Deteriorating courthouse brick perplexes county officials, consultants

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Tuesday, September 17, 2013

JANESVILLE—Mysterious flying spall is:

A. A tropical fungus.

B. A good name for a rock band.

C. The ongoing challenge for Rock County government.

No, this is not a trick question.  The answer is C. 

For several years, pieces of brick have been falling off the courthouse tower, and even the specialists don't have an easy answer.

The problem is spalling. Moisture gets into the bricks, usually from behind, and the freeze-thaw cycle results in expansion and contraction that weakens the bricks.

Spalling is a common problem, but the courthouse tower is an uncommon structure.

Rob Leu, head of Rock County's General Services Department, put it best: “I don't think anyone has a tower quite like ours.”

The tower is the square column that rises from the top of the building on the Court Street side. It has no function other than being an architectural feature of the building, Leu said.

The column is empty and has no roof. Horizontal openings on each side are framed in aluminum and cover I-beams that support the structure.

The outside is brick, and the inside is concrete block.

“Everything is exposed to the elements,” Leu said.

In the winter, one side of a wall might be warmed by sunshine while the other side freezes in the shade. That exacerbates the freeze-thaw problem.

Leu objected to the calling the spall “mysterious.”

“The spall isn't mysterious,” Leu said. “We know what causes it, we just don't know, yet, what the fix is.”

The county has tried a number of fixes, including patching and placing precast panels of concrete inside the tower.

The patching didn't provide a long-term fix, and the tower wasn't designed to support the weight of the panels.

Officials even considered taking down the tower, but Leu believes the cost would “prohibitive.”

Most recently, the county hired Rene Dupris, a specialist from Structural Research, a Middleton firm that specializes in solving such problems. Dupris has worked on a variety of buildings including Holy Hill in Hubertus.

Dupris reviewed the original blueprints and didn't see any flaw in the inherent design of the tower, Leu said. 

The tower was constructed with the proper weeps, structures intended to allow water to escape from the walls, but for some reason the weeps aren't working, Leu said.

Dupris couldn't diagnosis the problem immediately but plans to do more research. On Sept. 25, Comer Stone Construction, a Janesville masonry firm, will remove pieces of brick so Dupris and staff can get a closer look at the interior of the tower walls and overall structure.

To date, patching work for the tower has cost less than $5,000, Leu said. The consultant has cost $9,900.

Construction of the courthouse took three years, and it opened to the public in 1999.

Initially, there were problems with the design of the courtrooms, with judges being unable to see witnesses.  Attorney's complained, too, that courtroom tables were too small and too close to the jury boxes. Some windows leaked.

Adjustments were made to accommodate both attorneys and judges, and the leaks were fixed.

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