Brick and Block: The Basics

Emily Brooks explores the endless possibilities of this essential building material
Emily Brooks
by Emily Brooks
26th November 2012

Bricks and mortar are two simple ingredients that have stood the building industry in good stead for centuries as brick and block is a firm aspect of British architecture. It’s still the most popular way to construct a house (about 70 per cent of self-builds use it overall, although timber frame is more popular in Scotland) and with the decline of the construction industry over the past 18 months, it’s fair to say that traditional builders are keen for your business.

What is it?

‘Modern masonry construction’, as it is known, consists of a brick outer skin and a block (usually aircrete) inner skin, with the cavity between filled with insulation. The two walls are held together with ties, and everything sits on concrete foundations. Internal, load-bearing walls are also made of blocks; the build progresses up to first-floor level before timber floor joists or a pre-cast concrete floor are added and then work continues up to the roof.

There are variations to this system – cut stone instead of bricks for the external walls, for example, or aircrete blocks used in conjunction with some form of cladding. It’s not apparent when looking at a house which build method has been used, since timber frames can also have an outer skin of brick, stone or render: the difference lies in the building materials providing the structural support.

A quiet war rages between the timber frame and traditional masonry industries. If you believe one side, your timber frame home will be horribly noisy, before being eaten by sun-seeking termites marching up from France as the climate changes; if you believe the other, your brick and block home will take an age to build (interrupted every time a drop of rain falls), and will not be nearly as eco-friendly as all-natural, zero-carbon timber.

The simple fact is that both systems have to meet the same incredibly stringent Building Regulations and, used in conjunction with other materials, both are more than able to meet requirements for fire safety, acoustics and thermal performance.

Why brick?

Choosing brick and block over other build methods has more to do with factors such as the availability of local trades – you may not find someone with timber frame experience in your area, but you’ll certainly find a brickie – and the level of flexibility for layout changes you might require, both during and after the build (a last-minute move of a doorway or window is far easier if your home is being built from bricks).

Work may progress slower on site than with prefabricated build methods (timber frames can be up in days), but factor in the lead-time for ordering and making frames or panels in a factory, and you’re almost level-pegging. Other advantages include:

Excellent thermal mass: bricks slowly absorb and release heat, helping to regulate the temperature in your home. Fewer fluctuations in temperature mean you’re less likely to put the heating on

A feeling of solidity – aircrete walls and concrete floors don’t creak! They also have excellent sound and thermal insulation (and concrete floors aren’t compatible with timber frame)

The opportunity to get properly hands-on with your build. Doing your own bricklaying (or assisting your builder) is possible, as long as you get properly trained up first and have an aptitude for it.

Build times are getting ever-quicker thanks to innovations such as thin-joint systems.There is flexibility in the route you choose too, as several package companies offer the complete design and build turnkey option – usually associated with timber frame – for brick and block builds. But many people go down the route of commissioning an architect and lead contractor separately.

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