Jason Hughes, MD of Imperial Bricks, advises on choosing the right brick for new and self-build projects
At around six per cent of the material cost of a house build, bricks are far from being the most expensive component. But I’d argue that they’re one of the most important components of any build, in terms of structure and stability but also character and saleability. However, they can be overlooked by self-builders and homebuyers in favour of traditional ‘big ticket’ items such as windows, kitchens and bathrooms. These can be changed fairly easily (and of course are often the first parts of a house to be replaced by new buyers), but it’s much more difficult to alter the façade – and the choice of bricks can make or break a design, or sale. And there’s a huge variety available to choose from!
Being able to expertly choose the right brick for the area, history and character of the property (as well as the budget for build) is a skill that pays dividends. There are several variables to consider.
Reclaimed bricks vs new
Self-builders looking to match existing brickwork for extension/renovation or in a listed building/conservation area may not realise that ‘kiln-fresh’ handmade bricks are a practical alternative to reclaims, and are acceptable to planning and conservation officers. Reclaimed bricks are expensive, increasingly difficult to source, easily damaged and labour intensive, as old mortar has to be chipped away. Age or transportation also take their toll – there’s no standardised testing so builders typically report 20 per cent wastage. Modern handmade bricks have none of these problems; if sourced from a reputable company these will be CE marked, F2 frost resistant and available on reliable lead times.
Colour & size
Colour has perhaps the biggest impact. Each region has its own palette, whether that’s London Yellow Stock or a Blue Engineering brick of the North. Subtle variations have a major impact on the finished look of the building, so it’s good to use local knowledge and experience to explain the choices available. At Imperial we have a choice of more than 50 shades, and if customers still don’t see what they want, they can have a bespoke blend created, or a stock colour aged or weathered to suit. For expert tips and advice on brick matching, ask the manufacturer directly or your local trade merchant for help – via email, telephone, apps or even site visits with sample boards. It’s a great service for builders to offer.
Using different colours of mortar can also affect the final look considerably and can be regionally matched. Greys, creams and beige shades work particularly well with most handmade bricks – only hydraulic lime mortar should be used as this is more flexible, breathable and allows for natural movement.
Size is important too. If you’re extending an existing home, or slotting into a gap in an urban setting, it’s likely the original building will have used imperial-sized bricks – pretty much anything built with bricks before 1965. Ideally, it’s best to match existing or nearby brickwork – in fact this can be stipulated by planners for conservation areas or listed buildings. But for a completely new, stand-alone development it’s usually more convenient to use metric-sized bricks as the measurements work better with modern blocks and lintels.
Jack’s House: objections overcome for self-build
A recent Imperial Bricks project, Jack’s House, saw self-builders Joe and Becky Jaques choosing 68mm Reclamation Soft Red blend bricks. Searching for a family home, Joe chanced on a site with planning permission for a single dwelling. Although the proposed chalet bungalow wasn’t what he and his wife were looking for, they bought the land and applied for permission to build Jack’s House, a detached 5-bedroom home, instead. They wanted a house true to the Georgian style they love, so the choice of brick was crucially important. Joe employed his brother David’s company, Jaques Construction, who used 40,000 bricks laid in a Flemish bond. Several sample boards had been made up to check which bricks complemented the stone and slate options already selected. Each of the bricks went through a special ageing process resulting in a soft texture with slight creasing or ‘smiles’ on the face – giving them the authentic character of original reclaimed bricks.
Although Jaques Construction does use reclaimed bricks, in practice it’s not often possible. David Jacques, owner: “If the bricks are good quality and remain in one piece with the mortar cleaning off easily, we would always try to recycle materials. However, this is very much the exception rather than the rule. In our opinion there is no substitute for using a high-quality handmade brick. Clients aren’t usually happy to pay the cost incurred by the process of cleaning bricks, and reclaimed bricks rarely work well when cutting to form arches as they are so brittle.”
New build, traditional style from Lockwood Homes
Whether it’s a self-build or a small development, the same arguments apply. Lockwood Homes built three new homes using our Metric Reclamation Handmade bricks, in an aged and weathered reclamation finish. Basic construction was an energy-efficient and quick-to-build timber frame but the overall look was very traditional. Paul Lockwood, company owner, says: “We chose these bricks because they offer the perfect blend of traditional and contemporary style. Although it wasn’t a conservation area, the development was close to existing cottages so the houses had to sit comfortably with the neighbouring properties. And using handmade also helps distinguish us from the mainstream developments in the area.”
Handmade bricks are a historic building material that works equally well in traditional and contemporary housing projects and can be used with modern methods of construction too. They can be regionally matched, or weathered to create an instantly aged effect, tinted onsite to match existing brickwork exactly – or they can be custom-made for a truly unique look.