Also, solid advice for homeowners on alternatives to painting brick when that newer brick doesn’t quite match the older
Updated in May, 2023, this article was originally published in February, 2020.
By Mark Fleischer
One is painted solid jet-black. Another is painted bright ocean blue. And yes, yet another was painted red.
But we’re not talking about just doors here, we’re talking about entire houses. Historic, 100+ year-old houses. Historic commercial structures too. Houses and buildings whose exteriors once proudly displayed nothing but their original, exposed and wonderful red brick, now covered and sealed in acrylic or latex of all colors of the rainbow. The latest trends are seeing homes slathered in white; white paint on original brick, trim, accents and all. White, white and more white.
For many homeowners, the painting of their historic home feels like a right of passage. The very act of picking up a roller or a paint brush may kindle memories of painting a childhood bedroom or that old dresser handed down from grandma. It also has a sense of a right of ownership, and pride, applying that personal coat of color like a signature on a deed. It may be a chance to spruce up the home after years of neglect or it may be a necessary evil like that roof that needs re-shingling or that plumbing that needs repaired.
Brick and weep hole images below from Bob Vila’s home advice site (bobvila.com) and House Logic (houselogic.com)
But the painting of brick – original, exposed brick in particular – is quite often not only not recommended, but also opens potential long-term risks to your historic home; it is not simply for aesthetic or even historical reasons. Structural integrity and the lasting life of both the exteriors and interiors of a structure are what we ought to be thinking about before addressing that old brickwork.
Cover image from Five Reasons Why You’ll Regret Painting Your Brick House.
So why isn’t it a good idea to paint original, exposed brick?
“Water. Water is our enemy in historic buildings,” said restoration expert Chooch Pickard, who is also an architectural designer at A2H. “If any water gets in and behind the paint on the brick, it can freeze and then thaw and damage the brick.”
What is easy to overlook and should be a growing concern for homeowners is the fact that brick is a breathable material. This characteristic takes on added importance as we experience climate extremes in heat and, in recent back to back winters, plunging temperatures and deep freezes.
“A brick wall – even today’s brick veneers – have air spaces behind the brick, and that brick is made to breathe. Any water that gets in gets to that air space; it eventually dries out before it can get into the building.”
Architect Ashley Wilson, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, speaking with House Logic, said “Old brick was handmade in a kiln (a type of oven), and some . . . has a harder surface. It weathers better, and was used on the face of buildings because it’s more impervious.”
With regard to historic homes and a neighborhood’s architectural guidelines, which advise against painting original brick, Memphis Landmarks Staff Planner, architectural historian and window expert Margot Payne says the idea is “more than maintaining the original look of the facade. Paint will only temporarily hide moisture and efflorescence issues. Sealing one side of the brick with paint will trap additional moisture and salts within the wall, causing further damage over time. For homeowners, understanding it is an issue of practicality and longevity for their home, in addition to historic integrity, might make them more amenable to the guideline restrictions on painting.”
White-Washing: What’s with the White on White trend?
In recent years, homeowners, contractors, apartment owners, house-flippers and more have been following a trend to paint these structures white. And too often, these folks are not just painting the brick white – they are painting entire exteriors white. This has included everything from the rain gutters to window frames to any of the exterior, contextual elements that make an old brick structure so beautiful and interesting in the first place.
So concerning is this trend to many that local experts Brantley Ellzey and Jim Renfrow have dedicated the social media Facebook sites Memphis Masonry Preservation Society (and on Instagram) to raising awareness not just to the dangers inherent in painting original exposed masonry, but also to the frequency and carelessness of this latest trend.
And it is just that, a trend. In this writer’s opinion, it is much like the mid-century trends when homeowners began covering their homes’ beautiful hardwood floors with carpeting. Berber, polyester, shag … most only served to discolor or even damage the hardwood underneath. Who remembers the heyday of 1970s and ’80s old home restoration when the first thing the new owners did was remove the worn carpeting to once again bring life to the old hardwood? The refrain then, Why would anyone want to cover this beautiful hardwood?
And, those same carpets were bacteria traps, harder to clean, harder to maintain, and more susceptible than hardwood to wear and tear over the course of years. And lighter-colored carpeting? Forgot about it. Without constant cleaning, that new white carpet turned into an ugly mess within a few short years.
In just over a year and a half, the Memphis Masonry Preservation Society has accumulated almost 1800 followers locally, and has served to educate the public on the importance of preserving original masonry. The site has also served to expose some of the more blatant and What the hell are they thinking cases that are sure to become, like that old white carpeting, dirty messes in a few years.
And so, beyond aesthetics, why is it so often ill-advised to paint exposed brick?
A Primer on Painting Exposed Brick
For it’s article Five Reasons Why You’ll Regret Painting Your Brick House, the website House Logic tells us that painting brick can result in longterm brick and structural damage, it can quickly deteriorate into something looks awful, and that one could be destroying a bit of history. And not being an expert myself, I sat down with Chooch Pickard for a quick primer on painting brick. I learned that much consideration should go into that house exterior before a new coat of paint becomes a part of the picture.
Q: What about misconceptions by home and building owners about cost savings in painting?
Pickard: “They’ll paint the brick because, well, let’s say the mortar is failing in it and they don’t really want to spend the money to tuckpoint. That’s an even worse reason. The water and moisture absolutely will get in there if it’s not tuckpointed. The mortar joints are actually a good part of what holds water out between the bricks. And the bricks themselves, as a clay substance, can breathe.”
(Breathability becomes that much more beneficial with increasing extremes in climate. As anyone who has spent any time in a brick structures knows, these buildings naturally stay warmer in the winter and keep cooler in the summer, ultimately saving homeowners on heating and cooling costs.)
Q: What exactly is tuckpointing?
Bob Vila’s home advice website says that “Mortar used to fill joints deteriorates over time – even if the bricks themselves are still in good shape. Tuckpointing involves removing a portion of the deteriorated mortar, filling the joints with new mortar (that closely matches the color of the brick), and then applying a thin line of putty in a contrasting color down the center of the joint.”
Pickard: If water can pass through quickly where it’s not been tuckedpointed and where the mortar has deteriorated the water will stay behind. Then not only do you have freeze-thaw issues you can have mold and mildew issues. It is inevitable that water will get in a wall, and you have to make sure there’s ways for it to get out.
The other thing painting does is cover up weepholes.
Q: What are weepholes?
Pickard: Weepholes are there to allow water to escape out of the wall.
Weepholes are those small gaps left in between some brick in the masonry wall. They are there for a reason. And they serve two important purposes, for ventilation and drainage.
However they are also an access point for rodents, insects, and swarming bees and wasps. Experts say that for weepholes that have become critters’ front doors, one should do not resort to sealing the hole. Instead they can be partially blocked with materials that still allow airflow, such as with wire mesh or tiny screens.
Q: Is there ever a situation where painting brick is acceptable?
Pickard: Sure. If over the life of that building a building has always been painted, it’s obviously more acceptable to paint it. But in general, it really is not a good idea.
Q: What if the brick is structurally fine, but because of repairs and replacements over the years it’s now inconsistent in terms of color – some owners may want to paint over for consistency. Can brick be cleaned, or stained?
Pickard: When it’s been patched with brick and mortar that doesn’t match the original – it is tough to match brick – there are ways out there to stain it. Artisans can stain brick so that it looks exactly like the rest. However, stains are meant to change the color of a brick, not coat it – that’s the difference. Like with real wood, staining doesn’t seal the wood. The coating you have on the outside of it seals and protects it. So staining brick is one way to do it. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s less expensive than going out and finding a handful of bricks that match exactly, which actually is one approach that’s been used over the years.
Q: With regard to paint colors themselves, some ask why there aren’t typically paint color guidelines in historic guidelines. It seems the answer would be both in practicality as well as historical significance?
Pickard: Well it’s not just that. When the historic districts were formed you had to get as many people on board as possible. So what is one thing people will give in on? They’ll say “well you’re going to make me keep my historic windows, but don’t make me paint certain colors. You know, I need to be able to have that freedom.”
Q: I would also argue and appeal for the original brick for its raw beauty. I myself love brick.
Pickard: Yes. The other the other thing with painting brick – a lot of times you’re covering up the character the wall. Brick is not a monochromatic color. It’s not meant to be. The mortar is another color, or has been uniquely picked to match. I mean, the design of that wall, the original intent in its design was never meant to be monochromatic.
Some think because the brick is a little discolored it looks bad. But more than likely they’re looking at a bad brick job, and what you see is mortar that wasn’t put in properly, which makes it look worse than the actual bricks. It’s actually cheaper to go in and tuckpoint and put the real the right color matching mortar in there.
Q: Seems like what we’re talking about is not simply ‘why can’t I paint my own house?’ but the overall intent of historic guidelines. I mean, these are historically significant neighborhoods, and original materials are obviously a huge part of them.
Pickard: Right. Often you have stone mixed in, or other colors of brick for detail work. It’s what we very often see in Memphis and Midtown, like up in Vollintine-Evergreen, and some of these Craftsman Homes that have incredible stone and multicolored bricks that were meant to be a part of that original design. When they’re covered up by paint, it bothers me more than anything.
Cover image from Five Reasons Why You’ll Regret Painting Your Brick House.
For more on proper tuck pointing and gentle cleaning, consult the briefs at the National Park Service’s tips on historic restoration: https://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/6-dangers-abrasive-cleaning.htm.
More on tuck pointing a historic home can be found here at Bob Vila’s home advice site.