Will brick facades slip up?

Arup’s Alexis Harrison says that while the bricks sector has responded to increased demand from architects seeking to use the material in highly crafted exteriors, they still have questions about the long-term performance of brick slips


hen I joined the brick industry in 2001, it was almost on its knees. Sales had plummeted year on year in a commodity market where manufacturers fought to make and sell the cheapest red bricks to volume housebuilders and builders’ merchants. Brick wasn’t cool, and couldn’t have been further from the palette of avant-garde architects. As product innovation manager for a major brick maker, my attention was focused on the then- Government’s Construction Task Force (led by ex-Jaguar boss Sir John Egan), which told us that the future of construction lay in modular off-site manufacturing. Fast-forward 16 years, and brick couldn’t be more popular. Brick buildings have won the Stirling Prize for three of the last five years, and have dominated other materials in every shortlist. Whether it’s one-off houses or concert halls, elegantly crafted brick buildings feature in every edition of the architectural news sites and publica- tions, and as you enter almost any UK city you will be greeted by shiny new high-rise brick-clad apartments. Demand is huge. In the late 2000s the brick industry was hard hit by recession and took time to catch up with that demand, but this is now being met after mothballed kilns were relit and state of the art factories opened. Brickwork contractors are busy, but the skilled labour is out there, despite reports to the contrary.


Nevertheless, there is a strong driver for offsite fabrication of brickwork. While the systems cost more, there can be major programme advantages from using a unitised system of brick cladding – delivered ‘just in time’ to tight city sites and installed within hours to create a finished facade. The pros and cons of conventional hand-set brickwork versus offsite manufactured panels are different for every project, and are not always the right answer, but high demand for offsite solutions sees many opportu- nities in the market place.

The solution to offsite fabricated brickwork usually meant one thing: brick-faced precast panels, where bricks are cut in half with dovetailed slots in their backs and set into reinforced concrete to


AWARD WINNING Piercy & Co’s Turnmill Building in Clerkenwell has won several awards, the brickwork of its facade echoing local warehouses © Paul Carstairs

create storey-height cladding panels. This approach has provided robust and durable cladding to many buildings, and despite many architects’ concerns about the visual disruption of wide panel-to- panel joints, precast can work beautifully if the system is considered from the beginning. Maccreanor Lavington’s Cartwright Gardens project in central London is an example of a finely crafted brick facade that looks nothing like a unitised system.


Another approach is the application of brick slip panel systems. They vary enormously, but typically consist of a brick slip (usually a 20 mm sliver of clay either cut from a standard brick or manufac- tured like a tile) which is adhesively bonded onto a backing panel. This allows lightweight panels of seemingly ‘real’ brickwork to be applied to facades in a matter of minutes. Aesthetics and material honesty aside (and you would be hard pushed to tell the difference from real bricks once installed), the appeal to contractors and developers under increasing time pressure is huge. Brick slip systems are being installed in vast areas on high rise buildings across the land, to a height of over 20 stories. Many also


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