Buildings are like people: they incorporate a structural skeleton, have utility systems, a protective skin…and the more attractive they are, the more attention they get! When we get past the structural applications of a building, the first thing we see is obviously the exterior. Building owners often intend on making their occupancies appeal to the eye, so that the first impression that either customers or visitors get is: “Wow, this is a nice place.” So how do they do it? Well, this often takes the form of either a façade or veneer wall. Many firefighters use these terms interchangeably but there are some differences. In addition, the way they come down and ultimately cause havoc on the fireground matter, and how we identify these components to a structure matter.
A veneer wall is made of a single vertical thickness of masonry; it is designed simply to improve the exterior appearance of the building. (1) Decorative masonry such as stone, brick, or marble may be veneered over common stone masonry, concrete block, reinforced concrete, or steel. By far, however, the greatest use of veneer walls is brick veneer on wood frame (BCFS, 6th). Most veneer walls use masonry ties to ensure a connection to the load bearing wall. (2). Don’t be confused, the veneer wall is a free-standing, non-load-bearing wall. Veneer is usually applied around the entire structure.
A façade wall is the face or exterior frontage of a structure. You may see for example a building with concrete block walls on exposures B, C, and D, however on the front will be a more decorative application, such as stone, slate, marble, ceramic, brick, rectangle wall tile, cladding, or aluminum composite panels. (3) Some engineers indicate that veneer is a type of façade. For our assessment purposes, the façade is the face, veneer is the skin. In our modern day, façade walls are becoming more and more decorative, especially on commercial buildings.
Failure occurs very similarly in both veneer and façade walls. Because they are not structural, they require stern connections and no lateral or impact loading to remain standing. For example, should the masonry ties within either wall become dislodged for any reason, this weakens the wall. This can be due to deterioration from moisture, oxidization, or a displacement of the mortar. When the coping stone or flashing at the roof level is removed or cracked, water leaks into the void space between the structural wall and exterior. When this type of issue is not noticed, collapse of the wall can occur (curtain or 90-degree collapse).
When lateral or impact loads occur, façade or veneer walls do not have the capacity to resist the force. (4) For example, when a steel beam within a retained structural wall expands due to heat, the walls are pushed out, and the first thing to go is the veneer or façade. These walls wall fall in large sections; this is a lateral load. With regard to impact load, such as a car into a building, the veneer or façade wall can come down easily without compromise of the load-bearing wall behind. If you were to go to a loading dock where large dumpsters are repeatedly moved, you may find that after repeated strikes against the wall, the veneer has begun to fail. This is indicated in the photos above. Another photo shows the deterioration of the connection, which allows the façade to fall.
At any point during a fire, stability of the structure and its components is at risk of failure. No material is designed to withstand the attack of fire. Some may resist the effect of heat but ultimately every material has its yield point. In addition, other forces—that of impact, or explosive natures, settling of the structure or even Mother Nature—can play a huge role in the compromise of additional applications absent of fire. During your prefire plans or even on the fireground itself, it is important to attest to what is structural and what is not. What is load bearing, and what isn’t? Collapse of exterior finishing such as façade or veneer walls has caused the injury and death of firefighters because of their unpredictable nature. (5) Assess all walls for the appearance of compromise such as cracks, bulges, shifting of brick course, or weather-related damage. When noting the difference between a façade and veneer wall, think of the veneer wall in masonry terms, and façade as all other decorative applications.
SALVATORE ANCONA is a deputy chief fire instructor at the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy; a member of the Seaford (NY) Fire Department; a former captain and training officer for the Bellmore (NY) Fire Department; and a paramedic supervisor in Queens, New York. He has an A.S. degree in fire science from Nassau Community College and has a bachelor’s degree in fire and emergency services administration from John Jay College of Criminal justice. Ancona is the author of the building construction page “The Sons of Brannigan” on Facebook and was a recipient of the 2019 FDIC International Honeywell DuPont Scholarship.