Why Brick Is The Right Material

By Katherina Lewis of the Brick Development Association (BDA)

Brick has been a reliable construction material for centuries and has proven itself time and time again. There is no shortage of brick structures around the world still providing good service – just look at Brunel’s stunning spanned bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead, or the brickwork at St Pancras.

Brick has long been a favourite among architects, developers and the public. Not only is it beautiful to look at, it has excellent sustainability credentials and it’s hard to beat on price. On versatility and pure aesthetics, few rivals come even close. Because we have been building with brick for thousands of years, its technology is well understood. In structural terms, its robustness provides solutions to masonry designs where ‘high’ strength is required.

Made from an abundant natural material, clay bricks have a much closer visual connection with their raw constituents than anything else you’ll find in a modern building. Their warm and humanising character brings buildings to life with a wonderful mixture of subtle tones and textures. Bricks blend easily and naturally with their environment and complement other building materials. Furthermore, brickwork can be adapted as a building changes use.

The case for brick has been boosted by a top environmental rating. The BRE’s Green Guide to Specification has assigned the highest possible accreditation A+ to every external wall it rated containing brick. This is positive proof that brick has a key role to play in meeting CSH targets.

And brick’s carbon footprint? A square metre of brickwork produces 28 kg of carbon dioxide by the time it is delivered to site. That equates to just 0.0001867 tonnes per square metre a year, over 150 years. Putting that into context, the energy used to produce and deliver brickwork for an average semi-detached home is less than 2% of what will be spent heating that home. The brick industry makes annual reports to the Government for both the climate change agreement and the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EUETS) and therefore monitors CO² emissions regularly.

The embodied energy of the clay brick is equal to 0.4% of total domestic energy consumption over a 150 year lifespan. A recent survey of 900 homes found that brick structures can have a lifespan of 500 years or more. In sharp contrast, some of the lightweight panelised homes now being constructed have a design life of 50 years or even less. What is sustainable about that?

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It’s not surprising therefore that the demand for brick buildings continues to increase and this is clearly evident in the continuing success of the annual Brick Awards. Organised by the Brick Development Association, the Awards, which first took place in 1977, is one of the top design and construction awards in the country – and the definitive showcase for what clay brick can do.

Bob Allies, partner in leading architectural practice Allies and Morrison and Chairperson of the Judging panel for the Brick Awards comments: “The purpose of the awards is of course to recognise the very best, and because of the incredible diversity of the ways in which brick is being used today, the awards don’t just recognise the talents of architects and designers, they acknowledge the expertise of the contractors, the consistency of the house-builders, the quality of the manufacturers, the skills of the craftsmen, and indeed the inventiveness and imagination of all those who use the material.”

Competition is fierce and this was no exception in 2009, when three very different projects were shortlisted by the judges.

Designed by Burd Haward Architects, the Cafe Caponata and Forge Arts Venue project in Delancey Street, London sits within a conservation area and accommodates the dining and performance spaces, connected by a glazed courtyard. The front building is an interpretation of the adjacent Georgian terraces, whilst the rear building is reminiscent of the barn like forge which occupied the site historically. Brick was chosen as this offered a robust, self-finished, loadbearing material which allowed the two blocks to feel related but be visually contrasting.

The front, which contains the cafe, restaurant and apartments, required a tougher appearance and a dark sooty looking brick was chosen to reflect the urban nature of the busy street. In the rear which houses the recital hall, a white brick was chosen as a calming contrast to this. The same pale facing brickwork is carried through internally to provide a neutral background with the added benefit of a hard sound reflective surface which is required for the acoustic function of the space.

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To avoid the requirement for movement joints, which would have been aesthetically and acoustically undesirable, lime mortar was used throughout. To the dark brick, this was tinted to the darkest shade possible and used with a shallow raked joint to create shadow and further darken the joints. To the pale brick, the natural shade of lime mortar was used with a flush bag rubbed joint to create a more monolithic look.

The construction of the new headquarters building for Unilever UK, in Leatherhead, Surrey, was viewed as an opportunity to create an exemplar project to benchmark across its real estate portfolio.

The client brief for the scheme was to create a facility which brought together three previously separate business units from three separate locations and accommodate them into a space that promotes a harmonious way of working and united culture. The new building encourages synergy and integration between the previously separated business units. It also offers a central arrival area for product and promotional display for customers and staff alike with clear lines of separation from visitor, customer and secure staffing areas.

The ‘Business Park’ office building has become a familiar type for developers and designers and this example follows established practice with office floors relating to a central atria. However, a design approach of fully glazed buildings would not align itself with the environmentally responsible and energy efficient world of building design in the 21st Century. The designers, dn-a Architects achieved a balance between glazing a solid facade by using the module of the clay block for the primary background material in a natural cream to give a warm earthy hue with complementary opaque background surface materials.

The resulting building which won the Best Commercial Building Award, has seen the delivery of a bold, contemporary and environmentally sound design which is sympathetic to the scale and compartmental nature of the high quality development at Leatherhead Office Park and the sensitive greenbelt edge which the site borders.

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The Best Public Building Award went to the Hull Truck Theatre in Hull, designed by Wright and Wright Architects.

Essentially the new building is a three storey (including basement) brick clad, reinforced concrete structure with blockwork infill and internal partitions. It has flat roofs (mastic asphalt) that are punctuated by roof lights, zinc clad vent cowls and roof terraces at second floor level. The large clear span over the main auditorium is achieved through the use of structural steelwork. Robust and durable materials were considered to be both visually appropriate and practically necessary for the Hull Truck Theatre.

Brick has been used to clad the building inside and out to resonate with the grand warehouses of Hull. Every brick in the building was drawn in elevation in order to avoid cuts and unsightly junctions. In addition, brick specials were carefully detailed and identified on layout drawings.

Great care was taken to ensure that the mortar colour, joints and copings harmonised correctly with the brickwork. Several large sample boards were made and inspected before the right combination was chosen.

Brick walls and paving extend into the internal public foyers at ground and first floor level so that these areas become part of the street and all visitors in a sense find themselves ‘on stage’.

Glazed bricks are traditionally used in theatres and in this building, brick has been fully exploited as an integral part of the design.

So what makes brick the right choice? Well, it is not difficult to understand why brick is one of the most successful building materials ever devised. On aesthetics and price it’s hard to beat. Moreover it is the most mellow, most versatile and above all, most sustainable of building materials.

To find out more visit the ‘Think Brick’ website www.brick.org.uk. This impressive showcase for brick is packed with information, from great brick projects to technical downloads and industry wide information.

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