Building with Brick and Block

Masonry is still the most popular method of building a house. Emily Brooks finds out why
Emily Brooks
by Emily Brooks
26th November 2012

Anyone who’s ever built a wall with their own hands (or for that matter, mucked around with their kids’ Lego) knows the inherent job satisfaction in laying a brick.

In the housebuilding industry, traditional brick and block – or, to give it its proper name, modern masonry construction – remains the standard way to build in England and Wales. And, while timber-frame homes are a growth market across the UK (especially for self-builders), the timeless, humble brick is not going anywhere.

Brick-and-block houses use a cavity wall construction with an internal and external skin of brickwork, with a gap between them (more often than not filled with insulation), held together with wall ties, all laid on to concrete foundations.

A brick-and-block house will be built up to first-floor level; the internal, load-bearing walls will then be constructed, after which timber joists or a concrete floor are added and the build continues up to roof level.

In contrast, timber-frame construction replaces the internal skin of brickwork with a load-bearing timber frame, doing away with the need for internal load-bearing walls. The outer skin can still be brickwork (or stonework, render, wooden cladding, etc.) but the building material providing the structural support marks the difference between the two methods.

Which is best?

There is plenty of heated debate about the relative advantages of these two build systems – which is the more fire- or rot-resistant, which offers better soundproofing or insulation – but the fact is, Building Regulations are so stringent that both systems will more than adequately meet requirements.

The choice for brick and block comes down more to the way you want your actual build to progress and how flexible you want your space to be in the future. It even comes down to the makeup of your local labour market, according to Mark Windsor at brick-and-block package specialists Design & Materials, as he says: “All the trades are known, so you don’t have to find people with specialist techniques.”

In other words, brickies could be easy to come by, but you may find it harder to find someone with timber-frame experience. People also talk about the perceptible feeling of solidity of a masonry house – something about the way it absorbs sound, and the lack of creaks in a concrete floor.

A three-bed, two-storey brick-and-block home will cost around £1,000/m2 if all the work is carried out by a main contractor, and there is little price difference per square metre between this method of building and timber frame. There are huge savings to be made in doing the work yourself, however, but bricklaying is a highly specialist skill (some would even call it an artform) that shouldn’t be attempted by the untrained.

If you don’t fancy getting quite so involved with your build, companies such as Design & Materials offer a bespoke design-and-build package and can project-manage the whole thing; other firms include CB Homes, Falshaw Homes and Masonry Homes.

The benefits

The main advantage of brick and block construction is its flexibility. Timber frames are precision-engineered off-site and they require the same degree of precision to be present in the foundations and footings on site; with bricks, any minor discrepancies can be easily rectified then and there. And if you change your mind halfway through, and want more or fewer walls, it’s a straightforward process to change things (you probably won’t make a friend of your builder, however).

Brick homes are also easier to extend, and the internal layout can be more painlessly altered later: “Masonry constructions are extremely accommodating when it comes to internal layout changes, and even more so when the alteration has structural implications,” says Claudia Wild from CB Homes. “This is because a masonry construction gains its structural strength from different, independent units and not, as is the case in timber-frame buildings, from the sum of its modules. Structurally, it is not actually very difficult to reconstruct even a load-bearing wall – all that is needed is a load-bearing steel beam.”

The need for internal supporting walls used to be an issue for self-builders who wanted an open-plan ground floor. Concrete upper floors – either poured on site or pre-cast – have solved the issue, however, by spreading the load to the external walls, so allowing for differing layouts between floors. Concrete upper floors, which cannot be used with timber-frame systems, also give excellent thermal and sound insulation.

“With a beam-and-block concrete floor, there are no timber joists, so you can have solid walls in every room upstairs,” says Mark Windsor. “Block walls have solid acoustic properties, so you don’t have to buy separate acoustic membranes, which you would with timber frame. This tends to be the deciding factor in people’s choice.”

Build speed

Brick and block is a slower building method than timber-frame; it can take 20-plus weeks to build in masonry, versus 12 to 14 weeks for timber frame. But considering the lead time for timber frame, the timings more or less even out. “It’s a misunderstanding that timber-frame is quicker,” says Claudia Wild. “People don’t see the preparatory work, because it happens in a factory.”

So, while the first brick can be laid on the foundations the moment you get planning permission, you could be waiting 12 to 16 weeks for your frame to be made and delivered. The slow pace of brick construction can be an appealing factor in itself: the simple geometry involved makes it easy to understand what’s going on, and it gives the self-builder a definite idea of progress and a sense of control (however illusory!).

That said, masonry builds are quicker than they used to be, thanks to lightweight thermal blocks such as Aircrete that make handling easier and come in ‘jumbo’ sizes to quicken the pace. The use of thin joint glue mortars (rather than traditional cement) speeds things up further.

Money matters

When it comes to finances, self-build mortgage providers tend to favour the way in which masonry home are built. They release funds in pre-agreed stages, for example foundations complete, wall plate level, roof on, and practical completion. This ‘drip feed’ of money is less convenient for a timber-frame build, which requires a large payout up-front for the frame itself. An advanced-fund mortgage (where the payments are made before each stage is completed, rather than after) will help solve this cash-flow problem, but you may find your choice of mortgage restricted.

Energy efficiency

All builds, whatever their construction method, must now meet strict levels of energy efficiency, and a well-insulated cavity wall has a U-value of around 0.25. Additional energy efficiency doesn’t come down to the choice between timber-frame or masonry, but factors such as air-tightness; the size, type and orientation of your windows; and still better insulation.

Bricks themselves have a high thermal mass (ie. the ability to store heat). Practically speaking, this means that your walls will absorb heat during the day, and release it slowly at night, helping maintain an even temperature.

And while they don’t score quite as many green points as timber, with its zero-carbon credentials, bricks are a surprisingly sustainable and eco-friendly product, often made in the UK from materials that would otherwise be heading for landfill (Aircrete products are made from pulverised ash fuel from power stations), and fully recyclable at the end of their life. It also goes without saying that brick walls are incredibly durable – maintain them well and they could quite easily last for centuries.

Finally, for a build that’s not just eco-friendly but already looks like it’s been standing for decades, you could opt to use reclaimed bricks. A couple of firms, such as Brick Find, specialise in second-hand bricks – or you may just get lucky and spot a local demolition where you might be able to do a deal.

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