In 1998, when Dustin McQuate moved to Baltimore's Canton neighborhood, he joined the legions of young people flocking to Baltimore's waterfront neighborhoods, attracted by their vibrant cultures and the charm of their historic row houses.
For McQuate, now a Butchers Hill resident and a real estate agent with Cummings and Co. Realtors, living in a home with exposed brick was an important part of that experience — but the walls in his home were intact. So he rolled up his sleeves, grabbed some tools and began chipping away at the plaster.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” he says. “You’re literally whacking away at the plaster wall until you knock it off. Skill-wise, there’s not much to it.”
These days, most brick exposure, from row homes to farmhouses, is handled by contractors like Matthew Knoepfle, who owns Building Character LLC with his brother Michael, and specializes in the rehab of older row homes. He agrees that the process is straightforward but notes that it still involves several steps.
“The first part of the process is that after [demolition], we take the plaster off the old brick walls,” he explains. “After the plaster is off, we powerwash the walls to get the remaining plaster residue off the bricks. After that, the interior brick company takes out the old mortar with a grinder or chisel and repacks the mortar joints with new mortar. We then put a light cleaner on the wall to clean off the new brick residue, and the wall looks brand-new.” Sometimes the walls are also then sealed with varnish.
Down and dirty
Grinding out the joints not only looks nice, it also helps minimize dust, says McQuate. “In downtown Baltimore, we have old oyster shell mortar that tends to be very granular,” he explains. “It gets very dusty when it’s old and dried out.”
Dust is a major consideration during the exposure and afterward, when you’re living with the results.
“Those walls will accumulate a lot of dust, just like raw wood,” says Michael Owings of Eldersburg-based Owings Brothers Contracting. “Sealing keeps the dust down and gives a richer look.”
When McQuate exposed his bricks, he learned the hard way that it’s a dirty process.
“The debris that comes off will get broken down into the smallest pieces,” he says. “You will get dust on everything in your house. I put plastic up, but missed tape on three or four inches in one place. It looked like a snowdrift in that bedroom — there was a half-inch gap in the plastic, and a foot of dust drifted in.”
McQuate also says that exposing one brick wall in his living room generated about 50 trash bags of debris, each weighing about 80 pounds.
For these reasons, he and others strongly suggest hiring a contractor — and taking a vacation during the work.
“Containing the dust and dust particles in the air is quite a process,” says Matthew Knoepfle. “The dirt and dust you accumulate is overwhelming. It’s a dirty, miserable job.”
Knoepfle specifies that homeowners should hire someone who is “MHIC” insured or certified, meaning that the company has been licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission.
“There are a lot of people who do it as side work,” he says.
Other environmental and structural concerns include the likelihood that the walls contain lead paint and lack insulation (especially a concern in farmhouses and end-of-group row homes). There’s also a slight chance that the brick will succumb to efflorescence, a chemical process in which liquid in the brick seeps out and crystallizes, appearing white on the surface. (This is more likely in bricks that have long been exposed to air, however, as opposed to those that have been covered by plaster walls.)
Even with the dust and potential drawbacks, contractors and homeowners agree that exposing brick is worth it.
“The benefit is that it brings out the historical charm of a renovated house,” says Knoepfle. “The brick walls, nine times out of 10, are gorgeous when they are restored.”
“Exposed brick is a historic element that adds warmth, color and texture to a room,” agrees interior designer Marianne Fishman of Row House Interiors. “When I rehabbed my own home and discovered brick behind a poorly designed bookcase we ripped out, the room suddenly had more depth, and the color and texture of the brick turned this man cave into a serious gentleman’s library where we also watch TV.”
To boot, McQuate says that exposed brick is a “must-have” in downtown row homes, from a home sales perspective. “It’s up there with a rooftop deck as one of the quintessential ‘city living’ items people look for when they’re buying,” he says.
Part of the draw of older homes is the connection they offer to the area’s history: When new homeowners expose bricks, bits of the home’s story are revealed.
“Back in the day, the veteran masons would put the younger guys who were just learning on the inside walls,” says Michael Owings, explaining that since the inside walls would be covered with plaster, mistakes would be hidden. “The veterans would do the nice tight facades. So when we uncover the inside walls, they’re not perfect — it’s where the kids were learning.”
In addition, the bricks used for the interior walls were often “seconds” and a little softer than the glazed bricks used on the exterior facades, says Owings. “If you see the wall and it’s crumbly, that’s where they put the ‘trash.’ They would hand-pick through for anything not perfect and then put them in the house so they wouldn’t go to waste. You get an imperfect and very rustic look.”
In many row homes, one or more of the walls in the front room on the main floor are exposed and, often, the exposed brick wall ends up being the spot for a flat screen television. But that’s not the only place in the home that can benefit from the look of exposed brick.
“We sometimes do exposed brick as a backsplash in the kitchen,” says Knoepfle. “It’s expensive, but in our own houses and a couple others, the backsplash is the only exposed brick.”
Knoepfle recommends that homeowners living with exposed brick find a handyman they trust who can help them hang pictures and televisions. “You need to have the correct tools,” he warns. “You can’t ruin the brick — that’s the good thing. And you’re not going to drill into your neighbor’s house. But I’d recommend hiring a handyman to hang things.”
Even with the extra considerations — and the dust — exposing the brick can be a good bet.
“Of course, you never know what you’re going to get when you start knocking the plaster off,” says McQuate. “But for a homeowner, that’s part of the fun, right?”