If there ever was a misunderstood building material, it would probably be the brick. An age old method of construction, it is often labelled as having an ‘unsustainable’ method of production as the firing process is seen to be energy-intensive, leaving behind a high carbon footprint.

However, sustainability encompasses many elements and cannot be compressed into one definition, such as the emission of CO2. It also extends to the life cycle, maintenance, durability and recyclability of buildings.

The UK Brick Development Association notes: “If the CO2 emissions from the brick in a square metre of brickwork are spread over a life of 150 years it equates to 0.000186 tonnes of CO2 /sq metre/per annum. This carbon isn’t “locked up” to be released at the end of life, it has already been expended and the longer the building exists, the better the value.”

With an exceptionally long life cycle, brick buildings are strong, durable and can resist extreme weather events. Moreover, they require low maintenance – once they are put into a wall, for instance, very little else needs to be done to upkeep the bricks.

Bricks also have a good cradle to grave story, and can be reused or recycled. Buildings can be renovated for different purposes, doing away with the need to construct a new building, while the bricks themselves can be salvaged and reused in new projects.

Old bricks can also be recycled into new bricks or into other building materials, including the aggregate used in concrete, or for landscaping or sub-base for pavements and roads.

Horizon Classics Blackheath Bricks from Boral

The thermal value of bricks is another plus point, with Boral’s bricks and stone product manager William Caswell pointing out that brick construction truly allows buildings to be “warmer in winter and cooler in summer”.

“[Bricks] help with heat transfer by slowly releasing heat at night when it is cooler, and gradually absorbing heat during the day when it is hotter," says Caswell.

"According to the University of Newcastle and Think Brick Australia, you’ve got the ability to save up to 25 per cent of your electricity bill because 40 per cent of electricity usage is for heating and cooling.

“If you build with brick, you can make quite a large saving on running costs.”

Improving efficiencies

Notwithstanding these benefits, the manufacturing process of bricks has dramatically improved in the last 30 years, with many companies doubling up their efforts to make production more efficient.

Brickworks Building Products is one company that has made advances in this area. Earlier this year, they launched Australia’s first certified carbon neutral bricks, which are fired using sawdust, a biomass material as well as a waste product of the forestry industry in Tasmania.

Bricks fired from sawdust

Boral, too, are focusing on minimising waste and improving efficiencies in their factories.

“After recent investments in production processes, Boral has improved the energy efficiency of its brick making processes,” commented David Bird, Boral Bricks’ general manager. “As a result, the production of bricks is now a more efficient and sustainable manufacturing process.”

Caswell adds that market research on ways to use less raw materials and gas for brick production is always ongoing.

Benefits for architects and designers

Apart from environmental and consumer benefits, bricks also offer various opportunities for design and aesthetic excellence, as more and more architects specify the product outside of residential applications.

The recent 2014 Think Brick Awards is a great example of this increasing diversity, with the Grand Prix going to Bates Smart’s UNSW Kensington College, where the rectilinear external facades use a blend of three shades of face brick as a contemporary interpretation of the original clinker brick.

UNSW Kensington Colleges (NSW) by Bates Smart. Images: Peter Bennetts

“We’re seeing a growth in the diverse use of bricks in buildings. Where brick has historically been used for walls, it’s now become a material architects can use to create design features that draw the eye to certain parts of the building,” says Caswell.

"Bricks are also commonly used as an aesthetic cladding product for  residential projects.”

Featuring bricks on floors are no longer a surprise move too, with Wolveridge Architects creating a brick pathway that meanders through the Northcote Residence, finally morphing into a free standing, double-sided fireplace structure that creates a junction between the old and new space.

Northcote Residence by Wolveridge Architects. Images: Wolveridge Architects

Of course, one cannot talk about innovative uses of brick in design without looking at Frank Gehry’s UTS tree house in Sydney – the building’s east façade consists of 320,000 buff-coloured bricks that undulate like fabric, chosen to reference Sydney’s sandstone heritage.

In our next bricks story, we will look at how bricks have been used in the Frank Gehry designed UTS Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School, how they were developed, as well as the key challenges the design and construction team faced. 

Some of the building’s brickwork has already been unwrapped (Image: Property Observer)