Masonry Wall Systems Well Positioned to Meet Evolving Codes

Download Masonry Wall Systems Well Positioned to Meet Evolving Codes

New technology ups masonry’s high-performance quotient
Sponsored by Echelon™ Masonry by Oldcastle

High Performance Masonry Wall Systems

A wall is a complicated thing. It can keep a structure warm or not; let moisture in or not; improve occupant comfort or not; serve as an effective structural element or not; and be efficiently constructed and installed or not. A wall combines all of these features to play a major part in determining the energy efficiency and ultimate performance of a structure. Designers have numerous options in creating effective walls, and the government along with industry organizations have set guidelines to improve wall design practices to help reduce impacts of the built environment.

A worthy goal to be sure. Widely publicized and accepted statistics point toward the impact of buildings on energy use and the environment. The World Business Council for Sustainable Develoment (WBCSD) maintains that buildings account for 40 percent of the world’s energy use.1 Besides using more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy, in the United States, buildings account for approximately 70 percent of electricity consumption, 40 percent of CO2 emissions, and 14 percent of potable water consumption.

Accordingly, greener targets, codes, and regulations have evolved. Energy codes are regarded as one of the quickest, most economical and cleanest ways to reduce energy use in the built environment and help ensure a sustainable future. Not only do energy codes reduce needless energy consumption and help protect the environment, they provide common benchmarks that drive new designs and technologies.

Among the most promising of these new technologies from an energy-efficiency perspective are preassembled masonry wall systems. Of course, the history of masonry is as old as the history of architecture itself. The pyramids, the Colosseum, and Notre Dame are all iconic masonry structures that have endured for centuries. Historically, masonry has been used for its longevity and low life-cycle cost, its permanence and quality, and its aesthetic value. But what’s new here are today’s masonry wall systems, which incorporate the inherent characteristics of masonry along with improved quality control, more advanced construction methods, a better understanding of masonry’s properties, and more sophisticated design. This course will review relevant code considerations, focusing on these new masonry wall systems, and how they’ve become a game changer in meeting and exceeding prevailing energy targets.


There are a plethora of energy codes and rating systems today, and making sense of them can be a labyrinthine and time-consuming undertaking. The critical theme, however, is that all of the codes are moving toward more stringent energy targets and higher R-values. A few of the major initiatives and code families are discussed next.

State Energy Code Adoption

Architecture 2030

Composed of several industry groups including the AIA, Architecture 2030 issued The 2030 Challenge, calling for a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, and constructed. The ultimate objective: carbon-neutral buildings by the year 2030. Interim goals are also targeted: fossil fuel reduction for all new buildings and major renovations, which was increased to 70 percent in 2015, 80 percent in 2020, and 90 percent in 2025.

These goals far exceed those of the current energy codes. Architecture 2030 suggests that targets may be accomplished by implementing innovative sustainable design strategies, generating on-site renewable power, and/or purchasing (20 percent maximum) renewable energy. Of these three approaches, sustainable design strategies are by far the most important. While manufacturers can help with new and better products, the bigger opportunity falls to architects, who can employ such design strategies as building size—volume and floor space—orientation, air tightness, higher R-values, thermal mass, and continuous insulation to reduce energy costs.


Rather than develop actual building codes, ASHRAE sets standards that are typically followed by such organizations as the International Code Council (ICC), the association of construction industry members that develop I-codes, which are used in the design, build, and compliance process to ensure safe, sustainable, and affordable construction. The ASHRAE standard provides minimum requirements for energy-efficient designs for buildings except low-rise residential buildings. Originally published in 1975, ASHRAE 90 has undergone multiple editions due to the rapid change in technology and energy objectives. It was updated many times, and its name was changed to the ASHRAE 90.1 standard in 2001. Many states apply the standard or equivalent standards for all commercial buildings, while others do so for all government buildings. The most recent AHSRAE update occurred in 2013.

International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)

The IECC is published by the ICC. The IECC, which references ASHRAE standards, is an I-code, a model code adopted by many state and municipal governments to establish minimum design and construction requirements for energy efficiency. Introduced in 1998, the IECC addresses energy efficiency on several fronts, including cost savings, reduced energy usage, conservation of natural resources, and the impact of energy usage on the environment. The IECC 2009 was updated in 2012 and then again in 2015, with proposals for 2018 already being considered. Each revision of the IECC ratchets up energyperformance requirements.

IECC does not mandate across-the-board changes, and its changes are only enforceable when they are adopted at the state or local level, where they may include the core provisions combined with the objectives of the adopting jurisdictions—a situation which makes it imperative that architects build to the applicable code for the jurisdiction where the project is located.

While most states have adopted some form of the IECC, many jurisdictions do not adopt new versions of the code immediately after publication. As of August 2012, the commercial code status is as follows. As of July 2016, most states and U.S. territories—43 out of 56—require ASHRAE 90.1-2007/IECC 2009 equivalent or more. Seven jurisdictions have adopted the latest codes and require ASHRAE 90.1-2013/2015 equivalent or more, and 10 have either no statewide energy code or less-efficient standards than ASHRAE 90.1-2007/IECC 2009. See the State Energy Code Adoption map for the status of state adoption of energy codes.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), through its Building Energy Codes Program (BECP), has worked to enable 70 percent of states to adopt either the 2009 IECC, the ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 or better by 2015—a goal which has been met—and 90 percent of states to adopt these codes or better by 2017. With the plethora of codes—ASHRAE, IECC, IBC, and state and local versions thereof—and the fact that codes frequently reference each other, it is critical that all design professional are on the same page concerning which code to follow at the beginning of the project.


The constant in all of the iterations of the IECC code is that greater energy efficiency is required. The 2012 code called for buildings that use 30 percent less energy than that required by the 2006 IECC edition. The 2015 targets of the IECC, in turn, are 20 percent above the 2012 edition.

US Climate Zones

Most of the changes in the 2015 IECC code involve HVAC, lighting, and other systems. In terms of wall design, the changes are primarily directed toward steel stud and wood-framed walls. The IECC 2015 made only minor changes regarding above-grade walls in the cavity insulation or continuous insulation requirements on prescriptive table. Masonry walls were essentially left alone, with no mandated R-value increases. This may reflect the inherent thermal value of masonry’s mass wall. The benefit of thermal mass, which is a measure of a material’s capacity to store heat for future distribution, is that its slow rate of heat transfer keeps interiors warm in winters and cool in summers. When used with complementary products or systems, concrete masonry units (CMUs) are particularly energy efficient. Mass walls can also prevent easy sound transmission, reducing noise pollution, a feature much sought after in public buildings with numerous users.

Mass walls make sense in light of the fact that ever more insulation is required as each three-year code adjustment is made. If the AIA 2030 Challenge is the timeline, the resulting template will require ever thicker amounts of insulation. Thicker insulation takes inches away from “living space,” which can be undesirable from an economic and user standpoint. In view of these constraints, mass walls present a compelling alternative to meeting increasing R-value requirements.


Complying with R-Value requirements for building envelope components is determined by climate zone and is also impacted by building occupancy types, wall types, and the compliance path chosen. Climate Zone: It is first necessary to determine in what climate zone the project is located. Today, there are eight climate zones for the entire United States, a vast improvement over 1989 when there were 38. Building Type: The code contains one set of provisions for commercial buildings and one for residential buildings. The commercial provisions apply to all buildings with the exception of residential structures of three stories or less. Wall Type: While the IECC has reduced the number of climate zones, R-value tables have become more complex. The commercial table lists multiple variations within each envelope component, except for walls below grade, where only one type is listed. Compliance Path: The main compliance paths are the prescriptive and performance paths. In the 2015 IECC, there were no important changes in the prescriptive requirements. A new performance method was the Energy Rating Index, which allows builders the option of meeting a target ERI score via several performance options. This compliance method is for the residential market only, however.

Building size and complexity may determine which path to use. Smaller commercial buildings with one HVAC, hot water, and lighting system lend themselves more to a prescriptive approach, while larger commercial buildings with multiple systems, uses, and loads are more suitable to the tradeoffs found in a performance-based code.

 In the prescriptive path, building design and components must meet R-values listed in the tables. Minimum mandatory requirements must be met for mechanical equipment, including lighting, HVAC, water heating systems, and electrical power systems. While architects have traditionally used the prescriptive path, it has recently fallen out of favor because of the tedious use of tables and lack of tradeoffs. It can curtail design freedom and reflect the notion that the building is composed of separate, unrelated systems.

Prescriptive building envelope paths include R-Value and U-Factor options. Historically, every material is R-value rated. In order to meet the prescriptive requirements using the R-value method (table C402.1.3 of 2015 IECC), every wall type (mass wall, wood framing, metal framing, and metal building) is described. This prescriptive option specifies the minimum continuous insulation to be added at each assembly to meet the code.

The second, the U-factor method, allows the designer to configure the wall so that the wall assembly configured is permissible, provided its overall thermal transmittance (U-factor) is less than that specified in the code (Table C402.1.4 of 2015 IECC). Values used in the calculation of the overall U-factor are provided by the ASHRAE 90.1. Both options aim at the same total heat loss target, but the second option (U-factor method) is less restrictive. This approach is more flexible than the R-value method. In the IECC 2015, compliance with the first path requires compliance with ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2013, which is more stringent than ASHRAE 2010.3

Designers can use COMcheck software to see how to comply and to demonstrate compliance with ASHRAE 2007 and 2010, where allowed by the jurisdiction. It is applicable for demonstrating compliance with the three prescriptive options. Inputs include compliance the project is seeking, as well as details on the building envelope and various systems, including HVAC and lighting. A distinct advantage of using this software is that it produces not only a project summary but a certificate of code compliance for the specified code. Because of its clarity in defining a project, many states now require the use of COMcheck. The program is available for free download at www.

The performance path offers more flexibility but involves more complex energy simulations and tradeoffs between systems; COMcheck is insufficient here for compliance. It is necessary to use ASHRAE 90.1 Section 11: Energy Modeling, which is much like LEED-required energy modeling, and takes into account actual environmental conditions and includes input on all major building systems, with mechanical and lighting systems factored into the building envelope equation.


High-performance walls have a great many elements in common. They are energy efficient, with a high R-value, high air tightness, and little or no thermal bridging. They also score high marks in moisture management, with no leaks, the ability to control condensation, and the ability to dry should moisture infiltrate the wall cavity. Other qualities include sound and fire resistance. To promote these characteristics, a variety of code-compliant components have been developed.

Continuous Insulation

ASHRAE has required continuous insulation (CI) for many years. CI is defined as insulation that is continuous across all structural members without thermal bridges other than fasteners and service openings. The amount of insulation is climate-zone dependent and listed by ASHRAE in its 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013 editions. There are prescriptive insulation requirements for wood-framed walls, steel-framed walls, and mass (concrete, stone, or CMU) walls for each of the eight United States climate zones. Code requires a layer of CI in most U.S. climate zones for the purpose of limiting or eliminating thermal bridges that compromise a wall’s energy efficiency. Exterior continuous insulation has a variety of benefits. First, it reduces the condensation in the wall frame and inside the building, and the dew point of the wall is displaced toward the exterior where condensation will not cause damage.

Moisture management is critical to a successful wall and, in addition to creating a high-performance building, can head off the potential for health, legal, and financial concerns. Some moisture is likely to infiltrate even the best constructed walls, whether it is in the form of bulk moisture, capillary action, water vapor, or groundwater. Walls that control any water that has breached the cavity and enable it to drain quickly and the wall assembly to dry are the ideal. It is important to mention that exterior CI also contributes to reducing the air leakage through the wall. For example, a rigid EPS foam continuously covering an exterior opaque wall is a contributor for reducing air leakage through the wall. It seals tears and other accidental defects occurred in the weather-resistive barrier (WRB).

Due to its mass, a masonry wall is a barrier against sound transmission. Moreover, a multilayer concrete wall like a CMU wall in addition to a veneer with insulation in the cavity gives excellent result. The 2015 IECC, Section 402.2.1 adds language regarding multiple layers of continuous insulation and describes the installation methods for multiple CI layers, effectively upping the stringency of the 2012 IECC.3

Air Barriers

Of prime importance to designers of masonry systems are the air-barrier requirements. Airbarrier systems are comprised of a number of materials that are assembled together to provide a complete barrier to air leakage through the building enclosure. They control the unintended movement of air into and out of a building enclosure—an important consideration in reducing energy costs, as air leakage from a building can result in an increased use in energy costs of up to 30–40 percent in heating climates and 10–15 percent in cooling costs. The 2012 version of the IECC required air barriers in both commercial and residential construction, and the directive has remained essentially the same in 2015. According to the U.S. DOE, in the 2015 IECC, “Continuous air barriers are required except in Climate Zone 2B:
• Air barrier placement allowed inside of building envelope, outside of building envelope, located within assemblies composing envelope, or any combination thereof
• Continuous for all assemblies that are part of the thermal envelope and across joints and assemblies
• Joints and seams sealed, including sealing transitions in places and changes in materials, securely installed in or on the joint for its entire length to not dislodge, loosen or otherwise impair its ability to resist positive and negative pressure from wind, stack effect, and mechanical ventilation.”

There are two ways to comply with airbarrier requirements: Materials – C402. or Assemblies – C402.

Fire Safety

In multistory projects where the wall assembly contains a combustible material, the IBC code requires NFPA 285 test compliancy to verify vertical and lateral fire propagation. The IBC also establishes minimum requirements for hourly fire rating based on building types, fire separation distance, and occupancy group. The fire rating of a specific wall configuration is evaluated using ASTM E119 test method.


Many maintain that the best way to comply with the IEEC and other codes is a systems approach. To meet more ambitious energy targets, manufacturers have developed innovative masonry wall systems that are single solutions for thermal performance, water management, sound transmission, fire resistance and aesthetic benefits. Targeted to meeting AIA 2030 and DOE goals, these systems approaches are gaining traction in the construction industry. Further, newer systems usually have thinner and/or lighter units and often employ different anchoring techniques and CI, and have been engineered to control thermal transfer, reduce or eliminate thermal bridging, and offer air leakage and moisture control, all of which make sense from an energy-efficiency standpoint. 

Download a printable version of this article.