History repeating - the perennial appeal of brick

Clay Technology magazine
11 Dec 2011
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Longevity is one of the main benefits of clay brick buildings, alongside their broad aesthetic appeal. Martin Parley talks to Simon Hay, Chief Executive of the Brick Development Association, about why brick is still the material of choice for builders, along with methods of preserving and repairing aged buildings.

Construction in the UK has been on a downward spiral for the last three years, but industry insiders are confident of an imminent upturn in fortunes for those toiling in the ageold manufacture of bricks. Indeed, the Government has recently announced a plan to build new homes to meet the increasing housing squeeze.

With structures lasting for centuries, proving brick’s sustainability credentials, and renovation and construction techniques maintaining their aesthetically pleasing appearance, it is hard to argue that their use is anything other than the obvious solution.

One man who is trying to spread this message is Chief Executive of the Brick Development Association, Simon Hay. He explains, ‘Strangely enough I think now is quite a good time for brick.

Most bricks have traditionally been sold into housing and while we would prefer them to be sold into all buildings, particularly in urban areas, the form of housing – 4-5 storeys based on terraced housing and mansion blocks that is now the current pattern is lending itself to brick construction.

‘Modern housing built in the last 2-3 years is particularly appropriate for brick. While the building of duplex apartments and flats lends itself to modern designs, the facing brick is both durable and provides a link to the surrounding area. So brick has a very strong message for that reason.’

Hay is an architect by trade. He has designed major projects using brick, and advised Ibstock Brick as a consultant, passing his experience onto other architects. ‘I built on this position to give my advice to the whole sector. So now the knowledge I have is available to the whole industry.’

Library of knowledge

Appointed Chief Executive of the Brick Development Association (BDA) in February, Hay says the organisation is a library for the field of brick construction. ‘Not only does it promote the manufacture of British brick, but it has a large body of academic work, much of it on structural brick and its weathering and durability characteristics.’

He also believes that the impartial advice the BDA provides is crucial to the industry in the UK. ‘One of the important things about the BDA is that, while not independent, it is not catering to commercial pressures. It is almost able to take an “ivory tower” attitude and give the correct technical response, as opposed to responding to commercial interests.’

Being a ‘go to’ organisation that also offers advice means the BDA needs to be conscious of the relevant issues. As a result, it has just released an environmental document that illustrates the sustainability of bricks and their durability. ‘You only have to look outside the window to see a 150-year-old building along with much older ones, so we do have to consider the impact of bricks in a wider construction environment.’

Hay explains that the BDA is mindful of innovation. ‘I think we are being pushed, not reluctantly, but we are being pushed into looking at new forms of construction.’ He believes brick is suited to two new forms of construction – pre-fabrication that has reached code six of sustainable homes, and the Green Deal that will be introduced in October. Therefore, cavity fill, internal insulation or external warming systems are being looked at. ‘A lot of companies have created systems to clad a commercial brick building or house on the outside with insulation and brick slips, brick shields, Hanson’s Wonderwall or Weinerberger’s Corium. These could all be applied to existing buildings to increase the insulation value, yet still look like brick buildings.’

One of the main reasons brick is popular is because it looks good and is costeffective. ‘A traditional masonry wall with a brick skin, even brick with a timber frame and a brick outer skin is a very economical way to build. House builders do it this way because it does not give them any trouble and buyers like it. This includes pre-fabricated constructions, brick is a cheap and durable material.’

Points, joints and bonding

There are two main issues concerning the appearance of brick, the choice of brick and the choice of mortar. Designers seem to be returning to traditional lime mortar due to its sustainability credentials, as well as its appearance. ‘Lime mortar tends to use sharper sand and higher particles. If people are using sand and water mortar, which they usually do, they have the choice of either making a coloured or a natural mortar, depending on the colour of the sand used.’

When building with bricks, one of the major issues is the differing bonds for joints and the whole pointing process. ‘Increasingly the industry is looking to mimic older bonds, such as Flemish bonds, by using snapped headers (bricks cut in half) they are still built into the cavity wall. This gives a more pleasant appearance than stretcher bonds (bricks laid flat with narrow side facing out). When looking at pointing, you can have bucket handle joints, recess joints, weather struck joints and even flush joints.’

Hay goes on to say that the key to controlling quality on-site for the designer is to build a reference panel and experiment to get the correct colour. He cites Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Chelsea Academy, which has natural mortar with large aggregate matching the brickwork that has been pointed up flush and then brushed to get the consistent appearance.

Yet these designs may only be available for large public projects if the house building market fails to recover from its current slump. The Government is attempting to stimulate the sector by injecting £400m into the construction of 16,000 new homes. This will still not be enough, explains Hay ‘We should be building 200,000 houses a year, but we are only building 100,000 and that is simply inadequate.’

Further information

Simon Hay, Brick Development Association Ltd, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BT. Tel: 020 7323 7030. Email: brick@brick.org.uk Website: www.brick.org.uk

The BDA will host a conservation seminar on Thursday 15 March at the Building Centre, to address the issues represented in this article 

Images courtesy of the BDA