past, present and future
by Trevor Locke
Part 1 – Bricks and mortar as the basis of housing
In this series of articles (to be published in four parts), I will be using the word housing many times but often in the sense of accommodation of all kinds; rather than to refer only to house ownership.
What’s in a brick?
If you live in the United Kingdom, you are sure to have seen house bricks. You might live in a house that is made of them. But have you ever stopped to think what bricks are made of? Most people in this country will have picked up and held a house brick at some point in their lives. Have you ever thought: have bricks always been the same as this? We are all familiar with bricks – their size, shape, colour, texture and feel. But have you ever wondered whether they will always be the same, in the future, as they are now?
If you think that a brick is a brick – you might be surprised to know just how varied they are. The common house brick is a solid block, usually about 8.5 × 4 × 2.5 inches. Some bricks have 10 holes in them to decrease their weight, some are made in different sizes and come in a variety of colours. Most are newly made but there is a big market for reclaimed bricks. I am referring to British bricks because the size of bricks varies from one country to another. Bricks are made from a mixture of clay and sand that has been heated in a kiln, to harden it and make it strong. Bricks are coloured red because they are made from clays that contain iron. Bricks that have other colours are made from clays to which additional materials have been added, such as chalk.
At the present time (2015) the production of bricks in 2014 -15 is expected to reach £889.2 million. Standard clay bricks that is. It is said that the recession of 2008 resulted in a shortage of bricks. We can see that the construction industry went into sharp decline from 2008 onwards, not recovering until late 2009/10. This was due largely to the lack of finance for both building and the purchasing of new homes as the credit crunch bit into the availability of finance. It was not until 2014 that house building recovered to its pre-crash levels. We cannot attribute the slump in house building solely to shortages of materials (or the finance required to obtain them); the depressed economy also led to a shortage of skilled labour, as companies laid off construction workers.
The use of bricks in house-building has been affected by the ‘breeze block’: hollow and cellular blocks made from concrete or some kind of aggregate. These are bigger than bricks and thus reduce the time in which internal walls can be completed. The standard concrete breeze block has always been made from the same material to a set of standardised sizes. Most buildings in this country, these days, use these blocks for internal walls. They might be faced with bricks or other external walling materials but these blocks are the cheapest and quickest way of putting up walls.
How old is the brick?
Bricks have been around for a very long time. They are thought to have been used for six thousand years, being found in the city of Babylon. The ancient Egyptians made bricks from dried mud, some of which have survived to the present day. In the British Isles, the Romans made bricks, firing them in kilns. In China, millions of workers had to make millions of bricks for the construction of the Great Wall. Bricks were rarely used in the UK before the fourteenth century. Flemish refugees brought brick-making to East Anglia. In the fifteenth century, many craftsmen from Holland and Belgium settled in the UK. After the great fire of London in 1666, people began to build houses with brick walls to replace the wooden ones that were susceptible to fire. The Tudors were keen on building with bricks and fine examples of Elizabethan brick-built houses are still standing today. During the industrial revolution, brick-making became industrialised in order to meet the huge demand for bricks, especially during the Victorian era.
Henry VIII took over Wolsey’s Hampton Court Palace in 1528. Much of Hampton Court is still standing today and visitors can see straight away that most of the facades are made from bricks, rather than stone blocks that would have been noticeable in many structures since Norman times. Between 1485 and 1603, brick-making and brick-laying merged as a specialised craft.
The times of the early Tudors and Elizabethans saw substantial increases in trade and prosperity. The rich and powerful no longer needed to build ‘castles’ that would withstand attack; in the relatively peaceful times of The Renaissance, houses could be designed to look beautiful and to reflect the wealth of their owners. Stone continued to use used for things like windows, where ornamentation was required, but walls and chimneys would be made from bricks, which could be woven into patterns and decorative designs. The Tudor brick sizes were typically found to range from 210-250mm x 100-120mm x 40-50mm. [Tudor Brickwork by Gerard Lynch]
Archaeologists know the sizes of bricks from different periods of history. When they open a trench and find bricks, they can usually identify the period from the size and colour of any bricks found in them.
Is the house brick here to stay?
Wienerberger, a leading supplier of wall, roof and landscaping innovations, has launched it’s brand new Wienerberger e4 brick house™ concept. Using over 200 years of expertise and innovation, Wienerberger has analysed economic and social trends to unveil a unique archetype that directly addresses the UK market needs. Wienerberger’s leading clay brick and wall technology provide the blueprint for the house of tomorrow – an aspirational living space that is practical, sustainable and innovative.
Graduate Henry Miller has devised a way to reuse waste plastic as an aggregate in cement, circumventing the energy-intensive process of plastic recycling. By grinding up landfill-bound plastic and mixing it with Portland cement, Miller was able to create a material just as strong as traditional concrete made with mined aggregate. The construction company made the EcoArk Pavilion in Taipei, reports Paul Mozur of The Wall Street Journal. The walls of the building are made solely of plastic bottles that fit together like Lego pieces. The polygonal bottles, called Polli-Bricks, are made of plastic, recycled from items such as water bottles. Polli-Bricks make the building structurally sound enough to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, environmentally friendly and are relatively cheap to build. The bricks can be blow-moulded out of shredded PETÂ bits at a construction site. They are then stacked into rectangular panels. Workers cover the bricks with a film similar to the coating found on smartphone screens. The coating makes the panels resistant to fire and water.
Experiments have commenced into using modular ecological bricks, as an alternative to the more common clay house bricks. Bricks are now being manufactured from recycled plastic waste. European Union research network Eureka has helped create bricks with domestic waste polymers usually considered too varied or dirty to be recycled. Eureka has worked with the Latvian Technological Centre, the Institute of Polymer Mechanics, the University of Latvia, and Spanish company Hormigones Uniland to mix waste polymers with other materials to make construction products. The Latvian researchers have developed a technique to turn thermoplastic polymer waste into a binding substance which could be mixed with other materials such as sand to produce polymer concrete products, without using cement.
Peter Lewis has created an innovative machine that can transform discarded plastic – such as bottles and bags – into building blocks. The rock-hard bricks could be used for garden retaining landscaping walls or other interesting features such as shock absorbers behind crash barriers.
Changing patterns of house construction
Given the development of technologies for the production of new building materials and the increasing demand for environmentally friendly products, it is likely that traditional materials will change in the future as housebuilders move away from the kind of natural materials that have been used for thousands of years.
From pre-history to relatively recent times, wood was the standard building material. England was once covered in woods and forests. As the climate changed so did the landscape; more and more forests were cut down as demand for timber increased. Naturally occurring woodlands diminished so much that the government began to plant new forests on an industrial scale. More and more wood has been imported to make up for the shortages in British-sourced timber.
If we go back to medieval times, we see walls being constructed of wattle and daub, mud is used to seal the gaps in the wooden walls made from branches and twigs. It was not until brick manufacture developed (as the road infrastructure allowed for their transportation) that we saw bricks being used as a common material for the construction of walls in the fourteenth century. There were some experiments in the use of other kinds of materials for making walls (remember the ‘prefabs’?) but contemporary house building is widely oriented to the use of bricks because of their aesthetic appeal for external walls.
Medieval houses were roofed with thatch made from reeds, the most common form of material used to place a waterproof topping to a building. It would be several hundred years before clay tiles or slates were widely used as roofing materials in many parts of the UK. Some roofs were made from wood shingles but the frequency of fires led to the wider use of clay tiles. The use of steel sheets, such as corrugated iron, in roofing, has not had much appeal in this country.
Even in stone-built castles, windows were small and often no more than holes in the wall. Only in the very wealthiest of buildings, would glass be used in windows to keep out the cold and wet. It would be a long time before glass became a way of creating weatherproof windows in modest buildings. In modern times, we saw the introduction of plastics to replace the traditional wood frames of windows. More glass is used in houses these days than was ever the case in historical times.
In the middle ages, houses were built largely without any plans; their construction was based on know-how handed down from one generation to another. Houses gradually became more elaborate in the way they were constructed and builders began to work from drawn architectural plans. During the Victorian era, there was a vast increase in the number of houses being built; as people began to live and work in cities they needed to live within walking distance of factories. The design of homes gradually became more and more standardised, driven by commercial house-building and the kind of prosperity that led to the home-owning classes. People who wanted to own houses became used to traditional designs. As prosperity increased, there was a demand for separate kitchens, indoor toilets, bathrooms and separate bedrooms for adults and children. The increasing sophistication of buildings led to the establishment of specialised professions of architecture and building design.
Future trends in house building
When we think of housing we inevitably think of bricks and mortar. I wish to argue that many other factors come into play when we begin to discuss housing – factors such as changing demography, patterns of employment, the need to integrate housing with communities and the options we want to make available for increasing the supply of housing. In fact, there are several factors which might see changes being made in the kind of building materials that we have been familiar with over many generations.
In Part 2, I will look at broader trends in house building, including the need for affordable homes, seeing how housing is the key to everything and how it sits within the relationship between housing and employment and employment and transport (as factors governing the demand for housing.)
Guy Standing (May 24, 2011). “The Precariat – The new dangerous class”. Policy Network.
The introductory article on Bricks and Mortar.
House bricks part 1
House bricks part 2
House bricks part 3
House bricks part 4