The Brits have a fondness for bricks. Like Yorkshire pud and Sir Trevor McDonald, they have a special place in our hearts. It’s no surprise then that 80 per cent of new homes are clad at least in part using brick, and that it is still the most popular choice in the UK for the exterior of homes.
Think Victorian terrace housing, quaint church rectories and modern cul-de- sacs – bricks make up a large proportion of our built environment. Why then have bricks been frowned upon by recent generations of architects, spurned in favour of concrete or glass? Seen as too conservative by many and too closely associated with the past, perhaps? But as the projects featured in these pages show, bricks can be versatile, they can be daring and they can most definitely be cool.
Whether handmade or mechanically produced, the basic manufacturing process has remained the same for centuries. You dig the clay, mix and roll it, then dry it before it’s stored. On the day of production, water is added and the moist mud is banged into a wooden mould. Once turned on its head, the mould is prized from the clay and the bricks are dried to remove remaining water. Now ready for firing, they are stacked in the kiln and blasted at temperatures ranging from 900-1,200°C, depending on the type of clay. Checked for mistakes, packaged and placed in the stocking yard, the bricks are finally lorried away.
Nobody can call bricks boring. They come in an astounding range of colours and texture – indeed 38 varieties are produced from one Ibstock pit alone. The colour of a brick varies depending on the depth of clay used and the components added. To darken a brick, coal is added; to lighten it, lime can be used. There’s also a plethora of glazed bricks available. For texture, sand is commonly added to the clay to create a rough finish, while the use of oil or water when extracting the brick from the mould ensures a smooth surface. Other methods include dragging rollers indented with various patterns over the bricks and adding glass beads. Using these simple processes, blobs of mud are turned into an attractive and solid construction material. It’s now up to the architect to do the bricks justice and be creative with their designs.
- Storage: inspect the bricks on delivery. Unload them directly onto a dry level area or scaffold and protect from the weather.
- Mortar: correctly proportion and thoroughly mix the mortar. Add nothing but clean water after this point and never use mortar after it has started to set.
- Uniform walls: to avoid patches or bands of different shades, use bricks from at least three packs at the same time and don’t place all the bricks from one pack in one patch of the wall.
- Protection: all brick walls must be covered during breaks in construction. Rain on recent brickwork can cause the mortar to change colour, or create lime stains, efflorescence and saturation. In cold, wet weather cover with a water-resistant material; in dry weather use hessian.
BRICK: A BRIEF HISTORY
The mud brick was invented between 10,000 and 8,000 BC making brick one of the oldest building materials known to man. The Mesopotamians developed the moulded brick in around 5000 BC, but the greatest breakthrough came with the invention of fired brick in about 3,500 BC. From this moment on, bricks could be made without the scorching heat of the sun and they soon became popular in cooler climates.
Brick was adopted in the Islamic world and in parts of India, South-East Asia and China – the Great Wall of China was constructed in brick during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The Romans introduced brick building to Europe and it continued to dominate during the medieval and Renaissance period, with the red bricks of the Mediterranean and the austere brickwork of Northern Europe. The Georgians, Edwardians and Victorians all relied heavily on brick for their burgeoning cities.
Bricks crossed the Atlantic with Dutch and British immigrants and many early American skyscrapers are clad in brick or terracotta – an astounding 10 million bricks were used to construct the Empire State Building. It was used by some of the 20th century’s most famous architects including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, but towards the end of the century brick was perceived, unfairly, to be a cheap and uninspiring material. Brick lost out to stone, steel and glass, and became synonymous with uninspired developer-fare design.
But with a new century comes a new attitude: brick is back with a vengeance. Despite competition from prefabrication and other new technologies, brick has regained a place in our hearts. Whether reclaimed bricks or their modern equivalents, architects and designers are once again recognising the qualities of these baked blocks of mud.
DIFFERENT BRICKS FOR DIFFERENT JOBS
- Facing: these create the skin of a building and are designed to look good.
- Engineering: the bones of the building, these bricks are never seen. They have a guaranteed minimum compressive strength and maximum water absorption. They are graded class A or B, the former being the strongest and most water resistant.
- Commons: for use in foundations below ground level and for internal brickwork where durability is a concern. Designed to do the job, not to look pretty.
- Specials: available in all shapes and sizes, these are made to order and can be used for odd-shaped structures and decorative brickwork.
- Factory-built prefabricated modules: features such as arches, chimneys and decorative brickwork can be pre-assembled off-site, reducing the time and skills that are needed on-site.
FILLING THE GAPS
- Roughly 17 per cent of a brick wall is made from mortar so it’s an important component to consider when building with brick.
- Traditionally, pale lime was used as the binding agent in mortar, but Portland cement is now used due to its stronger bond. For old buildings use traditional mortar methods, as the lime will allow the wall to move and breathe.
- There are various classes of mortar, depending on their strength. Type 3, mid-strength, is the most common.
- The mortar mix should always be softer than the brick to avoid damage to brickwork.
- Mortars come in a range of colours and choosing a tone that contrasts with your brick will create the most dramatic results.
- Mortar can be applied in a number of ways. For example, you can create a concave shape between bricks (a curved recessed joint) or a flat surface (a flush joint). The choice of joint has a surprisingly significant impact on the overall appearance.
FINDING OUT MORE
Read History of English Brickwork, by Nathaniel Lloyd (Antique Collectors’ Club). First published in 1925, this pioneering work is lavish and large, with more than 100 pages of text and 340 pages of illustrations. Examples are mostly from 15th- and 16th-century late Gothic, 17th-century Anglo-Baroque and modest 18th-century Georgian buildings.
The modern equivalent is Brick: A World History, by James W P Campbell, photographs by Will Pryce (Thames & Hudson, £39.95). Covering 12,000 years of brick-making and its architectural use, this is an ambitious but extremely well researched book with astounding images.
For more technical information look at The BDA Guide to Successful Brickwork, Second Edition (Elsevier). This well- illustrated practical guide to building with brick is a tad nerdy, but filled with essential information.
If you fancy something more hands-on, enrol on a course. There are hundreds of bricklaying courses throughout the country, as well as more specific classes such as the conservation and repair of brick, terracotta and flint, organised by West Dean College (01243 811 301; westdean.org.uk).
Check out the Brick Development Association’s website (brick.org.uk) for a bewildering amount of brick information, including details of individual brick manufacturers and product standards.