative humidity in plaster or batt insulation layers may indicate mold growth, while a high relative humidity in layers with reinforcement may indicate the potential for corrosion. A constant and high relative humidity (above 80%) indicates the potential for mold growth. The charts to the right focus on several susceptible layers, the existing plaster, batt insulation, and gypsum board. In general the majority of the layers susceptible to mold remained below 80% relative humidity, or consistently dropped below 80% relative humidity allowing the material to periodically dry. An exception was the existing plaster layer. The addition of interior insulation caused the relative humidity within the layer to increase approximately 15%, from 65% (base case) to just over 80% (all options for added insulation). This spike in relative humidity is concerning and could indicate the potential for mold growth within the layer.
    Isopleths WUFI can also predict mold growth by plotting isopleths on the interior surface. The isopleths are plots of the temperature and the relative humidity for every time period calculation. When the temperature and relative humidity both exceed the limiting lines calculated by WUFI there is the potential for mold growth. The simulations indicate that there is very little potential for mold growth. All of the simulations begin above the limiting lines, but over time equalize and remain well below the threshold calculated by WUFI.
    The results described above indicate that there could be some challenges to designing an appropriate insulation system for Wilmer Davis Hall. Three of the primary concerns noted in the above analysis are: increasing total water content quantities; high quantities of water in the batt insulation layers; and consistently high relative humidity’s in the existing plaster layer.

    In general Option 1 and Option A performed better than Option 2 and Option B – primarily because they relied on only foam/rigid insulation. This resulted in no risk of mold growth within the insulation layers and no reduction of the R-Value. Concerns were still identified with both Options in terms of total water content and relative humidity in the plaster layer.

    Prior to detailing a new wall for construction additional analysis is recommended. Minor changes in material properties can have significant impacts on wall performance. The above analysis has indicated that there is a potential for mold growth, but has not confirmed its likelihood. Most of the metrics indicated no risk of mold growth – however because some of the metrics showed a potential for mold, additional analysis is recommended. Testing of the existing materials and specific data on proposed products should be used to refine this analysis and determine extent of mold growth risk.

    Written by Halla Hoffer, Associate, Architect I

    Using Revit for Historic Architecture

    Revit is used widely for designing new architecture and for documentation of existing structures. When first looking at Revit one may assume that it is tailored for use with contemporary designs. The default ‘Families’ (the term Revit uses to describe all types of elements from furniture to windows, doors, annotation symbols, wall constructions, etc.) are all generic to new construction. Despite the pre-set generic components, Revit’s strength lies in the ability to create custom ‘Families’ and its capability of tracking both three dimensional design as well as linked information about components. When used correctly Revit can be a powerful tool for building assessment and historic renovation. At PMA we have found several tools in Revit that can help us accurately show historic elements, track information about conditions, show repair strategies, and graphically present data.
    When working on historic structures it can be very important to accurately show existing elements. We often need to indicate exact pieces of terra cotta that require replacement or how a stone entry stair is configured so that the cost for replacement stones can be correctly estimated. We frequently create custom ‘Families’ to accurately show historic detailing. ‘Families’ of all types can be created to refine a model and add historic detail. Some of the common custom elements that we create include windows with historically accurate profiles, stacked walls that let us show terra cotta banding and differentiation in materials/wall thicknesses, complex historic roof structures, and custom patterns that match existing stonework. By adapting the generic Revit ‘Families’ and creating our own we are able to accurately represent historic features and structures.

    One of Revit’s most useful capabilities is its ability to record and track information about building components. Unlike earlier drafting and 3D modeling applications, Revit can store information about material finishes, specification references, and much more! In Revit you can assign ‘Parameters’ to ‘Families’. ‘Parameters’ are used in a variety of different ways – but one of the most useful we’ve found is their ability to track the condition of specific building elements. For example, when we perform window surveys we can assign ‘Parameters’ to all of the modeled windows that describe the typical deficiencies observed. For each individual unit we can then record what deficiencies were discovered in the field. Once all of the information has been added to the Revit model you can create schedules in Revit to describe the condition of each window unit and total quantities. The information can be extracted from Revit and into spreadsheet software to analyze the data, present trends, and identify repair scopes for individual units.
    Using Fliter’s
    Revit’s ‘Filter’s’ function is another tool that we use in conjunction with ‘Parameters’ to better understand and present information that we’ve recorded in the field. Filters allow one to alter the graphics for components based on their ‘Parameter’ values. For example we commonly use ‘Filters’ to graphically show the condition of a building’s windows after a survey. We do this by creating a condition ‘Parameter’ where a value can be assigned to each window, for example, good, moderate, and poor. We can then use filters to highlight all of the windows in good condition green, those in moderate condition yellow, and those in poor condition red. Unlike a window schedule which may require some analysis – the color coded elevations Revit can create with ‘Filters’ are easy to understand and an excellent tool for presentations.

    At PMA we have found Revit to be an invaluable tool that we use day to day for a variety of uses including 3D modeling, displaying point clouds, rendering, tracking information, and presenting data. Revit is a capable tool and with a little creativity one can tailor the application to complex historic projects. The ability to create complex custom ‘Families’ that track data about the structure make it possible for our office to efficiently record, analyze, and present date we observe in the field – bringing projects all the way through development, documentation of construction documents, and construction itself.

    Review our ongoing building envelope project that utilizes Revit.


    Written By Halla Hoffer, Associate, Architect I

    Post Modern Building Materials Part One

    Advances in science and material properties have always played a role in the development of building products. Postmodernism fueled the advent of several new building materials including Glass Reinforced Polyester (James Stirling, Olivetti Training Center, c.1972), Insulated Exterior Metal Panel Systems (Richard Meier, Bronx Development Center, c.1979), Dupont’s Fabric Tensile Structures (University of Florida Gainesville, O’Connell Center, c.1980), polycarbonate sheets (Kalwall, et.al.), pre-fabricated brick panel systems, and many other new construction technologies.


    Richard Meier, Bronx Development Center, 1977

    Post Modern Building Materials and Life-Cycle
    Like any new technology or building material, the life span of postmodern materials is now known but there is a lack of case studies and journalistic papers describing the failure mechanisms, and more importantly, how to repair, retain, or preserve the exterior materials. On one level there is an inherent impermanence of the original materials based on a default decision making process that limited a building’s longevity to a twenty-five (25) year life-cycle. On another level, the façade of the Postmodern building incorporates building systems or individual components that are neither produced nor assembled currently in similar manners due to improvements in technology and building envelope science. In either case, the process and method of building envelope repair could dramatically or minimally impact the exterior character of Postmodern structures.

    Aldo Rossi, Theatro Delmondo, Venice 1982

    There are some Postmodern structures, despite the polarizing opinions regarding the aesthetic values, that are iconographic examples of the high-end of Postmodern style. Included with those structures named above, are the Portland Building (Michael Graves, c. 1984), Piazza d’Italia (Charles Moore, 1982), and Theatro Delmondo, (Aldo Rossi, Venice 1982) to name a few. Rossi’s Theatro Delmondo poses an even more challenging theoretical debate as to whether or not to preserve or repair the structure since the theater was built as a floating temporary stage set.

    Rehabilitation and Postmodern materials
    The rehabilitation of Postmodern materials is compounded by the lack of physical or chemical stability in the original product (e.g. color fading or material breakdown by UV light); changing urban context and surrounding development; inadequate original construction means and methods, and lack of precedence – Postmodern buildings are just now reaching the end of their design life-cycle. Proposals to improve envelope performance are challenged in finding products that will improve performance and retain the aesthetics of a Postmodern building. Given these challenges, is the proper repair, rehabilitation, or conservation of Postmodern structures to retain the appearance of insubstantial material installed incorrectly? Or should any new work, often entailing proposals for replacing the building facades, to discount the design appearance and fix the problems regardless of the impact.


    ZGF, Koin Center, 1982

    Moving forward, there are precedents set by the early and current challenges associated with mid-century modern structures that can be followed. For example, circa 1960 glass curtain wall upgrades have created methods to retain the exterior appearance while upgrading the thermal efficiency of the system or conversely, left the existing original curtain wall in place and upgrade the mechanical system and distribution system as both more cost effective and more energy efficient over the life of the building. The solutions towards postmodern materials will similarly be led by research, initiative, and innovation. Engaging the manufactures in the dialogue is essential, particularly when replacing a failed product is critical to retaining the building design character.

    James Stirling, Olivetti Training Center, 1972

    Unique Challenges
    There are unique challenges with Postmodern buildings, but as is the case with all new materials and systems, developing a strategy of research, methodology, and documentation will result in extending the life-cycle of these provocative structures.

    Portland Building

    Written by Peter Meijer, AIA, NCARB / Principal