Inside out gets a different twist with reverse brick veneer (RVB) construction, where the inside wall is made of brick and the exterior wall of other materials - the fibre cements, timbers, renders - thus turning convention around. 

According to the well-respected technical manual, Your Home, brickwork is defined as "the inside skin of an otherwise conventional stud framed construction…[and] takes advantage of the thermal mass properties of clay brickwork and can result in high performing buildings with lower than average energy demands for both heating and cooling”.

The advantages of RVBs are featured on various home improvement and energy-related websites and forums. Suppliers too join in the chorus of praise, with James Hardie describing the use of “reverse mass construction and passive solar principles” in cool temperate climates as a “best practice design option”.

Distinguished architect Glenn Murcutt notes that RVB construction is especially important when it comes to architecture and the environment. Having used reverse brick veneer since the 1980s, mostly but not exclusively in NSW, he says this method works well with cold night temperatures and warm days. It capitalises on the sun during daytime, heating the brick and thermal mass insulating, as long as the house is well insulated to the outside.

“If there are cold conditions in winter and the building is facing north, then you get the warmth coming in, and it is trapped inside and heating costs are reduced enormously," says Murcutt.

“It’s all relative to the differences in climate conditions. If it was hot all the time or cold all the time, all the thermal does is transfer the heat or the cold.”

Think Brick Australia’s eight-year thermal research program, published in collaboration with the University of Newcastle’s Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment in 2011, fitted four full-scale buildings – cavity brick, brick veneer, reverse brick veneer and lightweight brick  – with 105 sensors that monitored internal and external conditions and temperature flux gradients. These sensors recorded data every 5 minutes over 24 hours for a year-round thermal response.

The results, published in the paper 'Energy efficiency and the Environment: The Case for Clay Brick', revealed that RBV, providing the thermal mass, had a stable and comfortable temperature range. However, insulated brick cavity required less energy than reverse brick veneer to maintain internal temperatures in the comfort zone. It also performed much better than an insulated lightweight building, even where the latter’s R-value was higher, with research showing that there is no correlation between the R-value of a wall and energy usage.

Ask Murcutt why RVB is not used more often and he does not hesitate, “Status. If you put timber or steel or cladding (on the outside), it has less status (than brick).”

However, there are signs of increasing recognition of under-the-surface. For instance, Mirvac’s 9.2 Star sustainable prototype home Harmony 9, which is on show at Waverley Park Victoria and promoted as “the first zero carbon house of its kind built by a commercial developer”, includes reverse brick veneer construction.

Three years ago George Dragovic, head teacher of Building & Construction at TAFE NSW – Illawarra Institute, admitted that RVB was a new method of brick construction to him. He has since realised that he was far from being alone.

“It is not widely adopted within the local building industry. The general public is reluctant to step outside the norm when it comes to home purchase, and builders build what they think they can sell. Given that this is a fairly conservative industry, the cost usually wins over innovation,” says Dragovic.

Nevertheless, he believes that "educational institutions should provide direction and act as an agent of change for a sustainable future. We intend to build a couple of RBV cottages in 2014 and discuss its benefits with our students and the local building industry”.

Kolumba Museum.

Appearance, the aesthetic qualities of brick, is still important. Some can tell if a brick’s colour is not fully integrated, although BPN has heard about processes for creating different finishes for bricks before they are baked or fired in a kiln, which may only treat the surface of the brick with a glaze or chemical to create the desired colour on one face, rather than through the entire brick.

Think Brick CEO Elizabeth McIntyre said of 2012’s Think Brick Awards that “face brick is back, it is used beautifully in design”. Add to this, new shapes, sizes and colours.

Austral Bricks, for instance, has new glazes, metallics, a longer, dry-pressed brick, 300 mm by 50 mm  (as opposed to the more usual 276 mm by 76 mm), with polished bricks in the pipeline. Bowral Blue brick, with its high shale content and baking on the Bowral home turf, remains popular.

PGH Bricks used as a kitchen splash-back.

Additionally, PGH Bricks and Pavers has released two new collections - the Seascape range, featuring bricks glazed in “calming”, colour-washed pastels of grey, turquoise, taupe and white; and Urban Metal, which consists of glazed bronze, copper, silver and zinc metallic bricks.

Patterns and textures are also important elements contributing to the appeal of bricks. Boral says its new Opaline range has a “weathered style highlighting the beauty and variation of clay”. Manufacturing with less exposure to oxygen gives them a mottled colourisation, with no two bricks the same.

Some examples include the "special brick appearing like a woven basket” for a recent exterior in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, developed by Durbach Block, and featured in The Sydney Morning Herald (Neil Durbach was a 2013 Think Brick judge). The Horbury Hunt Commercial Award winner, the Bellbowrie Swimming Pool by Bureau Proberts, designed as a flood-resistant community swimming pool, has a flower motif in brick (PGH Nutmeg) as the background to a flowering eucalyptus (PGH Crevole) which animates the brick wall.

Petersen bricks, which are already exported to over 30 countries, are now available in Australia via Robertson’s Building Products. Managing director Peter Robertson praises its broad colour range of water-struck (moulded) coal-fired bricks, saying that they emulate the methods of hand-made bricks. This has resulted in non-uniform bricks “producing a superb colour play between light and dark shades following centuries-old craft traditions”.

The company’s collaboration with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor for the Kolumba Museum in Cologne in 2000 resulted in the Kolumba brick range, which at 4 cm high and 53 cm long is over twice the length of the standard Australian brick.

Kolumba Museum in Cologne.

Brisbane-based designer Phillip Nielsen, a 2012 Boral design award winner, has noticed that more and more bricks are being used in new, exciting and experimental ways. But, there are certain immutable attractions.

Amelia Chandler, urban designer at the landscape-led Clouston Associates, named “the humble brick” as her favourite material in an interview with Indesign magazine.

“There’s a bit of nostalgia as to why I like bricks ­- their relationship to the human scale and the built environment. Although they are a bit out of fashion (for paving) with people preferring stone these days, (there’s a sense) of a return to a hand-made and craft aesthetic. I look for things that relate to the human scale and tell about proportion.”

Ideas of Common Ground.

One use of brick that has particularly captured the imagination is Dr Anupama Kundoo’s Wall House, designed and built in Auroville, South India. Kundoo is at the University of Queensland's School of Architecture, and was commissioned by the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale Director David Chipperfield to install a 1:1 model of Ideas of Common Ground, including the use of hand-made brick, which was described as a “simple material that crosses culture and time, in the inventive use of traditional crafts and technologies in a contemporary architectural context”.

Kundoo, acknowledging the Biennale’s location, sums up why bricks remain a highly sought after material. As she said in an interview once, “Venice is a brick city and everybody takes brick for granted; they think a brick is a brick and it’s not. They feel that there are all of these new materials to be invented but brick is the first manufactured material; it has never been thrown out of use, it has survived every societal changing scenario and it has continued to evolve. In the developing countries, old ancient methods of brick-making go on being used as they were for like the very first brick that was ever made and yet, in other areas, they are so sophisticated, the robots are doing the brick work.”

“So I thought that brick is a very good unit of common ground to analyse how people build and how they design because I wanted to stress that we don’t exist in isolation; we don’t have to feel that we have to be so unique as designers, as if we are the main creator of something. We are always building upon things that other societies have developed.”