Bricks and blocks: More options and benefits than ever before

by Darren
Bricks and blocks

Bricks and blocks are not only energy-efficient and sustainable, but they also provide design professionals with numerous decorative possibilities.


Bricks and blocks have been used in millions of beautiful architectural structures. Whether you’re building an ultra-modern commercial development or low-cost housing, bricks can be used to create the right look and feel (and this building material ensures minimal maintenance and sustainability benefits long into the future).

According to the Spring 2014 issue of Modern Home Builder, home builders and buyers are looking for a fresh twist on building with bricks, leading to a growing range of applications becoming available in the market. Some of the popular trends include special shaped bricks to create decorative accents, brick screen walls that create porous designs and glazed brick walls with diverse and bright colours.

Modern brick trends:
•    Variations in the brick units themselves and the way they are used in a wall.
•    Increasingly popular textures, including sand blasting.
•    Glazed brick walls with diverse and bright colours used alongside units with muted hues, such as warm greys that lend a modern design aesthetic.
•    Using brick as part of a mixed palette of materials with contrasting brick and trim colours.
•    Brick screen walls that create a porous design.
•    Special shapes and accents including arches, water tables, quoin corners, sills and copings.
•    Renovations that maintain original black elements, regardless of whether the home is modern or historic.
•    Interior trends including monochromatic painted brick walls, exposed brick walls adjacent to sleek, industrial interior finishes and thin brick crafted from full-face brick.

Source: Modern Home Builder

Bacteria have the unique ability to grow into cement?

In 2013, bioMASON founder Ginger Krieg Dosier gave an interesting presentation at TedxWWF (a special Ted Talk event) on a subject called “biomason”.

“When I studied architecture, I understood the brick to be the lowest common denominator in construction. Bricks are made and sized to fit in the human hand, they are modular, easy to make and straightforward to use. This simplicity in design has led the humble clay brick to be used in over 80% of global construction,” said Krieg Dosier during her presentation.

“We produce over 1,23 trillion bricks worldwide each year – stacked end-to-end, they could reach the moon and back to earth 323 times. It has been estimated that the production of this many bricks emits over 800 million tons of carbon pollution into our atmosphere every year. This is more pollution produced than by all the airplanes in the world put together each year. When you think about it, this is a lot of pollution from one construction material,” said Krieg Dosier.

According to acclaimed sustainability architect, William McDonough, in his film Waste Equals Food, 200 million new homes are needed in rural China. If the traditional material of brick is used, 25% of the top layer of agricultural land is needed for the clay and over half of the coal reserves in China will be needed for fuel to fire the bricks.

“There is a cleaner way to make bricks. Why use fire to harden bricks when you can grow bricks?” asked Krieg Dosier, whose introduction to growing bricks started when she attended graduate school. Her professor gave her a book on bio-mimicry (by Janine Benyus), which focuses on how designers should be inspired by nature.

“This book led me to wonder how an architect can make a difference by using nature.

“Instead of just learning from nature, I wanted to know how we can use nature in our manufacturing process. My professor and I both believed that the next innovation in architecture would be the creation of durable structural cement. Nature can produce materials with greater strength than our man-made processes, with less energy and without polluting the surrounding environment,” said Krieg Dosier.

Krieg Dosier’s architectural education didn’t give her an answer, so she dove into various fields such as chemistry, biology and material science to find the answer. “I learned how micro-organisms such as bacteria were actually responsible for the formation of some sandstones by causing a glue – similar to cement – that can bond the grains of sand together. I decided to culture my own bacteria and grow my own sandstone brick,” said Krieg Dosier.

The material that Krieg Dosier uses to grow bricks starts with sand. This was her preferred material due to the overwhelming global abundance of sand. Sand from an Arabian desert (which is not traditionally used in construction) turned out to be ideal for Krieg Dosier’s brick-growing project.

“The cement that bonds the grains of sand together is made in a liquid solution, including bacteria, which creates the precise environment for crystals to form, food to feed those bacteria, as well as a nitrogen source, a calcium source and water. This solution is applied over a bed of sand and mould, and repeated for five days until a solid bio-cement material is formed,” said Krieg Dosier.

Since the bricks are alive, they require multiple feedings and solutions and they are made in ambient temperatures. Once the bricks reach the required hardness, they are simply dried and ready for use, thereby eliminating the fire-burning process that traditional bricks need to become hard.

It took Krieg Dosier years (and many mistakes) in order to grow a strong and full-scale, durable brick. She is currently working with scientists in America and the UAE to scale the process in order to produce high volumes of these bio-bricks at a time.

Kings College Library – Taunton

Architects: Mitchell Taylor Workshop
Location: Somerset, England
Mechanical and electrical engineer: Buro Happold
Contractor: RG Spiller
Project area: 800m²

The Kings College Library was commissioned to Mitchell Taylor Workshop in 2008. The site was reasonably complex, seeing as buildings had to be retained at ground level. These buildings were also enveloped in a jigsaw-like fashion by a new building. The first floor of the building is a library.

The architects initially proposed brass and copper cladding with a series of continuous fins in order to provide lighting. These proposals were rejected because the main benefactor wanted the architecture to acknowledge the character, grain, form and material that was originally used. The architects then realised that it needed to be a masonry building and they proposed a new design that would make the bricks do as much as possible.

The building, including the soffits, was clad in brick. Ventilation and lighting are maximised through pointy gable ends that were developed into a witch’s hat shape, giving the building a new kind of signature.

London Olympic Substation

Project: Olympic Substation
Location: Olympic Village, Stratford, London
Architect: NORD Architecture
Brick: Ibstock – Aldridge Himley Ebony Black

In 2009, a new substation was designed and built by NORD Architecture to supply electricity to the Olympic Park and Stratford City development during the London Olympics. Dark bricks were chosen for the external cladding to create a sense of solidarity appropriate to the building’s role as a key part of the utilities infrastructure in the Olympic Park. The dark bricks also reflect the traditional use of dark brick stock as corner and window details in the former Kings Yard industrial buildings (which are on the same site as the new substation).

Crushed materials from the demolition of the former Kings Yard buildings were used for the new substation. Over 130 000 bricks were used in the construction of the 80m-long and 14m-wide building.

Why choose bricks for your next project?

There are many reasons to choose bricks and blocks for your next construction project. Here are a few:

It’s made from a natural material
If the use of natural materials is a priority for the design team and the client, then clay bricks offer a great solution. Clay and shale are used to make clay bricks, and both of these materials are abundant. The material can be reused as a brick or paver or fully recycled, with countless recycling options (such as using crushed bricks as aggregate for concrete product manufacture, sub-based materials and chipped bricks for permanent landscaping mulch).

It’s durable
Clay bricks, for example, are fired through a kiln where the shale and/or clay go through a vitrification process that enables the particles to fuse together. It is that process that affords clay brick its durability characteristics’, colourfastness and record of performance over the centuries. With concrete bricks, the cement paste bonds the materials together.

Clay brick is a material that in application affords structural and aesthetic integrity at the same time and has been proven most competent for providing protection against extreme weather events. As for natural disasters, a brick seismic study in 2009 founded by the National Science Foundation in the USA showed that buildings built with genuine clay brick veneer can resist earthquakes above the Maximum Considered Earthquake for Seismic Design Category D without collapse.

Concrete bricks are inherently grey, but different colours and pigments can be injected into cement in order to achieve various colours. With clay bricks, there are many colourfast hues and textures available.

A trusted material
Clay bricks were used in India over 5 000 years ago you will also find that it is first mention in the Bible when they built the Tower of Babel Genesis 11:3 when they said to each other “let us make clay bricks and burn them hard”. It found its way to numerous constructions in ancient Egypt and Rome. Driving through virtually any town and suburb and it will show that clay bricks have been around for a long time and will stand the test of time.

•    Sun-dried clay bricks date back to 13 000 BC.
•    First moulded and kiln-fired bricks originated in Bronze Age, 3 000 BC.
In South Africa:
•    First clay bricks kiln-fired within first year of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival in Cape.
•    August 1654: first house constructed from hard, red, fired Cape bricks.
•    Mass production began in 1655.
•    By British occupation in 1795, the clay brick tradition was well-established in this country.

Fire protection
Clay brick is a non-combustible material, making it an excellent walling choice if you want a material that can resist as well as confine fires.

High wind protection
A study entitled Shelter from the Storm for the Brick Industry Association of America showed that homes built with brick offer dramatically more protection from wind-blown debris than homes built with vinyl or fibre-cement siding. The study was conducted at the Wind Science and Engineering Research Centre at Texas Tech University, and tests found that homes made with brick exceed the 34mph (54,7km per hour) impact resistance requirement for high-velocity hurricane zones in the Florida building code.

Moisture control
According to a study entitled Moisture performance comparison of typical residential wall assemblies by the NAHB Research Centre in the USA, brick veneer wall assemblies control moisture better than wall systems clad with other exterior materials. These moisture control benefits mean that brick walls will help to minimise mould growth, infestation by insects, wood rot as well as the corrosion of fasteners that are embedded in wood.

Minimal maintenance
When face bricks are chosen, a building owner doesn’t need to invest in additional painting or moisture control elements to make sure it won’t rot, dent or be damaged by insects. Many architectural structures built with bricks look even better as the bricks age, ensuring that maintenance and replacement won’t be a worry for the client.

Naturally energy-efficient
New building regulations require that building walls meet certain thermal performance criteria, usually expressed as U- or R-values. The codes take climates, percentage and area of windows as well as insulation location into consideration. Brick walling systems exhibit superior thermal mass properties (in other words, they are able to store and slowly release heat). The thermal storage properties of bricks is what helps shift peak heating or cooling loads to off-peak and dampen the peak temperatures – thereby affording longer periods of thermal comfort in SA climates than lightweight walling composites.

Notably empirical research of building modules comprising different wall construction types at the University of Newcastle found that the simple placement of clay brick internal partition walls in building modules with insulated lightweight exterior walls improved the energy efficiency of the lightweight building by 20%.

Research findings of thermal capacity of clay bricks
ClayBrick.org commissioned WSP Energy Africa to develop a rationale for the selection of thermal capacity and thermal insulation in external walling, for inclusion in SANS 204. Findings from this research showed that the South African climate, the building’s physics and the choice of building materials used impacted significantly on the energy-efficiency in building.

The research also showed that clay bricks contribute towards an even greater level of reduction in energy usage, compared to the intended 30% energy reduction requirement of the RSA Energy Strategy.

The optimal wall parameters were developed by graphical analysis, which were proven by thermal modelling of energy consumption and lifecycle cost. Increasing levels of thermal capacity and resistance in the external walls result in lower energy consumption.


Claybrick.org explains that understanding the fundamentals of how building materials perform as part of composite systems is of key importance to choosing a building material for achieving energy-efficient outcomes.

In the case of walling material combinations appropriate for the job, research provides some important insights. It was empirical research of building modules comprising different wall construction types measured under real world conditions at the University of Newcastle Priority Research Centre for Energy that found that the wall thermal resistance (or R-value) isn’t the all-important of a walling system for determinant of energy-efficiency. There are other factors at play notably thermal mass that enhances the capacity of walls to self-manage heat flows – diffuse heat, and slowly absorb, store and release heat. It is thus the value of thermal mass in the building envelope and the combinations of thermal mass and resistance for optimising thermal comfort in specific climate zones that also needs to be considered.


Masonry can add considerably more thermal efficiency than previously thought. When choosing a building material, bricks are a great option for a variety of reasons – including energy-efficiency and internal comfort. The design, decorative and colour options only widen the opportunities for your next building project.

For more information, visit www.claybrick.org, www.gobrick.com and www.biomason.com, to which full thanks and acknowledgement are given.

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