(Re)creating History

9-14-2015

Juan Lira is one of those people who look concerned even when they’re smiling. Part of that comes from being a perfectionist about his craft, and part it is just the lines on his forehead after years spent working outdoors.

“Most people have a passion,” says Lira, the owner of Dallas-based J.L. Masonry.  “Mine is brick. My grandfather and father were both bricklayers so it’s in my blood. I’m getting paid for what I love.”

Lira can’t remember a time before brick dominated his life. As a young child, he helped his father cut bricks with a chisel in central Mexico, softening the pieces with water to make them easier to break.

“I joke that when I was a kid instead of toys for my first Christmas I got a trowel. The next year I got a shovel, and the next year a wheelbarrow.”

That lifelong experience paid off. Today Lira’s thriving company has a reputation for excellent work, especially when it comes to matching older brick and mortar.

Many people take it for granted, but the ability to visually blend new brick with existing pieces is a subtle mix of science and art. There are tricks to mimicking color, wear-pattern, and mortar type and a mason’s skill level can greatly impact the look of a project.

In the case of the ModelReModel all the brick will be painted which covers a lot of less-than-perfect matching between old and new. With that in mind, Lira decided to use new pieces, made to look distressed, on the sides and back of the house. But the front was a different story. In that most public of space, he opted for recycled brick pulled from the home before demolition.

“Sometimes builders don’t care because the whole thing is going to be painted, but for me, that’s wrong,” he says. “Everyone sees the front. It should look perfect.”

Lira’s company often relies on recycled brick, in spite of the expense of prepping the old pieces for reuse. They are not alone. While the market for salvaged brick is still a tiny fraction of an enormous industry, it’s growing quickly, especially in urban areas where reclaimed materials are increasingly popular.

“I know this brick,” Lira says of the brand used for the ModelReModel project. “It’s from a local company that’s gone now. They’ve all disappeared. It’s a good brick, I saw it on a condo that just went up downtown, this same recycled brick.”

Yet, brick is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless the mortar is also matched perfectly and then treated to appear aged, that seamless transition of old to new will be ruined. Before laying a single brick, Lira creates a mock wall measuring about 2X2, where he tries out different mixtures to see what will work. After application, he then ages the mortar using water, mud and different tools. His crews are also careful to imitate the pattern and spacing exactly and scrape the mortar between bricks to the same depth as the existing structure’s material.

“This work makes you feel like you’re doing things the way they did back then,” he says. “I like that. New construction is easy because there’s nothing that came before. This is harder. And this is history.”

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