The handmade tale

Jason Hughes of Imperial Bricks looks at how architects are embracing the opportunities offered by the latest ranges in brick products, blends and finishes

Bricks have long been used by architects to add interest to ‘basic construction.’ Durable and practical, bricks are also remarkably versatile. They can be specified for period renovations and conversions, to ensure a building blends in with surrounding architecture, or to create a cutting-edge contemporary building that’ll turn heads. Recently, we’ve seen even more demand for versatility from bricks, particularly handmade and pressed bricks, with custom blends or even tints or washes to give a more unique character.

Architects are experimenting with different sizes – extra-long linear bricks, for example – finishes (aged, tumbled), and mortar colours, and using brick bonds for visual interest or brick banding to create a focal point.

The range of handmade bricks has grown enormously in the last few years. Traditionally, the variations in colour, size and shape across the UK were considerable – thanks to the local clay. When mass-produced, machine-made bricks took over, the options shrank, and for many years you’d be hard-pressed to find many handmade bricks in the quantities required for major developments. But in the last decade or so the market has changed significantly. Now you can find a traditional brick to match each region of the UK, from London Yellow and Cambridge Buff, to northern reds and blues. And in the appropriate sizes too, in the north should be 3 inches high, slightly larger than handmade bricks typically found in the south at 25/8 inches high.

Tumbling and tinting techniques can replicate years of weathering and pollution (especially for London bricks) and create an authentic ‘reclaimed’ look. While different firing techniques can be used to replicate time-honoured regional methods eg York ‘clamp’ bricks have a wild mix of brown, purple and yellow shades due to how they’re stacked on top of each other in
the kiln.

Two contrasting conservation case studies

Using traditional bricks to match or complement existing buildings is particularly important for architects working in conservation areas or working on listed projects.

For example, in the RIBA award-winning restoration of the Grade II listed Royal Academy of Arts in London, which was designed by David Chipperfield Architects, a bespoke blend of handmade Yellow Stock and Reclamation Yellow Stock bricks were specified. The bricks were limewashed on site to match the existing brickwork and achieve an historically-appropriate finish.

Meanwhile, for One Silk Street, a modern mixed-use development in the Ancoats conservation area, lead architects Falconer Chester Hall married Manchester’s industrial past with a contemporary edge.

A mix of two handmade, kiln-fired bricks in the area’s characteristic red/orange shades were chosen over a machine-made, simulated alternative. ‘Weathered Red Linear’ (supplied for the nearby, RIBA-award-winning Hallé St Peter’s extension) and ‘Red Multi Linear’ were used to create a new blend for a wider tonal range. These bricks were supplied in a custom size and laid in a stretcher bond with dark grey mortar, which was recessed at the horizontal joints and flush perpends to accentuate the lines of the building.

Many brick suppliers will offer advice on brick matching over the phone or email (some also have smartphone apps), but for this kind of job, sample boards, brick panels and onsite visits are essential.

Slip into style

We’re also seeing increasing demand for brick slips, which are cut from full size bricks. These can be used internally on feature walls, for an industrial ‘penthouse’ look, or externally. Slip and facade systems can be used with blocks or timber framing for fast-track construction, or to ‘re-skin’ an existing property, to match the brickwork on neighbouring buildings or to cover up unsightly rendering. In urban developments, where space is at a premium, brick slips are easier to use in tighter spaces, when working up to neighbouring walls in infill projects (i.e. between two buildings).

A recent project in Brixton, London, saw a block of eight apartments were built on the site of a dilapidated 1960s building. Once permission was granted, the building was demolished and replaced with a new four-storey property. The top three stories were clad with an orange wirecut brick slip, above a glass-fronted ground floor, used as a gym. The aged finish on the 73 mm brick ensures the building blends in with the neighbouring architecture. The same slips were used inside the apartments to create ‘exposed brickwork’ walls, for a premium penthouse look, complete with high ceilings and industrial fittings.

Accreditations to look for

Whatever bricks you specify, it’s important to check the ethical trading policies, and quality certifications. And, ensure that the bricks you specify are the ones you get!

All new bricks used in the UK should be UKCA/CE marked, and tested to meet EU and UK standards for freeze-thaw, water absorption, compressive strength, soluble salt content and tolerance. Ideally manufacturers and/or suppliers should be Sedex-audited – the benchmark for ethical trading used by Dyson and M&S – and bricks made in factories accredited to ISO 14001 (for Environmental Management) and IS0 9001 (for Quality Management).

Jason Hughes is managing director of Imperial Bricks