Monday, October 23, 2006

Flat Roof & Parapet Story

I've posted here and there about the roof and parapet, but I never really shared the whole story. It was definitely a complex problem that we had to deal with and well worth sharing. It really illustrates how many resources there are out there for finding solutions to your home improvement problems.

We had our flat roof torn off in June. This uncovered a our very deteriorated parapet wall. Our roofing company said, "Just cover it up- no one will ever see it." They were going to put our new rubber roof right over it and bury the problem. We were not so sure this was the right move.

First we called up the mason that had just finished tuckpointing our building to ask his opinion. He said "If the roofing company says it's okay, I wouldn't worry about it." We didn't trust his judgement, so we called up a Mason we found on our Angie's list to come out and take a look. A salesperson came over and said the entire parapet needed to be completely rebuilt and this would cost about $6K. Now we had 2 entirely differing opinions about what should be done. The roofing company probably wanted to just finish the job and get paid. Our original mason didn't seem to want to come back and didn't care much (We won't be hiring him again). And the new masonry company wanted a job ($$$).

Steve then went to the Masonry Association Website . He actually called them and spoke to them about our situation. They said, "It sounds like you have a bunch of charlatans on your hands. What you need to do is hire a Masonry Consultant that does not do work; they just evaluate the job and make recommendations."

Based on this discussion and the referrals they gave us, we hired Walter Laska from Masonry Technologies Inc. to come in for $300 and tell us what should be done. He came out and provided a written report, a detailed blueprint (actually a sketch) and a material list. The consultant also said that our parapet wall was one of the worst he had ever seen condition-wise (deteriorated mortar joints, spalled brick etc...). This confirmed our gut reaction to seeing the wall and our hesitation in covering it up.

Shortly thereafter, we went to a our Masonry Supply store and purchased all the materials needed, which included Chicago common brick, different types of mortar, flashing, roof caulking, and much more.

Steve spent evenings and weekends grinding out the deteriorated joints. It kept raining, which delayed the work repeatedly. We also were living with a temporary base sheet that the roofing company put on, which is not a real roof and no gutter. It just kept raining and we kept getting more nervous about leaks and damage if this temporary roof failed. We had just renovated the 2nd floor and alot was at stake if water got in. We also were having water leaks in our enclosed back porch, which was not good for the structure.

Had we not had so many other projects going on and winter coming, we could have finished the job on time to get our roof completed for fall. (The roof job was on hold for completion until the parapet walls were rebuilt) Steve did manage to completely grind all the joints out, but alas that problem of not enough time came into play.

We were extremely fortunate that we had our contractors around (the ones who renovated the 2nd floor this summer and were still on site working) and they volunteered to help finish the job. They happen to be from Bulgaria and were laying bricks at the age of 7! According to them, lumber is scarce in Bulgaria and everything is brick, concrete and stone. They did a great job- very tidy work and with 2 guys finished the job in 2 full days. Even though we had to bring in outside help, we saved about $3K doing it this way over hiring a mason to do the entire job.

Here you see the roof tiles that run around the edge of the parapet. Steve chipped 100 years worth of tar off of every last one. I told him we have the tidiest roof in town now.

So even though this was by no means a disaster, it was quite stressful while we were figuring out what to do and living with a single asphalt base sheet layer for a roof. On windy days, I would just cringe.

Just last week the roofing company came and out the roof on. I'm sleeping much better since then especially when it rains. Now if we could just find the right tenants for the 2nd floor!


Greg said...

Great story. You used a lot of resoucrers, didn't listen to all the "pros", and got the job done right. You did a good thing getting that taken care of properly. It sounds like it's good-to-go for another 100 years.

Was it lime mortar or portland cement based?

Jocelyn said...

Thanks Greg. It was Type N mortar, which is what is recommended for Chicago common brick, which is a soft brick.

Our mason was the type who did not like us asking questions. He tended to get defensive if you questioned what he was doing.

Kristin said...

You guys are so thorough! I feel like a hack in comparison. Maybe because I am a hack. Oh well, at least I'm not in denial. :)

Gary said...

Now I know better all my mortar is hydrated lime and sand. Funny, same as the plaster! Tuck pointing is one of the easier tasks if you aren't on a ladder!

Jocelyn said...

I suppose you could say tuckpointing is easy EXCEPT for the fact that in this case you had to bring bricks and cement up a ladder to a roof! The actual laying of the mortar isn't so bad. Grinding is alot of work though. And the things you have to carry and move are no walk in the park.

In my opinion even changing a lightbulb can be difficult given the circumstances. This is how I feel lately anyway.

Steve deserves credit for alot of this- he is more thorough than I, although he has trained me pretty well by now!

purejuice said...

this is a good story and answers the perennial question of, what superior do you go to when all contractors are self-employed? (often, for a reason.) thanks, i'll remember this tip.

Pete said...

Phew. Relieved to hear you decided to fix that. If you don't fix the parapet, you can end up with the parapet tilting off plumb and someday maybe even collapsing. If you look at parapets in Chicago you can see the ones that are askew because of bad maintenance. If anyone's curious, you can check out my Chicago parapet repair at

Jocelyn said...

Pete- Are you a mason? I looked at the job and that looked like a big repair job. Turned out well.

Thanks for affirming our decision!

MichaelCheck said...

I came across your site after a google search b/c I am attempting the same thing. I have a 3flat in Chicago, and have been told by 2 masons that a rebuild is necessary. 1 says boths sides and front, the other says just the sides. So far, the mason quoting just the sides has quoted me 25K! That is quite a difference from your 6K - even though it is 1.5 years later. Can you tell me, did you rebuild the entire parapet (all the way around)?

In side note, you have sparked me to start a blog on my experiences as well. Thanks for posting all the information - it is truly helpful!

Jocelyn said...

We only needed the inside course of bricks to be rebuilt and on the sides only. The front parapet was ground out and re-tuckpointed. Our parapet is only 3-4 courses tall- yours may be may be taller. Ours is 2 bricks deep at the roofline-maybe yours is deeper. The outside walls were just tuckpointed.

I would definitely get a few quotes and you could do what we did and get the masonry consultant. That gave us peace of mind. Good luck and glad to hear you enjoy our blog.

susang6 said...

You article was very useful, and you had some great tips for restoration of the parapet.

I own a Historic Sante Fe home with a clay block and mud parapet.
flat roof, with leaks. I tried everything to repair, but finally installed a metal roof and capped parapet with metal. no more worries!

Miranda said...

I know it's been years since this happened! But we are having similar difficulties with our condo building now, both with the parapet wall and needing some work on the exterior walls, and none of us have the time or expertise to try the do-it-yourself route. Have you come across any masonry contractors in your time working on your two-flat that you felt were trustworthy & quoting a good price? Any recommendations would be great!

Thomas said...

We do alot of roofing work in Chicago, especially on 100 year old Chicago 2-flats.It's no tuncommon for the parapet walls to be completely rebuilt as part of the roofing job.

Another problem is the unscrupulous contractors installing layer after layer. I just completed a project near uptown that had 5 layers, minimum code was 3 layers, but is now only 2 layers in Chicago. It was nearly 19 tons of roofing garbage. There was structural issues. Watch out!

Thomas said...

One more comment, sorry for the double post. In your picture of the rebuilt chimney, I would have liked to have seen a poured in place chimney cap atop the chimney. Or else the water will penetrate the brick joints and crack the bricks. It's a pretty ez thing to do, if you need help I can help.

Jocelyn said...

Hi Thomas, we did pour it in place actually. And we had a tear off so there is now only one roof on our building. Thank you.

Cecilia Horodyski said...


In one of your comments you said one needs to use type N mortar when working with Chicago common bricks. Where/how did you find that out? I ask since my 1960 ranch in Chicago(built with Chicago common bricks mainly with some type of "flagstone" in the front of the house) needs some work done and haven't had a good feeling about the masons that I have had come out so far. Hope you are still active on this blog.


Cecilia Horodyski said...


In one of your comments you stated that with Chicago common bricks one uses type N mortar. How did you find that out? I ask since I have a 1960 ranch brick house that has Chicago common bricks on the sides, and back with some type of "flagstone" in the front of the house that needs repointing and I haven't felt good about the 2 masons that have come out. Also, I thought type N mortar doesn't have enough lime in it for use with Chicago common bricks. I could be completely wrong about that since am getting so very confused with all my googling. That is how I found your blog.

I hope you are still active on this blog so see my post.


Jocelyn said...

My husband Steve contacted the Masonry Association and inquired about what kind of mortar to use. They were very helpful in instructing him on this project.

Good luck!

Jean Blake said...

The pictures never do justice to show how difficult a project is. but that looks great! You did good work.
Jean Blake | Van Doorn Roofing