Bricks used in the UK for house-building have traditionally been manufactured from clay and fired in kilns. Clay bricks are still common, but concrete and other materials are also now used.

Usage in house construction

Although the Romans used bricks in England, their manufacture died out after the Romans left and they were not re-introduced until the Tudor period. Initially bricks were only used in areas where suitable clay was found locally, and the colour of bricks varied depending on the colour of the local clay. As railways grew during the nineteenth century transport became cheaper and the use of bricks became widespread across the country, with red-brick becoming almost universal.

Bricks are now widely used for the construction of residential property, although often only the exterior leaf of a cavity wall is made of brickwork, with lightweight concrete blocks being used for the internal leaf. Brickwork is also often used for non-structural exterior walls of steel-framed buildings, such as blocks of flats, where it provides a more aesthetically-pleasing finish.

The advantage of bricks for building construction is that they are easy to handle and comparatively lightweight, but can be used to construct strong load-bearing walls to a considerable height. It is also fairly simple to construct openings for doors and windows. 

In the past bricks were laid on a bed of lime mortar, but cement mortar is now used which provides a better bond to hold brickwork together.

Bricks are porous, and damp can penetrate solid brick walls. Various surface finishes were often applied to prevent this. At one time it was common with more expensive homes for a thin layer of plaster or cement to be applied to external walls, which was then scored with thin lines to mimic stonework. Pebble-dashing was also popular at one time, as were weather-boarding and tile-hanging, which could be applied over cheap bricks to provide a water-resistant finish. However as cavity walls have become universal it has become usual for exterior brickwork to be left without any additional finish.

Bricks are now available in a very wide variety of colours and surface finishes. In addition to the standard size rectangular brick many special sizes, shapes and types are also available from manufacturers. The majority of house bricks are now made industrially, but a few works still produce handmade bricks and can produce non-standard sizes or shapes to order. 

Reclaimed bricks can be obtained; when old brick buildings are demolished suitable bricks can be salvaged and may be used to repair or extend period properties, or to construct a new property to blend in with existing homes. 

Brick Maintenance

Brickwork rarely requires any attention. Sometimes damage is caused by spalling which occurs when water penetrates bricks and then freezes, causing flakes to break off. A survey will report if there is any evidence of this, and whether remedial work is required. Replacing individual bricks is not a major problem, but if many require replacing an estimate of the cost should be obtained before continuing with a purchase.

Re-pointing of the mortar may also be recommended if the existing mortar has become worn or decayed. If the surface finish of a brick wall has been damaged or become detached from the wall, water can penetrate and cause damage – a survey report will mention any visible signs of this, and further investigation may then be needed.

Occasionally bricks can decay – this is most likely to occur with old bricks which were not adequately fired during manufacture, especially if they have been allowed to become permanently damp. Repair can be expensive, but this problem should be picked up in a survey.

Post Author: Frances Traynor