Chicagoland has always been a center of exciting architectural developments and has seen several building booms throughout its history. In the late 1990s, as demand for affordable residential housing skyrocketed, many single-family homes and condominium developments utilized concrete block, or its fancier cousin, split faced block.

Split faced block is simply an inexpensive 16” concrete block split into two 8” pieces, each with a roughened face that resembles much more costly rock masonry. This material was strong, cheap, and reminiscent of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of Gilded Age mansions such as the Glessner House

But because of these qualities, some homes featuring split face block were constructed by less experienced builders — with a single wythe (one block thickness) for the exterior wall, as opposed to the typical Chicago standard of multiple wythe wall assembly (2-3 blocks thick).

The use of these types of blocks was stopped in 2009, but many homeowners are still dealing with the repercussions and have major concerns for the safety and longevity of their properties

Let’s explore the potential hazards of concrete and split face block buildings, and what proactive measures you can take to protect your family and your investment. 

Beware of Moisture Intrusion

All masonry is porous, which is why smooth concrete block is usually given a protective coating for durability. The irregular surface of a split face block is much more sponge-like, and many of these buildings were not adequately detailed with flashings and drainage planes.

Single-wythe walls offer far less protection against the elements, making them more susceptible to water intrusion. Moisture seeps through cracks or gaps, leading to a range of issues such as mold growth, rotting wood, and weakened structural elements. 

It’s crucial to address any signs of water infiltration promptly, as prolonged exposure can result in costly repairs and health hazards. Here are the most common signs you’ve got trapped moisture:

  • Staining of the block or a white, salty residue
  • Discoloration of walls, trim, or flooring
  • Dropping from light fixtures or electrical outlets
  • Musty smells
  • Deteriorated mortar

There are certain steps you can take to mitigate this issue. An experienced home inspector will examine your exterior walls for signs that the top is properly sealed with flashing (a water-impermeable barrier of rubber, metal, or vinyl) and that you have adequate drainage and ventilation. A masonry restoration expert can handle the repairs needed to further waterproof the structure.

Foundationally Speaking 

The foundation is the backbone of any building, providing structural support and playing a crucial role in keeping your property safe and protected against ground movement and extreme weather. 

Homes built with walls of a single wythe of split face or concrete block are more prone to water leakage, and therefore the foundation could also become compromised. Any crack or fracture is a pathway for more moisture to intrude and cause more extensive damage. 

During a home inspection, your licensed technician will visually evaluate the building’s foundation for these warning signals:

  • Bulging or collapsing
  • Vertical, horizontal, or diagonal (“stair step”) cracks
  • Spalling (flaking or loss of masonry material)
  • Leaning or tipping block walls
  • Shear failures

If your inspection report reveals foundational problems, don’t despair. There are many reputable and qualified firms in Chicagoland that specialize in this area, and the work may not be as expensive as you think. 

Forewarned and Forward

While concrete and split face block homes offer durability and strength, they come with their own set of potential hazards that homeowners should be aware of. Concrete block dwellings can be built strong enough to withstand hurricanes, but Chicagoland’s unique climate offers its own set of challenges. 

Understanding the underlying issues, conducting regular inspections, and taking appropriate measures to address these problems can help ensure the long-term safety, comfort, and value of your home. 

Knowing what to look for and doing your due diligence is key. Professional guidance from a trusted firm like Windy City Home Inspections can provide invaluable support in identifying and mitigating any situations associated with concrete or split face block construction. Enjoy your home with peace of mind — reach out to us today!