What’s this then?
I’ve mentioned here before that I’m working for Salmond Reed Architects this summer. Recently, I had the opportunity to observe an on-site test of the material properties of some mortar at a heritage building in Auckland, and I thought I’d share some of the details here. The site is a late-nineteenth century two-storey brick building. (To clarify some jargon used henceforth: bricks = unreinforced masonry = URM). I’ve been given permission to share the test procedure, but I haven’t sought permission to disclose exactly where the testing was being carried out, so that is a deliberate omission from the post. Still, I thought the process was novel and interesting enough that some of you might enjoy hearing more about it.
So you think you’re pretty tough
If you’re going to assess an existing building, you have to decide how you think the building might fail. For URM buildings, there is a hierarchy of failure modes from most likely to least likely, and an engineer needs to work down through the hierarchy, examining all of the possible modes. At a certain point, the assessment will find a mode that causes something unacceptable to happen under the predicted load. That doesn’t mean that the assessment stops there: but certainly, something needs to be done about the potential failures and their resulting risk to life.
So far, so tidy. But there’s a problem. Heritage materials are far from homogenous. The 1920s concrete at the St James Theatre is soft and drummy, whereas on another site I recently saw 1920s concrete that was described to me as “rock-hard”. Bricks can be low-fired and soft, or fired at high temperature and hardened. Stone’s anisotropic. And mortar’s really idiosyncratic. How much lime went in? Were there shells in the sand? How wet or dry has it been throughout its life? It’s hard to predict the strength of hand-mixed materials from a time before the standardisation of products. The true in-situ strength of the material, the actual number, will make a difference to which failure modes come out of the analysis as critical weaknesses, and how much work you have to do to the building. Hence also the dollars involved. So how do you find out how strong the materials at your specific building truly are, and hence, how they will fail? You test them.
In due course
Mortar’s not brick glue. Its primary purpose is not to stick bricks together. Instead, it provides a slightly compressible joint between the bricks as they sit in their stacks, allowing them to expand and contract without cracking each other to shards. Generally, mortar is softer than the bricks, especially lime mortar, and this is a good thing.
Notwithstanding the above, the mortar is the thing that stops the bricks sliding across each other if the wall gets shoved along its length, for example by an earthquake. The test that I observed, a bed joint shear test, examines how well the mortar prevents the bricks sliding across each other. It seeks to establish a cohesion value for the mortar. Key takeaway: it’s a mortar test, not a brick test.
The cohesion value influences several important failure modes: embedded anchor pullout; punching shear for plate anchors; (diagonal tensile strength leading to) diagonal tensile cracking and spandrel shear due to flexure; and bed-joint sliding. In this post, you’re seeing pictures of several of these modes. For the building that was being tested, the EQ STRUC engineers told me that the cohesion value was going to be used for calculating bed joint sliding shear.
The bed joint shear test is carried out by taking a brick out of the wall and using a hydraulic jack to push on the bricks either side of the hole. When the brick that’s being pushed starts to move, that means that the mortar has failed. Simple. In a moment, I’ll show some images of the steps. But before that… this.
Bed joint sliding shear
Bed joint sliding shear is calculated thusly:
I hope it won’t totally destroy my credibility if I tell you that my first reaction to seeing the above was yuck. But on closer inspection, the equation is pretty straightforward, and considering its terms really helps to understand what is being measured.
Firstly, the µf(P + Pw) bit. That’s just saying that the load pressing on the bricks makes them rub on each other, which makes it harder for them to slide across each other. More load on top: harder to slide the bricks.
Secondly, the tnomLwc bit. tnom and Lw are the thickness and the length, so really that’s an area: the area of the bed joint. And the cohesion value is the stickness. How sticky is the mortar, per area? That’s what this part is describing.
In the real-world bed joint shear test, the engineers try to make the equation even simpler, because the friction bit mightn’t be completely obvious: exactly how much load IS on the wall at the time you test? You can measure the height of the wall, but what about superimposed loads? So, to avoid worrying about this, the EQ STRUC team carried out the testing on bricks just underneath windows, where there wouldn’t be much imposed load. That means the cohesion can be found by knowing how much area of mortar you were testing (the bed joint size) and how hard you shoved the brick.
The test, in detail
First, catch your brick. I’ve noted above that the best spot to test is under a window. Another limitation is that the test should only be carried out with stretcher bricks in a stretcher course. If you’re not sure what that means: stretchers are laid along the wall, headers are laid across the wall. Like so:
The tests I saw were all carried out on the internal wythe of the brick wall. (A wythe is a layer of thickness–ie, a wall that’s three bricks thick is laid in three wythes, usually interlocked. There’s more complexity to this but that’ll do for now.) So, to carry out the test, you need to open up the linings and identify the right course to test.
Secondly, a single brick is removed. This means using a mortar saw to take out all the mortar above, below, and to the side of the bricks. On the picture two up you can see that these are the two bed joints and the two head joints. The brick gets extracted whole and can be replaced later.
Mortar is removed from the extracted brick, and set aside for future testing—think of it as something like a concrete cylinder test. This testing isn’t part of determining cohesion.
Thirdly, the head joint is removed from the far side of one of the bricks adjacent to the hole. This is to give the brick that will be shoved some room to move. If the mortar wasn’t removed, the test results would be affected by the compressibility of the mortar in the head joint.
Finally, the jack is inserted. It’s pumped by hand, exerting a force on the brick. The mortar in the bed joints above and below the brick resists the force. Since we’re testing under a window, there’s basically not much friction from the weight above. So the thing that’s stopping the brick moving is the two bed joints.
When the shove gets strong enough to move the brick—that’s deemed to be the point of failure, and the value is recorded. This is the peak value, meaning how much force would have to be exerted on the bricks by an earthquake to get them to start moving. Once they’re moving, they still need some force to keep them moving. So the engineers reset the jack, and pump it up once more until the brick begins sliding again—at which point, the residual value has been found.
The brick on the other side of the hole can now be tested. The engineers wedge something into the vacant head joint on the first brick—to prevent further sliding—and then cut out the head joint on the second brick, before testing again as described above. With a set of values from paired tests carried out around the building, an average value can be determined. Remember, we know the area of the bed joints, we know how much force we used, we’re ignoring friction, so there’s only one unknown: the cohesion value.
There’s a somewhat subjective element to the tests. As for most things, it takes experience to determine exactly when sliding has begun. The tester gets a certain amount of physical feedback from the unloading of the jack as the brick slides, but even then, the exact moment of failure and the associated peak value are not precisely defined.
And this is only appropriate. After all, the mortar isn’t going to be homogenous throughout the whole building. Nor will other conditions be exactly similar. What’s required is something more like a geotechnical value—which is to say, a good rigorous estimate of the cohesion, into which some safety margins can be built. It’d be possible, with more elaborate equipment, to measure the load and the deflection more precisely; but a more precise number wouldn’t really be more meaningful.
Thanks are very much due to Romain Knowles and Antti Wallenius from EQ STRUC. Thanks also to Phillip Hartley from Salmond Reed Architects for getting me in the door at the site.