The exterior center section of a 100-year-old, six-story building in Davenport, Iowa collapsed on May 29, leaving its apartment interiors exposed to the elements and three people dead. In its previous life, the Renaissance Revival-style brick-and-steel structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has housed apartments above ground-floor retail spaces since the 1980s, but now the city plans to demolish the broken building, because the remaining structure is unstable.
There could be many reasons for the building’s downfall, and officials have not yet announced a cause. However, both the Associated Press and The New York Times reported that the structure had many longtime flaws that needed urgent fixing. Residents had been raising concerns for years about both structural safety and problems with interior spaces, such as air conditioning and plumbing. Authorities found a gas leak and a water leak, and residents reported electrical issues. Water was leaking through multiple floors of the structure after the incident, indicating that leakage had already been a problem.
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Rich Oswald, director of development and neighborhood services for the City of Davenport, said at a news conference after the collapse that exterior building work was underway at the time of the catastrophe. Residents bemoaned that the work came too late.
Painted Exterior Brick Could Be the Culprit
Inspectors and a private-sector structural engineer discovered on May 23 that the brick façade, painted scarlet red in recent years, was separated from the interior wall and appeared “ready to fall imminently,” according to a CNN article about the report. The interior wall was losing stability and causing deformation. A beam possibly bearing down on the affected wall needed a steel column for extra support, the structural engineer recommended. City inspectors took photos on May 25 showing a void between the façade and interior wall; the gap contained crumbled bricks.
Bricks were falling off the building’s facade as early as August 2020, so the sidewalk around this area was closed, according to an analysis by The Architect’s Newspaper.
“The collapsed wall is the only wall that was painted, and while the brick was clearly damaged prior to this painting, many types of paint that are not breathable can trap moisture in brick,” the newspaper reported.
Moisture normally passes through a building’s walls. Bricks are like sponges; their porous structure is great at both absorbing water and drying out completely. However, if moisture beneath the brick surface is unable to evaporate—say, because it hits a layer of paint—then the water builds up. Eventually, water erodes brick over a period of years. “Painting over brick is essentially a death sentence for brick,” according to McGill Restoration, a repair and restoration company based in Nebraska.
Other things could exacerbate water buildup inside walls, too. For example, the problem could start with installation itself in a couple of ways: mortar mixed with too much water shrinks as it dries, and forms holes that water can pass through, according to Enviro Clean Abatement Services, a professional cleaning and restoration services company in Arizona. Problems can develop on the interior side of bricks as well, if extra mortar from the back of the bricks isn’t scraped away. Water that would otherwise escape and drain gets stuck instead, and the building’s weather-resistant barrier erodes. Eventually, the water leaks into the building.
What to Do if Your Home Has Painted Brick
We don’t know exactly how the Iowa building was originally constructed, and presumably inspectors and engineers are investigating the causes for its collapse. If you have painted bricks on your own home, though, you can figure out if your exterior has a water leak, according to McGill Restoration. Look for at least one of the following problems: blistering or bubbling of the exterior surface, erosion of the mortar between bricks (known as mortar joints), or difficulty removing the paint.
Professionals can remove the paint safely and carefully, to avoid further damage to the structure. They may scrape or sandblast it away, pressure wash it, or use paint-removing chemicals.
Before joining Popular Mechanics, Manasee Wagh worked as a newspaper reporter, a science journalist, a tech writer, and a computer engineer. She’s always looking for ways to combine the three greatest joys in her life: science, travel, and food.