Trans-Atlantic comparisons

Clay Technology magazine
16 Apr 2010

Guy Armitage, Operations, Director of York Handmade Brick Co Ltd, UK, attended Clemson 2009, USA, and compares the two markets.

The Clemson 2009 event was an educational experience as I knew little about brick making in the USA  and thought there would be little difference between the two industries, since both have developed economies. I discovered that while we do have much in common with our USA brick making counterparts, there are also some differences.

The conference was dominated by the environmental agenda, but the difference is that the USA has only just started to take these issues seriously and has largely received new impetus from the Obama presidential administration. There was concern among delegates about how they would deal with this agenda.

In Europe we have been working with the environmental agenda in the industry for 10 years. In many ways it is reassuring that the USA is following Europe’s lead, and the efforts to reduce carbon will be more meaningful if a country like the USA starts following suit.

The sustainability agenda in the USA has become similar to the UKs. New buildings require sustainability criteria to be fulfilled and cladding materials help achieve this. Also, fuels are being carbon taxed so there is a greater awareness that it may not be as cheap in the future. In that respect we differ from USA as well.

Their fuel for firing kilns is far cheaper as they have large domestic reserves to call on. One day Amercian companies will face the sort of pressure to cut fuel bills that we do as their reserves diminish. However, on the evidence of the factory I visited, that day is a long way off. They still fire the kilns with the doors open, easily enabling one to imagine what it was like when the building was laid out in the 1940s. It is noticeable that there was far less emphasis on improving fuel efficiency than at conferences here, which is due to their lower fuel costs compared to Europe, particularly the UK.

The factory was highly labour intensive for one producing mainstream market bricks, even by my employer’s standards for making handmade products. This suggests their employment costs are not as expensive when the costs of EU regulation are taken into account – this could be a good thing or perhaps, like the cheap fuel, it is a barrier to both progress and being at the forefront of brick making technology.

As if it were needed, evidence that we share current economic problems with the USA was illustrated by the fact that only one of the two plants was operational. They have additional issues, in that brick is a far less commonly used cladding material than in the UK. Builders are less discerning about what materials they use by opting for cheaper substances such as vinyl.

As in the UK, brick making in the USA appears to concentrate on marketing brick as a product that fits into the sustainability agenda and is flexible for both innovative and traditional  buildings.

The Chief Executive Officer of Hans Lingl Anlagenbau und Verfahrenstechnik, Germany, Frank Appel, spoke about ceramic insulation blocks that can be filled with insulating material, such as wool, to create a building block with low construction costs and high U values. The opening talk of the conference from Scott Johnston, founder of the Johnston Design Group, Greenville, USA, likened a brick to a tree in terms of sustainability. Bricks, like leaves protect a structure from the elements. Like the trunk, they provide robust structure to a building and, like the roots, flexible paving helps the ground absorb rain water run off rather than exacerbating flooding in the way non-porous materials such as tarmac and concrete do. I was able to conclude that we differ from the USA in higher fuel and labour costs, but have a larger market share of the construction product market, which helps offset these production costs faced. What we do share, is the challenge to manufacture a sustainable product fit for the 21st century.