Q&A – Michael Brown

Clay Technology magazine
18 Aug 2017

Natalie Daniels speaks to Michael Brown about his 20 years’ experience in the brick industry and why the UK needs to appreciate its brick heritage.

Tell me about your background and career to date.

My family worked in the construction industry and I decided to follow in their footsteps. I obtained a BSc in Civil Engineering and joined the EH Smith Group, UK, working for the builders merchants division before moving to the manufacturing side at Northcot Brick, UK. I have been Managing Director of Northcot for around 20 years.

What have been your career highlights at Northcot?  

Highlights have included providing the bricks for the Newport Street Art Gallery in London, UK, which won the Sterling Architectural Prize in 2016. In the last two years, we have also won a supreme award at the Brick Awards held by the Brick Development Association. Another achievement has been turning the company around from huge debts that none of us thought could be paid off by making bricks. But with thanks to the hard work and determination of the team, we have managed it. We have been delighted by the demand for tailored brickwork solutions. 

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

Over the last few years, I have tried to focus on key strategic areas. Recently, our focus has been on getting the sales and the production teams to work in harmony with each other. Bringing the two sides together has been crucial to finding and delivering the right bespoke brick blending options for architects. 

Where does the demand for bricks lie?

It is harder for the bigger companies to provide the choice and flexibility of different bricks. The more automated and mechanised you are, then the more you are focused on lower unit cost. This is disruptive when it comes to changing things around and creating more bespoke designs. The smaller works have that option and that is what we have tried to harness as best as we can.   

What are the major challenges facing the brick industry? 

I think we need to put brick in its rightful place, as the nation’s favourite building material, to inspire architects and make brickwork interesting again. I think brick is so common that it has been taken for granted and become one of the most underappreciated products in the construction industry. Demand for bricks has remained in all kinds of buildings, but in the case of a brick manufacturer you are making what is viewed as a simple product – people underestimate brick. I have been fascinated to find out recently that the world’s most popular brand is Lego, overtaking companies such as Ferrari and Walt Disney. I think they have been great in getting young people to understand the potential in a small, simple building unit. I think we need to remind people that the same applies to the real thing. We need to inject imagination back into bricks. It is the diversity of clay that makes it so unique – every clay deposit in the world is unique and the diversity of types, colours and textures is greater than in the plastic imitations. 

Can you tell me about the brick making process?

Brick making is almost a magical process in which the soft raw material gradually turns hard and can become impervious to water and time. Our particular surface quarry produces an orange/pink firing clay. We have a range of wire cuts and handmades and, for the size of the company, make more different types of bricks than anyone else. We often make two or three different types of bricks a day. This has led us into more bespoke bricks depending on the job type. The handmade brick market has always kept strong even with the highs and lows of the market. Our two BDA Awards have been won for machine-made rather than the handmade range, illustrating the demand for bespoke bricks of all kinds.

How do the machine bricks differ from handmade? 

In each case, they are quarried out of the ground and then the machine or hand-maker will produce the bricks. We make around one-to-two million handmade bricks per year and another nine-to-ten million by machine a year. We use a range of technology from robotics to 100-year old machinery. The process takes three weeks in all: first quarrying the clay and forming the brick, then a week to dry and two weeks to fire and pack.

How do you ensure the clay firing process causes as little damage to the environment as possible? 

Clay has been fired for thousands of years with no apparent detriment to the environment. I would argue that modern environmental problems derive from modern processes. Bricks benefit the built environment once they are built in and often for a very long period of time. There are things we can and have done. For example, we participate in the EU Emissions Trade Scheme, and there will be an equivalent post-Brexit. We have our own array of solar panels onsite, generating up to 75KW of electricity. We have obtained ISO140001 environmental accreditation, which monitors and measures all outputs to the environment. We are also looking at lower-energy intensive firing opportunities and onsite electricity generation. We have also made great strides in reducing the number of reject bricks that we send out by carefully managing our production and mixing types. Our reject rate is virtually zero – we are very proud of that.

What can be done to help the brick industry thrive in future?  

Stability in the economy is the greatest need. A financial system based on sound money would help us most by enabling investment to be planned with confidence. Bricks would also benefit from more promotion. They are still used in 80% of houses, despite no joint industry-wide promotion for more than 30 years. There is room to change the old perception of bricks from being ordinary and energy-intensive to being exciting and environmentally beneficial.

How can Government and industry work together to bridge the skills gap in the construction industry?

We do benefit from industry lobbying and working together with Government. Our handmaking is a labour-intensive process – we do currently rely on free movement of labour from other parts of the EU. This will be an important area for us going forward.

What can we expect to see happen in the brick industry over the next five years?

The industry is segregating out into the volume makers and specialist makers. I think we are making progress in the industry in both directions. Investment is going into big, new factories, making new production available at low unit costs. But smaller companies like us are focusing on providing the diversity and the ability to tailor bricks to different jobs. I think the industry is meeting market demand in both areas. 

Pink Floyd’s song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ gives the impression that bricks are all the same and boring. But, they are endlessly interesting and diverse. We are always looking at new façades made out of brick. They provide a great building material for the country, and I think the UK needs to appreciate its brick heritage.

Michael Brown is Managing Director for  UK-based independent brick manufacturer Northcot Bricks, with more than 20 years’ experience in the industry.