Inappropriate Repairs for Historic Stone Masonry

As holds the principle of bioethics, so should the approach to treating historic stone: “First, do no harm.”

stone masonry
Blistering waterproof coating.

By Elizabeth A. Hnatiw and Christopher M. DeRosa

As holds the principle of bioethics, so should the approach to treating historic stone: “First, do no harm.” If the degree of deterioration does little to detract from the architectural character of the building or to call into question its structural stability or performance, no repair may be needed.

Too often, application of a “protective” waterproof coating, aimed at preventing hypothetical moisture-related deterioration, has the unintended effect of sealing moisture inside the masonry surface and leading, in many cases, to real and irreversible damage. Stone masonry buildings of traditional construction were designed to “breathe;” to be permeable to air and moisture, allowing water to leave the wall assembly through the natural process of evaporation. Introducing impervious coatings and vapor barriers disrupts the balance of moisture across the building envelope, which can result in dire consequences for the stone, at both a macro- and micro-structural level.

stone masonry
Deteriorated face-pointed mortar.

As a shortcut to address deteriorated mortar joints, a thin layer of mortar is sometimes added without first removing the existing mortar to the appropriate depth. While quicker and cheaper than full repointing, face-pointing is inadvisable, as it does not provide suitable stability and tends to crumble out of the joint.

Introduction of pointing mortars of incorrect composition may restrain the natural expansion and contraction of stone masonry subjected to moisture absorption and drastic temperature swing cycles, leading to cracking and spalling.

stone masonry
Incorrect use of sealant. (All photos: Hoffmann Architects, Inc.)

Faulty patching mortars and ill-conceived pinning methods may have similar detrimental consequences. Even stone cleaning, which sounds innocuous enough, is fraught with hazards, as using abrasive or chemically incompatible cleaning methods can abrade or otherwise damage the stone surface.

Elizabeth A. Campbell, AIA LEED AP BD+C is Project Architect with Hoffmann Architects, Inc., an architecture and engineering firm specializing in the rehabilitation of building exteriors. She develops historic stone restoration strategies that combine material science and preservation. Christopher M. DeRosa, AIA, PE, LEED Green Associate, Project Architect with Hoffmann Architects, is experienced in designing stone cleaning and repair programs for traditional masonry buildings.


  1. We saw these happening a lot in Canada also, especially in Toronto. Some companies don’t possess the ethical skills to approach those issues.

  2. Awful repairs, whoever did the repairs should not perform any stone work from now. Sometimes they distroy even more.

  3. Thank you for this article. It’s short, but it says it all. In the field of earthen architecture and historic earthen architecture, this is the most common reason for progressive deterioration of the load-bearing section of the wall (principally just the application of “sealants” and impervious mortars, plasters and paints). In earthen buildings, the envelop of time for damage is much more accelerated than stone, but the mechanisms are the same: sudden change in permeability, water tension buildup, and capillary damage exacerbated by environmental conditions, sulphates and other salts (often in the pointing or plastering base). Our collective psyche has shifted so much towards the “concrete” mentality that the most important principle of the “sacrificial” mortar and render is forgotten in masonry. Sometimes I wonder how much heritage architecture must be lost or irretrievably damaged for these practices to stop.

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