Earlier this week, we examined the brick innovations that were crucial for the realisation of architect Frank Gehry’s first Australian project, the University of Technology, Sydney’s (UTS) Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School.

Almost complete, the building is made of 320,000 custom designed bricks laid by hand, each serving a specific function and able to stand strong because of a unique invention that was first conceived in a garage.

UTS had sought out Gehry because they believed his experience in the development of creative spaces could be translated into a building that embodies the “innovative thinking that underpins the teaching and research undertaken by the Business School and by UTS as a whole”.

According to UTS, Gehry’s reaction to what he had learned about the university’s approach to education was to sketch a ‘treehouse’ on a café napkin. In this design, he imagined a building with ‘branches’, where people can undertake quiet, focused work in offices and other rooms, and a ‘trunk’ consisting of formal and informal social spaces.

Located on a tight, urban site, the ‘treehouse’ was designed as a sculptural shape revealed in pieces framed by other buildings. Bricks were chosen for the east-facing exterior because they provide a cultural reference to the existing brick buildings in the local precinct.

However, our article comparing the life cycle benefits of bricks against its CO2 footprint, prompted questions about whether brick is a truly sustainable material, with some of our readers noting that brick buildings rarely live out the extent of the material’s lifespan.

We turn these questions on to Jason Veale, AECOM’s project manager who is leading the Ecologically Sustainable Design / Green Star consulting process for the Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School. He explains how the team reconciled the underlying dilemmas associated with the bricks for the project:

“Bricks do have a higher embodied energy than some lightweight materials,” concedes Veale. “However, they are very durable and they are roughly equivalent to other durable external materials such as concrete panels or blocks.”

“They don’t require painting or excessive maintenance energy. Over the lifespan of a normal building they are a good choice from a sustainability perspective.”

Veale adds that bricks are completely recyclable, either whole for re-use in new projects or crushed for aggregates, roadway sub-base or permanent mulch in landscaping. It can also be ground to manufacture new bricks, and very little waste is produced during their manufacturing and recycling process.

On whether the Gehry-designed UTS building will last long enough for the material’s durability to outweigh its high embodied energy, he says the building will be prized by UTS for much longer than the average building, which is likely to reduce the future need for new materials.

“The brick engineering on this project has been focused on ensuring the façade is strong while maintaining the curvature of the building. The mortar and the brick tie system is designed to create a strong and durable façade. This desire for strength has impressed the durability of the brick façade. The bricks are not sealed so they can breathe and expel moisture - which might create decay if trapped within a brick.”