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Utility Contractors and New England Winters

Utility contractors are one of the primary causes of brick sidewalk failure. Contractors excavate the (brick) sidewalks to work on underground pipes and cables then fail to return the bricks back to their original state (often poor but the conditions worsen each time).
  • Leaving multiple heights - creating a trip hazard
  • Filling in around "manhole covers" and other irregular surfaces alsphalt - detracting from the aesthetics
  • Replacing the bricks incorrectly - leading to rapid deterioration


Boston Water & Sewer Debacle

In the last week (6/1/13), Boston Water and Sewer left the sidewalk at Columbia Rd and Dudley Street a shambles.

Another incident in 2007 also illustrates the problem. That summer Boston Water and Sewer excavated a large section of Dudley Street to replace old water pipes. This necessitated removing a section of the brick pedestrian pathway crossing Dudley Terrace at Dudley Street. They completed the construction, lasting all summer, in September.

Leftover from the construction work were sidewalks covered with "asphalt debris" (used to secure temporary above ground water pipes) and the pedestrian pathway crossing Dudley Terrace in unsafe condition. The bricks were loose and a serious trip hazard. An Uphams Corner resident wrote a letter to BWSC outlining a history of the problems, a punch list and a request for assistance in getting the work done. Following are excerpts from the letter written October 25, 2007.


On the last day (late September), a slightly chubby white-haired gentleman on his hands and knees was working with great fury, attempting to smooth out the sand on the ground so that he could set the bricks back onto the surface around a man-hole cover. At the end of the day, the bricks were not flat and the manhole cover was not level.

Three days later another crew came by. "Kind of a mess, isn't it?" A young kid answered: "To say the least!" He was using a sledge hammer to break up the concrete that apparently was keeping the manhole cover from lying flat. At day's end, the manhole cover was flat but the bricks were not properly bedded.

On October 10th or 11th another crew, this time looking very serious – even had a police detail and a bulldozer. A couple days later, you could see the bricks in the front row adjacent to the cobblestones beginning to lie askew. They had all been bedded in loose sand and in-filled with what appeared to be crushed concrete.


In early November, the resident met with Tom Bagley of Boston Water & Sewer and reviewed the work that still needed to be done. A couple days later, the bricks were installed properly and the roadway was finally safe for pedestrians.


Brick Sidewalks Naturally Fall Apart in Boston Weather

At several of their public meetings, Public Works made recommendations for site visits regarding bricks and brick alternatives. Both sites visited already show deterioration and loose bricks.

  • Farnsworth Street just off Seaport Blvd has all brick sidewalks. They're in much better shape than in Uphams Corner, yet they still suffer from loose bricks. Same situation around the corner at Thompson Reuters.

Brick Sidewalks - Farnsworth Area
Yada Yada Cafe on Farnsworth St
Brick Sidewalks - Farnsworth Area
Up close

Brick Sidewalks - Farnsworth Area
JSI, 44 Farnsworth St
Brick Sidewalks - Farnsworth Area
Up close

Brick Sidewalks - Farnsworth Area
Thompson Reuters near Farnsworth
Brick Sidewalks - Farnsworth Area
Up close


  • Cummins Towers on American Legion Highway in Roslindale has a brand new brick sidewalk entryway which looks great. Yet, some of the bricks are already loose. One was easily removed. It's just a matter of time before normal freezing and thawing will disrupt the fittings enough to kick out the first brick. Once that happens, the degradation proceeds rapidly.

Brick Sidewalks - Cummins Towers
Cummins Towers "real" brick sidewalk

Brick Sidewalks - Cummins Towers
Bricks loosen up first along the edge
Brick Sidewalks - Cummins Towers
Brick easily removed - notice large gap along another brick close by


Summary

Brick sidewalks are difficult to maintain following installation. Access to underground utilities, when needed, puts the onus on the contractor to also "own" the expertise to restore a brick sidewalk to a safe and aesthetically pleasing surface. We know they don't have that expertise. So what Uphams Corner gets is a slow but predictable deterioration.

The cold winters don't help either, causing the bricks to loosen no matter how well the bed is prepared. Finally, for vehicular paths, the use of brick should be forbidden.



Posted: June 5, 2013 Nancy J Conrad


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