Reaping the benefits - the Clay Bricks and Clay Blocks Resource Efficiency Action Plan

Materials World magazine
2 Jan 2014

Resource Efficiency Action Plans are vehicles to improving efficiency and reducing waste. Simon Hay, CEO of the Brick Development Association, UK, explains how the recently published Clay Bricks and Clay Blocks REAP is set to help the construction industry do just that.

Traditionally, construction materials have followed a linear path from extraction and manufacture to construction, demolition and landfill. But in a world with shrinking resources, this linear model is no longer acceptable. The construction industry has already made steps for change and, through the likes of the UK’s Green Construction Board (GCB), is actively working alongside Government to meet the targets set out in the Low Carbon Construction Action Plan to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020.

The previous REAPs tackle a broad scope of resource efficiency and address the significant impact indicators of waste, water, carbon, (energy use and emissions), materials and biodiversity, as championed by the GCB’s Greening the Industry campaign, to the full lifecycle of a construction product as defined in EN 15804.

While clay is arguably not a rare resource, at least not in the UK, the industry is responsible for reducing the energy used to vitrify, manufacture, package and transport a brick or block to as low a level as possible. Items produced today must be capable of being adapted to what is known as the circular economy, for reuse or recycling. Throughout production, construction and eventual demolition, an end use for materials must be planned for.

UK agency WRAP is working to promote this circular economy and, as part of this, is supporting a new UK Resource Efficiency Action Plan (REAP) for the brick industry. The idea of a REAP for the sector was initially discussed by the Brick Development Association (BDA) and the Construction Products Association (CPA). The CPA then connected with WRAP and, with both parties agreeing that a wider ranging investigation into the use, design, logistics and reuse of bricks was required, a partnership was entered into with the ready-mix and the precast concrete sectors, who were initiating their own action plans at the time.

Around two billion bricks are produced every year by UK brick manufacturers across more than 60 sites. The Clay Bricks and Clay Blocks REAP covers all products manufactured in fired clay, which are used in walling, landscaping and civil engineering applications, and is an extension of the precast sector’s sustainability strategy. The UK precast concrete sector employs more than 12,000 people across 500 production sites, and produces in excess of 20 million tonnes of precast concrete products, including concrete blocks, pipes, cladding, pavers and structural elements. The ready-mixed concrete sector comprises 800 plants producing around 14.2 million cubic metres of concrete a year. Ready-mixed concrete is a factory-produced material, locally manufactured and transported in a flowable state for placing and compacting on-site into any desired shape and size.

The three sectors have much in common. While transport and packaging are obvious, the product sectors all have the beneficial effects of high thermal mass and durability. And although there are some areas of competition, much of the sectors’ output is complementary. Due to the large critical mass of the heavyweight industries, together they can attract assistance from other contributors.

While the brick, precast and ready-mixed sectors have produced separate REAPs, in true collaborative spirit they are working together to assist each other and in doing so support the whole supply chain, from raw material extraction through to the demolition or deconstruction of buildings, in identifying and creating an actionable strategy for reducing waste and improving resource efficiency. The initiative has received additional support in the form of Government funding as well as technical input from Ceram (for clay bricks and blocks, and precast concrete) and the Building Research Establishment (for ready-mixed concrete).

Building foundations
The REAPs are not an end in themselves, but a starting point to examine activities and increase profit. The industry understands that good environmental practice and sound management in reducing waste and energy requirements is not only necessary to fulfil our energy obligation up to and beyond 2020, but also that it makes good business sense. As such, these plans will be built upon by the respective sectors to become a blueprint for improvement and an agenda for the sectors to respond to new technologies, further improving their industries. The plan will undergo constant review to confirm that, against a set of key performance indicators (KPIs), the industries are improving.

While the BDA feels that the industry is already environmentally sound and efficient, there is nonetheless a strong commitment to improving performances, reducing environmental impact further and increasing efficiency. From manufacturing, logistics and architecture to construction on-site and eventual reuse, these plans will address the totality of brick’s use in construction.

The REAP is not only concerned with manufacturing but considers the whole lifecycle of the material. As a country and as an industry, the UK cannot afford to waste resources, and this plan builds on the considerable resources of the sector to look to the future and build on its already successful products.

An important initial outcome of the REAP was to codify the industry’s existing activities in line with the GCB’s headings to review and improve its performance. This was issued as a separate document, Key Performance Indicators and Targets to 2020. These KPIs are a central part of the reporting mechanism to ensure that the REAP progresses and becomes an active blueprint for the sector, and that it both develops and changes to respond to improvements in technology and practical requirements.

REAPs in action
Of course, it is all very well making plans and strategies, but these must be carried through. Many actions are already underway. A good example is a 25-page document advising designers and contractors on the use of recycled bricks – not as straightforward as you might think. For example, many bricks used as internal walls are soft and not fully vitrified because they were under-fired in Victorian times. These bricks are not suitable as external facings, as many contractors have discovered, to their cost. These and many other issues have to be considered before definitive advice can be offered, which will help to take the industry forward. While many BDA members would rather not have to compete with the recycled brick sector, they accept the broader view that it helps the industry’s sustainability credentials.

There are many other complicated issues that need to be addressed. While bricks produced today under EN771-1 2011 Specification for Masonry Units will be suitable for reuse in years to come, how can clay bricks dating back more than 100 years be CE marked, even though they were produced under a harmonised standard? The sector is addressing some complex issues on the most seemingly minor of topics.

This might be a new plan, but the brick industry is already reaping the benefits – most obviously through the KPI document, which is already helping the sector to improve. Action management such as this encourages transparency and is representative of brick production in the UK, and through this the industry will monitor investment and ensure that current UKAS certified environmental management systems are maintained or improved upon.

To read the Clay Bricks and Clay Blocks REAP in full, visit  

Action on Sustainability 2013: Key Performance Indicators and Targets to 2020
The UK brick industry has been reporting its sustainability performance for the last 10 years and the BDA has recently announced a refined set of sustainability KPIs, which for the first time include quantitative targets to 2020:

Action Carbon – Aims to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions. While these goals are taxing, there are a number of initiatives currently ongoing, including a pilot kiln that could reduce firing times.

Action Water – There are two main possibilities of reducing water consumption. First, reducing mains intake by recycling water within the production process and second, rain water harvesting from the extensive plant roofs. These two initiatives will significantly reduce the industry’s dependency on mains water in the future.

Action Wellbeing – The brick industry is a central part of local communities and many brickworks have a long history of involvement. Today, there is no tolerance of health and safety lapses, coupled with a requirement to educate and ensure the wellbeing of the industry’s workforce.

Action Waste – While the brick industry has traditionally produced little waste, this has not always been used as beneficially at it could. A strategic review will be conducted and advice sought from European colleagues.

Action Materials – The brick industry has commissioned BRE to carry out an Environmental Product Declaration to EN15804, which is among the first to be carried out under this process.

Action Biodiversity – There are many attractive ex-brickwork sites in the UK, with nature transforming clay pits into dramatically beautiful locations. The brick industry has in the past, and will seek in the future, to accelerate this natural process, and also to consider the current sites and promote biodiversity within existing operations.