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Why change…we’ve always done it this way?’

22 June 2018
Reading Time: 2 mins

Chris Carr, director of the UK Council for Sustainable Development and Chairman of the Federation of Master Builders Home Builders Group, challenges the industry to make a small change.

The humble brick has become the unwitting focus of much controversy in recent months.  With huge national housebuilding targets, which the industry is struggling to meet, it now has a double whammy because of a shortage of bricks that is certainly a problem for the smaller house builders and is cited as an operational health risk by larger operators.

So, what’s to be done?  Alongside two other commentators, I was recently asked this question by BBC Breakfast, during an interview at a brick factory.  The answer I gave wasn’t broadcast, most probably because it might have come across as a little too ‘radical’ for the industry.  My answer? Use smaller bricks.  Why does the industry use 4” bricks when a 3” version will do the job just as well? Anyone in the industry will know that, where facades are concerned, the bricks are purely aesthetic.  The integrity of the building is reliant on the strength of the inner structure - concrete block or timber frame. It's is the inner walls that support the 1st floor joists and roof. Yet, when I’ve asked house builders the 3” brick question, the response has usually been along the lines of ‘Why change - we’ve always done it this way?".

Reduce the size of the brick and you immediately increase volume, you can fit more bricks on your pallet, getting more bricks to site on one lorry load.  The other benefit is that we could increase the size of cavity insulation. Changing the size of a brick is nothing new. We already have longer and thinner bricks been manufactured as they are sometimes specified by architects and designers to create some very impressive modern building designs. If we can reduce depths and increase length why can't we make the common facing brick narrower? And because you are reducing your energy use in doing this, you are reducing your carbon footprint.  This is about simple economics; reduce the product size, increase productivity and, ultimately, complete more houses.

I accept there would be initial start-up costs to automate the change-over in existing brick factories but I can’t imagine these would be prohibitive.  Ibstock and Forterra have opened or are opening new brick factories. Here is a great opportunity for them to build-in a really simple solution that might just ease the supply and demand issue.

There is also a mild threat behind all this; smaller builders don’t have the benefit of volume procurement like the major housebuilders and they are struggling.  Yet they have also been noted by Government as being a fundamental part of the answer to meeting the UK’s housing targets.  If they are unable to see a way through the brick-supply problem, they will start to look at different construction methods.  While the industry must explore all available options to build and build fast, addressing the brick size option is one way in which traditional construction can help itself, to help others.  So, I would challenge the manufacturers to throw us a reason why they can’t make the change and, if they can, let’s get on with it.