Brick by Brick: Why bricks use fired clay now and will continue into the future

Burton Borough School, using Mechslip

Ibstock explores the ‘quiet revolution’ of brick manufacturing in the UK

A millennium in the making

It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that the UK as we know it today was built on brick; the literal foundation of our contemporary built environment, and the material which overwhelmingly comprises not just our homes and places of work, but also some of our most iconic landmarks.

Without wanting to state the obvious – The Oxford Dictionary Definition of a brick – “a rectangular block of clay mixed with sand and fired in a kiln or baked in the sun used in building construction”.

As the UK’s leading manufacturer of clay bricks and concrete products, we are in a privileged position to represent the noble brick and bricks use fired clay!

Alexis Harrison from Arup who made a speech at the opening our new i-Studio design centre captured something that resonated with us. He said that there is something powerful about a product made from “earth, fire and water.” I love that simplicity from a product so natural and beautiful that has kept us safe for thousands of years.

The history of brick in this country is long and begins almost a millennium ago when the Romans first settled what would become England, Scotland and Wales. Although brickmaking was still in its infancy, examples of brick-led Roman architecture can still be found across the UK, from Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish borders, to Chichester’s fantastically well-preserved Fishbourne Roman Palace.

We are sure those early pioneers of brick-based architecture in the UK would be astounded to know that the structures they built 2,000 years ago were still standing; a testament to the sheer endurance of brick. Indeed, it is that durability that has seen brick become the building material of choice for British architects, and why the UK manufactured upwards of two billion bricks in 2019 alone.

Ibstock’s own chapter in this country’s ‘brick history’ starts more than a thousand years after the Romans left in 1825 and in the Leicestershire village after which the company takes its name. The business which would one day become Britain’s largest brick maker started its life in coal mining, with the quarrying of clay for the making of bricks almost a by-product of Ibstock’s initial impetus. Over the next 30 years, Ibstock transitioned solely to brick production, and so was born a tradition – and passion for innovation – which persists to this day.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Ibstock now manufactures more than 600 bricks at a network of 30 facilities nationwide; supplying our products to some of the UK’s foremost housing, infrastructure and commercial developments.

Local versatility

Brick choice is hugely influenced by the geographical location of the project as well as the style of house being designed, so product requirements vary significantly. Traditional stock bricks have more of a creased texture to create typically a more “olde worlde” look however more contemporary bricks achieve a more modern appearance. These tend to be more precise bricks with crisp arrises rather than softer more textured products. There are also different sizes to the traditional UK format of 215 x 65mm with longer, thinner formats like the Ibstock Linear range very popular. Naturally as a raw material, the attributes of the raw clay vary from region to region. These geological differences came to the fore in the firing process, creating distinctive blends of colours and textures that in turn are very unique to each region. The material richness of colours offered by clay bricks improve with age. Ibstock has the largest product range of any manufacturer and local products service local markets with over 95% of our raw materials being sourced in the UK from quarries on our sites.

The more things change…

As mentioned earlier, the durability of brick is obvious. In the UK, we are lucky enough to see daily structures that were built – from brick – hundreds of years ago. Architectural fashions may come and go, but the prevalence of centuries old buildings nationwide tells us one thing very clearly – brick is built to last.

But there is more to it than that. For architects, brick represents a material of seemingly limitless possibility; a highly versatile product which can be applied any number of ways to lend new character and feeling to a development. Clay bricks do not require any treatments to ensure long term durability of fire resistance and they do not emit any volatile organic compounds to air during their life.

From a design perspective, brick is in vogue like never before. A walk through London, or Edinburgh, or Manchester, or any number of urban centres in the UK and abroad, will quickly illustrate the innovative and creative ways architects are utilising bricks in their work. From striking use of colour to clever blends of texture and brick type, it’s safe to say we are currently in a golden age of brick-led design.

And that’s something that’s been recognised at the very highest level. In October 2019, the RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture was awarded to Norwich’s Goldsmith Street estate, a series of more than 100 ultra-low energy brick built homes. The win was remarkable on a number of counts, as not only is Goldsmith Street the first council-funded project to win the prestigious accolade; it is also the first predominantly brick-based development to earn the prize. For although brick is far and away the most commonly used building material in the UK, it has sometimes struggled to gain the same level of critical acclaim as its showier counterparts.

Building tomorrow sustainably

One of the most pressing concerns for manufacturers is, of course, sustainability. With humanity facing up to a possible climate crisis, the onus is on businesses worldwide to reinforce their commitment to sustainability; a pledge Ibstock takes incredibly seriously. We are the only UK manufacturer to have a sustainability roadmap.

Sustainable brick manufacturing is at the core of our business strategy, and we recognise that with our unique position at the heart of the construction industry supply chain, we have an important role to play in helping shape the industry’s response to the climate crisis. That is why we strive to work closely alongside local communities to increase the amount of recovered water we use across our processes, and to actively ensure we use our resources in the most efficient manner possible to reduce waste.

We are pleased to say that we now use 65% less energy compared to the 1970s, a remarkable achievement we are hoping to take even further across the next decade. As the leader and most sustainable manufacturer, it is up to us to drive this agenda forward and we will do that by investing in renewable sources of energy like our new solar farm in Leicester which provides 30% of power to the whole site, or investing in new more sustainable factories like the announcement we just made about Atlas. But… what about this little fact. A typical smartphone has a carbon footprint of greater than 70kgs over its life which is about four years, while the average brick is only 0.6kgs and lasts 150 years!

Concrete vs clay

As a manufacturer of both we have done a lot of work to understand the differences between clay and concrete bricks and the benefits of the right product for the right application. Concrete bricks compete on price and have been around for decades as the inner block in a cavity wall with clay bricks the façade material of choice. Some concrete brick manufacturers make the argument that concrete is cured and not fired thus have lower carbon emissions. This will be true in some “cradle to gate” arguments however numbers vary widely dependent on the type of cement or manufacturing process used. Also we need to look at the complete “cradle to grave” argument and consider the lifespan and product application. For us as manufacturers of both clay and concrete, there are reasons why we do not have concrete bricks in our product development process. As a raw material, brick material extraction is less impactful than concrete bricks. There are more variety in colour and texture plus clay brick is cheaper when you include installation costs. Clay bricks are quicker and easier to build with. Movement joint spacing is twice as long for clay brick compared to concrete brick. Clay bricks lasts longer, weathers better, does not lose its colour, is fire resistant and robust against extreme weather and stable and durable in flood conditions. The relative density of concrete vs clay impact on transportation, manual handling, weight loading and cost of foundations. Fully appreciative that there will be varied opinions but this is the conclusion that we came to.

Innovation

We are also bolstering our commitment to innovation and product development, recognising that as the needs of architects evolve, so too must our product offering. We recently launched MechSlip, a brick slip cladding system which has been stringently tested to meet recent changes in UK safety legislation, introduced after the Grenfell Tower tragedy. We are regularly adding to our range, just launched a new range called the i-Range and with an eye on trends are launching a new selection of grey bricks…watch this space….

As we look back over 2,000 years of brick building in the UK, perhaps there is something to be said about the stability and versatility of the humble brick as we look into the future….

For any further information, please contact us on marketing@ibstock.co.uk.