What is a Besser Block

A Besser Block (sometimes known as a Bessa Block) is a hollow, rectangular concrete building block used in the construction of the walls of houses, offices, multi-storey apartment blocks and industrial buildings.

The usefulness of a Besser block comes from its modular sizes and easy to lay courses. The structural integrity of a Besser Block comes from steel reinforcing bars laid vertically (droppers) and horizontally (bond beams and lintels) in special Besser Blocks called “knock-out blocks”.

What is the Standard Size of a Besser Block?

Besser blocks are made to suit a nominal 200mm metric system (known as 200 series blockwork) when you take into account 10mm grout between blocks.

Off the shelf, a standard Besser Block measures 390mm long x 190mm high x 190mm wide. But when it is laid in a 10mm mortar then those dimensions become 400mm long x 200mm high (x 190mm wide).

Besser block wall retaining wall for house raise project

You can also find Besser blocks in these sizes:

  • 390mm long x 190mm high x 140mm wide. (known as 150 series blockwork).
  • 190mm long x 190mm high x 190 wide.
  • 390mm long x 190mm high x 290mm wide (300 series blockwork).
  • 390mm long x 190mm high x 90mm wide (100 series bricks)

In construction, concrete Besser Blocks are stacked in layers called courses with half a block offset in what is called a stretcher bond.

Besser blocks are ‘glued’ together with cement mortar joints. This is just a concrete glue trowelled between individual blocks to hold them together.

Steel reinforcement is placed horizontally in special blocks called knockout blocks as the wall is built. Steel reinforcement is also placed vertically in some of the hollow cores once a certain height of the block wall is built.

picture of concrete hollow block
Concrete masonry block

Once the mortar has cured, a wall height of concrete block is filled with a special, flowable mix of concrete called grout (a mix of cement, sand, and water that often uses smaller stones than normal concrete) to fill all or some of the hollow cores.

Photo of a concrete masonry Besser block

In Australia, it is now common practice to fill all of the hollow cores with grout. Even though more grout is used, builders find filling all cores with grout it faster which ends up saving money.

Besser Blocks Also Known As

In other parts of the world, Besser Blocks are also known as concrete blocks, grey blocks, breeze blocks, and cinderblock construction.

In Australia, the common name for concrete blocks is Besser Block which comes from a prominent concrete block moulding equipment manufacturer, Besser.

Photo of raft slab on Besser block wall
Besser block wall with raft slab

Besser block retaining wall and raft slab

Photo of a house raft slab with Besser block sides
Raft slab and concrete masonry wall

Besser blocks come in a variety of sizes. The most common block widths in Australian construction are 140mm (150 Series ) and 190mm (200 Series).

What are Besser Blocks Made From?

Besser blocks are made from concrete – a mix of sand, cement, water, stones, oxides, and additives.

The holes and sides of a Besser Blocks are formed in a factory using a mould. Then the blocks are steam cured, wrapped and delivered to construction sites on pallets.

What are Besser Blocks Used For?

Concrete blocks, when reinforced with vertical and horizontal steel reinforcement, are conventionally used to form external load-bearing walls in residential houses.

Besser block retaining wall showing steel reinforcement

Concrete Besser Blocks can also be used to form retaining walls and even elevator walls in buildings up to 8 storeys.

Do Besser blocks need to be filled?

Unfilled Besser blocks do not have much strength and so yes, Besser blocks need to be filled with steel reinforcement and concrete to make them strong enough to sideways loads like wind loads.

If a Besser block is only supporting vertical down loads like the weight of a floor or a roof then unfilled blocks might be ok – but it is really unusual to have a Besser block wall that doesn’t need to be filled with concrete.

How to Build a House with Besser Blocks

When hollow concrete blockwork is reinforced with steel reinforcement and filled with concrete it becomes a very strong, durable external wall.

The best manuals for building with Besser Blocks are available at CMAA. https://www.cmaa.com.au/Technical/Manuals/technical-manuals

How to Build a Besser Block Retaining Wall

A Besser block retaining wall can be built by a builder, a landscape gardener or by a professional block layer.

The best manual we have found for the design of Besser block retaining walls is available for free from CMAA Besser Block Retaining Walls.

Photo of a concrete masonry wall being built

For walls over 1m in height in Brisbane, you’ll need a structural engineer to design and specify the walls. Yes. We can help with that.

Why Are Besser Blocks Popular?

Besser Blocks are a popular form of construction because of several useful characteristics:

  • When reinforced and filled with concrete, concrete block walls provide substantial structural strength and stability in residential houses. In cyclone areas, concrete walls are used because they have excellent impact resistance and have high bracing (racking capacity).Concrete Masonry Besser Block Walls around a new slab on ground
  • When partially filled, concrete blocks have useful sound and fire insulating properties.
  • For those looking for a different look, fancy architectural blocks are available from some suppliers including polished face blocks. These blocks are always a bit more expensive because they are denser concrete and have to be laid neatly.
  • Besser blocks when laid below ground and reinforced can be used to retain fill under the slab.
Photo of a house on a Besser block retaining walls
Raised raft slab on sloping site with Besser blocks under the slab level

Besser Block Alternatives

If you want to build a strong wall or retaining wall but don’t want to use Besser blocks, these are your options:

  • Formed reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete walls have to be formed up and poured and are normally built by experienced concreters. Reinforced concrete walls are extremely strong, can be built as curved walls or as straight walls, can have openings of any shape and do not need to stick to standard thicknesses as Besser blocks do. However, reinforced concrete walls are normally more expensive than Besser block walls of similar dimensions.
  • Dry stack blocks. Even though some will tell you that Besser blocks can be dry-stacked it is rarely done. Reliance on a fibre-reinforced skim coat inside and out is just too hard to get right so dry stack blocks could well crack. Yes, dry stack blocks eliminate the need for a professional block layer but then dry stacking blocks is not really the work of a home DIYer – well at least it should not be.
  • Pre-cast reinforced concrete walls.  Precast concrete walls are poured flat on the ground and then lifted into position when the concrete has cured. They are normally used on industrial and commercial buildings where the scale of the job permits multiple panels of reinforced concrete wall to be poured in stacks and then lifted into place when all of the wall pieces have cured.
  • Double brick reinforced walls. Double brick walls will traditionally be thicker than Besser block walls and the reinforcement between the leaves of brickwork must be installed carefully. This style of the wall will appeal to those looking for the aesthetic of brickwork but the strength of concrete.
  • Aerated concrete blocks. Autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) is concrete is light-weight concrete by the fact it is manufactured to have lots of tiny holes in the concrete. AAC can be reinforced with steel reinforcing to improve its strength. This product makes it into fewer buildings than Besser blocks because even though it is easy to cut and carry, it just doesn’t have the strength or the durability of conventional concrete blocks.
  •  Insulating concrete forms. These light-weight core filled blocks are stacked by hand and then filled with reinforcement and concrete. They have handy insulating properties and can be cut on-site to suit the wall layout. Their disadvantage compared to Besser blocks is their durability. They don’t handle impact very wall and when used as retaining walls have to be carefully waterproofed.

Besser Block Adhesive

Yes, Besser blocks can be glued together. Construction adhesives used to glue concrete Besser blocks should be a strong, durable glue that can hold blocks together.

However, if you intend to use block adhesive in a structural application like a retaining wall or the wall of a house, your structural engineers will need to specify the glue you use on the drawings.

This is because the calculations structural engineers do to determine the strength of a wall takes into account the type of glue or mortar that is used between the blocks.

Take care if substituting a structural adhesive for the mortar that in some commercial, residential and industrial walls the mortar and Besser block needs to be fire rated so the type of glue you use should also be fire rated.

Besser block Anchors

When fixing things to a Besser block wall you will need to determine if the wall is core filled or if the core you are fixing to is not filled.

You will need to use a different anchor to fix to a Besser block wall that is not core filled.

For the core filled and reinforced Besser block wall, the type o anchor you use will need to be strong enough for the type of load you are applying to the anchor and wall.

Options for anchors include chemical anchors, mechanical anchors, and screw-in anchors.

For structural applications like fixing a beam to a Besser block wall, the anchors and brackets should all be specified by an experienced structural engineer.

Clay Block Walls instead of Besser Blocks

In Australia, the structural design of clay blocks is often based on the excellent series of design and user manuals produced by the Concrete Masonry Association of Australia.

However, a first-principles design is guided by the Australian standard AS3700.

A lot of the principles of reinforcement and construction are similar to Bbesser block construction except the reinforced clay bricks do not need to be rendered and have the look of brick walls inside and out.

Don’t be confused. Reinforced clay bricks look very much like thicker single skin brick walls and this appearance has already confused a few experienced structural engineers.

Reinforced clay bricks suffer from the fact that they are only 150mm wide which makes it critical that the reinforcement is placed carefully in the middle of the blocks for maximum corrosion protection.

Besser Block Above Ground Pools

Cornell Engineers has specified and supervised quite a few well built Besser block reinforced concrete masonry pools.

The only trick is to have the pool walls and base filled with concrete in a single pour.

The only other trick is to dimension the pool base and walls appropriately so that the water and soil loads on the walls of the pool are transferred to the pool base.

There is an excellent concrete masonry pool guide located on the Shoalhaven Pools Website.

Construction Issues with Concrete Blocks

  • Besser blocks are not waterproof. The external face of concrete cinder blocks needs to be waterproofed to prevent water penetration. Consult your block layer to determine your preferred waterproofing system.
Efflorescence in a Besser Block basement wall
  • Waterproofing is especially important where concrete blocks are used as retaining walls for liveable space.
  • Water coming through concrete masonry walls is often seen as efflorescence, a white crystalline salt on the surface of concrete masonry walls.
  • Wall heights of more than 2500mm need to be filled in stages about 30 minutes apart to allow the grout to partially cure and become less fluid. THis reduces the internal pressure of the grout on the concrete blocks.
  • Standard concrete masonry wall heights in residential construction are 2500mm (2100 to the top of doors and windows and a full 2-course’ bond beam’ at the top of the wall and over openings; and 2700mm (2100mm to top of doors and windows and a full 3-course’ bond beam’ at the top of the wall and over openings.
  • Blockwork control joints are 10mm wide vertical breaks in concrete masonry walls to allow differential movement of adjacent panels. Their use is optional is fully reinforced concrete masonry walls in residential walls. Their use is highly recommended in retaining walls longer than 10m.
Photo of cracked concrete masonry building
Concrete Masonry Needs Reinforcement
  • Unreinforced blocks can move and crack.  Correct positioning of the reinforcement is very important.
  • The primary Australian documents that document the minimum construction requirements for concrete masonry walls in residential construction are:
  • Besser Block Architecture

    An exposed concrete masonry Besser block wall, especially if the concrete is polished and coloured, looks fantastic. Take special care that normally one face of the wall will be the featured face and the other side will normally be hidden. It’s just too hard to get enough face perfect Besser blocks in a batch to create a double-sided feature wall.

    These exposed Besser block walls are especially suitable for architectural homes. The solid integrity of a reinforced concrete Besser block combined with the aesthetics of an exposed face is simply breathtaking.

    Even though these walls are architecturally inspired, the walls are an integral component of the structure.

    More about Efflorescence on Besser Blocks

    When moisture comes through a Besser block wall it is often visible as efflorescence (white salty crystal) that gets drawn out of the blockwork and remains when the moisture evaporates.

    Efflorescence on a Besser block wall

    At its most basic level, these salt crystals indicate that water has or is leaching through the wall. Whether this moisture is bad or not depends on the situation. Moisture leaching into a garage is not as bad as moisture leaching into a liveable space.

    While the efflorescence can be removed with efflorescence remover, the source of the moisture should be investigated first and remedied if possible.

    Crommelin Efflorescence Remover

    If the moisture that is causing the efflorescence is from the ground behind a retaining wall perhaps the issue is poor drainage of the soil. Maybe the efflorescence is being caused by a broken pipe behind the wall. Perhaps the drainage system behind the retaining wall has failed.

    Rectification might involve improving the drainage behind the wall, reinstating the waterproofing membrane, improving surface drainage, installation of a cut off trench or waterproofing the exposed surface of the retaining wall.

    Contact a structural engineer if you are concerned with efflorescence and don’t know how to solve the issue that it indicates.

    How deep should a footing be for a block wall?

    The footing for a block wall should be designed by a structural engineer. The design is based on a few things:

    • the height and therefore the weight of the blockwork wall.
    • the bearing capacity (load carrying capacity) of the foundation soil.
    • the site reactivity (clayeyness) of the soil.
    • the presence and depth of soft soil and loose fill.
    • whether the block wall is retaining soil.

    It is easy enough to find a structural engineer to design a block wall and footing for you. Contact your local structural engineering association to obtain a list of local structural engineers that can design masonry structures.

    Getting Cornell Engineers to Design a Besser Block Wall

    Besser block homes are extremely popular in North Queensland. They have excellent strength, durability and are easy to cyclone rate. I’m surprised they aren’t used more in the rest of Australia.

    Contact Us today to get us to design your Besser Block home.

    References for More Information

    Concrete Masonry Walling Technical Manuals
    Besser Block Centre
    Nudgee Road Landscape Supplies
    Adbri Masonry

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *