Recycling the old to build the new

by Ofentse Sefolo
Recycling the old to build the new

When you add up the cost of building any site, construction materials are a substantial budget item. Where the property has an existing building, the demolition and removal of structures can add significantly to bills before a foundation has even been laid.

Clay bricks are ceramic products – fired at high temperatures in a kiln – giving them a lifespan of well over 200 years. This means property owners have the option to recycle clay bricks that were previously used in walls, paving and even infrastructure such as retaining walls and bridges.

The weathered look that old bricks provide is almost impossible to get artificially. Thus, recycled bricks are in great demand for certain types of architecture, or to replace pavers or bricks in historic buildings. Damaged bricks can be chipped and used in landscaping, or crushed to replace aggregate or sand.

The appeal of reclaimed bricks is its character – a pleasing weathered appearance and natural patina. Currently, reclaimed bricks have a certain cachet; they are less common, more sustainable and have a distinctive appearance. Whether used for an internal feature wall, extension or paving, recycled clay bricks are sure to create an eye-catching, unique finish for those with an appreciation of tradition.


“Many architects choose to reuse ‘heritage’ clay bricks and timber in their projects due to the sustainability benefits,” advises Mariana Lamont, executive director of the Clay Brick Association of South Africa (CBASA). “Recycled bricks are an eco-friendly option. They not only eliminate resource use and emissions during production, they also cut down on landfill waste and the environmental and economic cost of transporting heavy materials to dump sites.”

Recycling keeps bulky bricks out of the landfill and saves waste handling and transport. Recycled clay bricks provide low-income communities with inexpensive, good-quality building materials.

There are limitless ways in which the bricks can be recycled. As a builder or contractor, recycling the bricks isn’t just an economic opportunity, as it also reduces the new building’s carbon footprint and earns green building credentials.


Where to use recycled bricks

There are several options for reuse. In many cases, loadbearing brick buildings can be repurposed, with just a contemporary frontage added. In other cases, the brick facade is retained while a new structure is built behind it. Sometimes, the existing building is demolished, and the individual clay bricks are reused in exposed brick feature walls and elements.

Clay products that are damaged or broken can be sold for use in road construction, embankments, tennis courts and landscaping. When reusing broken bricks as site filler, they must be crushed first to limit ground subsidence.

Whether used for an internal feature wall, extension or paving, recycled clay bricks are sure to create an eye-catching, unique finish for those with an appreciation of tradition.


How to recycle bricks safely

Brush the bricks with a stiff bristle brush rather than a wire brush to remove all debris without damaging the texture. After a brick is moistened, efflorescence is always possible, even with an older brick, but this is rarely a permanent condition.

Rubbing bricks on an abrasive grit stone may be useful for straightening up surfaces and removing chipped edges on handmade older bricks. The use of power tools is not advised. Grinding discs and wire brushes are hard to control, and scoring or polishing can disfigure the brick’s surface.

Compared to modern bricks which are manufactured to South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) standards, older bricks from coastal properties may have damage from salt, especially near ground level. Chemical pollution from an industrial environment can alter the composition and density of the brick. When using the brick in loadbearing applications, it is advised to test a few samples to check that the batch is free of defects.

“Lastly, given their attractive appearance and durability, bricks are good insulators, pest resistant and fireproof,” concludes Lamont. “It is therefore not surprising that clay masonry remains a popular construction material.”

Acknowledgement and thanks go to the Clay Brick Association of South Africa (CBASA) for the information contained in this article.

Main image: Recycled bricks can serve as a focal point whilst being combined with other more modern features such as timber looking floors.

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