Housing Policy 2

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke

Part 2

Bricks and mortar as the basis of housing

If you live in the United Kingdom, you are sure to have seen house bricks. You might live in a house that is made from 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 to ask – 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? The British have a characteristic love of brick-built houses, compared to say the wooden structures lived in by many Europeans and the residents of North America. It was not always true, however, in previous periods of history when in inhabitants of the British Isles lived in structures made of sticks and mud, blocks of stone or even holes in the ground in some cases.

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 215 × 102.5 × 65 mm (about 8  5/8 × 4 1/8 × 2 5/8 inches). Some bricks are solid, others 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. Although most bricks are coloured red (because they are made from clays that contain iron) many have other colours, having been made from clays to which additional materials have been added, such as chalk.

At the present time, the production of bricks in 2014 -15 is expected to reach a value of £889.2 million [Allen, 2014]. Standard clay bricks that is. It is said that the recession of 2008 resulted in a shortage of bricks [Szu Ping Chan, 2015]. 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.

How old is the brick? It’s an interesting question. 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 for example. The ancient Egyptians made bricks from dried mud, some of which have survived to the present day. In China, millions of workers had to make tens of millions of bricks for the construction of the Great Wall. In the British Isles, the Romans made bricks, firing them in kilns close to the buildings they were constructing. 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. Henry VIII took over Wolsey’s home at 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 emerged 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 be used for things like windows, where carved ornamentation was required, but walls and chimneys would be made from bricks, which could be woven into patterns and decorative designs.

The way that house building materials are manufactured is beginning to change. Bricks are being produced from new materials as clay is replaced by plastic alternatives. Interior walls are now constructed from breeze-blocks; ceilings and walls use plasterboards; wall cavities use boards made of wood aggregates and roofing materials have moved away from slate to cheaper and longer-lasting alternatives. The next big change is likely to be the replacement of naturally grown timber with plastic materials that have the same properties and which can be worked in much the same way but which are more resistant to decay, insects and deterioration over time.
Houses having two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and living rooms are a fairly new development in this country. In the middle ages, domestic dwellings for poor people usually had only one room and in this, the family cooked, ate and slept alongside their animals which were brought into the building for the night. In was not until later times, as the wealth of working people increased, that dwellings began to develop separate rooms for different functions, such as bedrooms and kitchens. It was not until the industrial revolution that houses began to feature separate rooms as standard for the majority of working people. The wealthy did, of course, have separate rooms and the very rich built large houses with a variety of rooms; often with a separation between those where the family lived and those where their servants lived and worked.

Today,  social status is indicated by the number of bedrooms a home has as well as by the number of cars that can be accommodated in the garage space. There was a trend, the 1980s, for the professional classes to move out of urban areas into rural villages as a way of increasing their quality of life. Estates of new build houses sprung up in villages and green fields all over England in response to this demand.

My brief canter through the history of building materials serves to underscore three things: that society’s notion of ‘the home’ has changed over time; that how houses were built was (and still is) a consequence of industrial and commercial change and development and that today’s world brings a range of new pressures to bear on choices about which materials to build with, that we never saw before. The future of building will also depend on the emergence of new concerns and industrial influences, such as climate change, energy efficiency, the speed and pace at which housing building needs to take place and the relative cost of traditional materials compared to those that are newly emerging. Today, people are changing, as our society ages and as new people come to live in this country, and these demographic trends will shape what people regard as being a home. Housing policy needs to take account of these trends, as we will see in the parts that follow. [For a complete list of contents of this book see link below]
Is the house brick here to stay? It’s a question that policymakers should be asking. In contemporary Britain, the house brick is still the icon of construction, where homes are concerned. Developers still tend to regard brick-built houses as the norm for new constructions. What we see in the current preoccupation with building new houses is a predilection for traditional designs but, within that, pressures to change the materials that are being used and to make houses that meet increasingly complex environmental requirements are increasingly coming into play. The houses being built today might look similar to those built after the second world war but they have many new features designed into them that our grandparents and parents never knew. Energy efficiency, for example, is now designed into the choice of materials for housing building in a way that was unknown to previous generations of builders. New concerns about carbon footprints and climate change are pushing builders to construct houses in a way never seen before. I look at how these new materials and new methods of construction are challenging the supremacy of the brick in the world of house building.

Here are a few examples of the house brick is changing. Wienerberger, a leading supplier of wall, roof and landscaping innovations, has launched its brand new e4 brick house™ concept. Using over 200 years of expertise and innovation, the company has analysed economic and social trends to unveil a unique archetype that directly addresses the UK market need. Wienerberger’s leading clay brick and wall technology provide, its claims, the blueprint for the house of tomorrow – ‘an aspirational living space that is practical, sustainable and innovative’ [Wienerberger, 2015]. What these claims indicate is that manufacturers have begun to think again about the brick and to update the idea of it for present-day concerns with environment and profit.

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 that made the EcoArk Pavilion in Taipei demonstrates the imaginative use of recycled materials. The walls of the building were made solely of plastic bottles that fitted together like Lego pieces. [Leggett, 2010] The polygonal bottles, called Polli-Bricks, were made of plastic, recycled from items such as water bottles and make the building structurally sound enough to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, are environmentally friendly, and are relatively cheap to make. 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.
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 [Byfusion, 2015] [Geiger, 2011]

The traditional clay house brick is relatively expensive to produce, is heavy to transport and can deteriorate over time. The new bricks that are being made from waste products have many of the properties of traditional bricks – they are robust enough for building – but weigh a lot less; their production is ecologically beneficial in a number of ways and they cost much less to manufacture.

Builders are increasingly willing to try new materials, especially if that gives them a cost advantage. Many of these new materials will be used in houses but will never be seen by most of their residents because they are hidden inside the walls and roofs. In Europe, builders appear to be far more willing to change over to these new materials, more willing than they are in this country. British builders have always been slow to change, compared with their European counterparts. Having said this, the present economics of housing building is pushing builders into adopting new methods of construction and new materials. There is a severe shortage of brick/block layers in the UK. ‘What’s more, housebuilders don’t just need bricks – they also need people to lay them. And here again, the laws of supply and demand are working against housebuilders. The price of bricks had reached an all-time high. What’s more, ‘according to one senior executive, the day rate demanded by brickies, at least in London, has almost doubled in the last three months from £140 to £240’ [Branson, 2013]. So what to do? asks Adam Branson. He argues: ‘The choice is clear cut. Housebuilders must either stop expanding, absorb the extra costs and take a hit on their profit margins, or they must seek alternative materials and construction techniques. And the evidence is emerging they are increasingly plumping for this last option.’

The traditional brick built house current suffers from two serious shortcomings: bricks are expensive and so too are the people required to lay them. Some builders are responding to this by looking for new designs and try to get around this problem. One alternative is to use more timber in house design and to cut down on the number of bricks used. Changing to newer methods of wall construction can save money and speed the time it takes to complete a building. Where bigger masonry blocks are used, the walls can be erected more quickly and with wage rates being so high, time means money. Arguments are seen about whether brick manufacturers can cope with rising levels of demand and whether the timber industry can supply sufficient volume of products.
There are, however, some residents who are willing to abandon traditional materials in favour of a range of new ones, where they can achieve ecological goals alongside aesthetic concerns. Whilst such approaches might be the preserve of the well-off middle classes, those who can afford to be individualistic about home building, there is evidence that avant-guard methods will become the leading edge of a broader change in the construction industry.

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. Several aspects of house construction are now subject to revision.

From pre-history to relatively recent times, wood was the standard building material. England was once covered in trees 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 so, that the government began to plant new forests on an industrial scale. In fact, wood had to be imported to make up for the shortages in British-sourced timber. As with the brick, new products are being invented that can do the same work as timber but which are constructed from materials that are cheaper and which confer environmental benefits.

If we go back to medieval times, we see walls being constructed of wattle and daub, mud mixed with manure being used to seal the gaps in the wooden lattices 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. Houses were originally single room structures and in them, animals spent the night with the human occupants. It was only later in history that residential houses were divided into separate rooms. As wealth grew, more storeys were added. The materials used for house building remained virtually unchanged for many centuries. There were some experiments, in the 20th century, 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. Some examples have been televised recently in which walls have been made from blocks of straw over which plaster was coated, giving an acceptable, if rustic, appearance and allowing for a high degree of heat insulation.

Medieval houses were roofed with thatch made from reeds, the most common form of material used to create a waterproof top 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. Roofs were angled to let the rain runoff.

In medieval stone-built castles, windows were small and often no more than holes in the wall. Only in the very wealthiest of buildings, would glass have been used to keep out the cold and wet. It would be a long time before glass would become a way of creating weatherproof windows in more modest buildings. In modern times, we saw the introduction of PVC 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. Glass consumption rose when windows were produced to provide double or secondary glazing. Windows in domestic houses, these days, are bigger than they have ever been. Window glazing now frequently includes some kind of coating to reduce glare. Today’s houses provide much more light than the rather gloomy, dark houses in which our ancestors lived. In modern houses, window frames are frequently made from plastic rather than wood although some builders prefer to use wood frames for their aesthetic appeal.

In the middle ages, houses were built largely without any plans; their construction was based on know-how handed down from one generation of builders 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 the requirements of commercial house-building and the kind of prosperity that led to 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. Apart from kitchens, these features rarely appeared in medieval domestic constructions. The increasing sophistication of buildings led to the establishment of the specialised professions of architecture and building design. Today’s commercially-built housing estates use variations in the design of houses, rather than the uniformity that characterised building designs from Victorian times onwards. But the styling of estate houses is based on the consistency of look, in this country. Some builders give prospective buyers a say in which materials can be used for finishings, in kitchens and bathrooms for example. The British are very old-fashioned and conservative in their approach to house design, compared to say, their counterparts in Germany. [Jenkins, 2015]

Future trends in house building

When we think of housing, we inevitably think of bricks and mortar. I will go on to argue that many other factors come into play when we begin to discuss modern housing practice – factors such as changing demography, patterns of employment, the need to integrate housing with community facilities 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 to the kind of building materials that we have been familiar with over many generations. There will also be changes in house design, moving away from the traditional concept that has dominated our idea of what a home should be like, towards the kind of modern approaches that attracted today’s younger generation of house-buyers. When older people sell their large family homes to downsize to smaller ones they can come into conflict with first-time buyers. One solution to this is to encourage the provision of retirement homes, reserved for people aged 50 and over. There are moves to provide housing that meets the needs of older people – retirement homes that allow the over 60s to free up their larger family homes for occupation by younger people who want to start families. Freeing up accommodation in houses that have an estimated 80 million spare bedrooms, in the private sector, would go a long way to solving the crisis in housing. Many older people, whose families have left home, have two or three empty rooms which could be let out – a point that has not been lost of those trying to deal with the contemporary migration problem. In the social sector, the Government made a big mistake, I would argue, by imposing a ‘bedroom tax’, a measure that has achieved nothing but a welter of unintended consequences. If there is a lot of unused capacity in social housing, it would have been better to find a way of bringing spare rooms into use rather than forcing occupants into smaller flats. As we will see, house building is being offered more alternatives, including the provision of pre-fabricated kits that can be assembled very quickly. ‘Vertical villages’ and ‘gardens in the sky’ could offer solutions to the problem of space shortages in urban areas, which now attract more and more residents. There are plenty of potential solutions to the housing problems faced in the UK and we will be looking at these later on.

In the next instalment, I will look at key policy considerations in the organisation and supply of housing and argue the need for better, more integrated policy solutions for dealing with the nation’s current housing crisis.

Part 1 – Policy, practice and history
Contents of the entire work