Concrete brick popularity

Andy Cotton, managing director of Edenhall, Britain’s largest independent brick manufacturer, reports on why concrete facing brick is leading the way for new homes.

Ever since the housebuilding recovery gathered momentum, there has been a growing market for concrete facing brick as a real alternative to clay, to such an extent that the product has emerged as the fastest growing sector in the UK brick industry.

What has powered this popularity for the humble concrete brick and why is it adding kerb appeal to so many developments right across the country? The fact is, today the concrete brick is not so humble after all. It offers a remarkably fair match to clay when viewed as completed brickwork – so much so, even experienced specifiers have difficulty spotting the difference. Its production is marked by product innovation and strong aesthetics, combining an impressive palette of colours and textures.

The widespread use of concrete products for masonry walling, architectural stone details, roof tiles and paving has eroded the historical share of clay and quarried stone. Made by comparable production methods to these other precast materials, it provides an attractive outer skin for both traditional and modern methods of construction and contributes scale, colour, texture and a sense of permanence.

Recently introduced sand-faced finishes offer an outstanding match and a real alternative to clay and are taking the market by storm. Attractive antique stock effect bricks in frogged format are another innovation, while new perforated bricks contribute lightness and ease of laying. The bricks can be used to blend with the vernacular or to create an exciting array of possibilities for aesthetic expression, due to the mix of tones, textures and finishes now available.

Varied colour options are complemented by an impressive array of textures, finishes and decorative effects such as hearts and black flecks. Rusticated, shotblasted, splitfaced and rumbled textures lend an aged or pre-weathered appearance to an elevation. Stock finishes are full of character and have the rough and irregular look of hand thrown brick. Alongside this, smooth finishes are available for detailing brickwork and split stone finishes replicate the regional variations of quarried stone.

Aesthetic merit is matched by impressive technical performance. Produced to the European product standard EN 771 – 3, concrete brick colour matching is precise, with tight control between batches, and the through coloured bricks remain colourfast for the duration of their long lifespan. Outstanding strength and durability are the other key characteristics, concrete is frost resistant and hardens with age, becoming stronger and less permeable.

Concrete bricks are produced in carefully controlled factory environments, allowing for regular repeated units with metric-sized precision, and machine-moulded bricks that look like they were moulded by hand. Not only does the modern concrete brick manufacturing process ensure consistent properties and appearance, it has been refined to the point where bricks can be turned out to levels of consistency and quality control that other sectors of the industry have yet to achieve.

Building with concrete facing brick does not differ from building with any other masonry material. The bricks are easy to lay, with dimensional precision and sharp arrises enabling a high standard of brickwork to be achieved. What’s more, research and development has all but eliminated the issue of efflorescence, or ‘lime bloom’, in concrete brickwork.

When it comes to sustainability, concrete brickwork has a BRE A+ rating and offers the advantage of thermal mass, preventing overheating during the day while reducing heat loss at night. The product is also 100 per cent recyclable as a crushed aggregate. A further advantage is the vast majority of concrete bricks are made in Britain, supplying local sites from regional bases, helping achieve a low carbon footprint.

Given these benefits, it’s easy to see why concrete facing brick features on award-winning developments such as Barking Riverside, and why the product is regularly used by national developers including Bellway, Mace, McCarthy & Stone, Persimmon, Keepmoat, Taylor Wimpey and the Duchy of Cornwall, as well as many regional developers.

While many brick makers struggle to meet demand from previously reduced manufacturing bases, concrete brick makers actually maintained production during the downturn and have since made significant investment to boost production in order to meet the growing demand for quality facing brick.

This year’s first quarter has seen the highest quarterly number of new homes started since 2007. With build rates increasing and output forecast to grow by over 20 per cent by 2018, demand for this nationally accepted, technically sound and aesthetically attractive building material can only continue to grow.