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With the recent emphasis on environmentally-sustainable lifestyles, homeowners are doing what they can to reduce their carbon footprint considerably, and this includes constructing houses from sustainable materials, like brick. While brick can be considered a natural resource, is it a sustainable building material?
Brick is a sustainable building material as it is naturally sourced and can be repurposed easily when constructing a new building. Additionally, the manufacturing process is straightforward, and brick does not contain harmful toxins that leach into the soil.
Of course, as with any resource, there will be some negative impact on the environment, and in the case of brick, the manufacturing plant releases CO2 emissions during the firing process. However, brick is sustainable for the most part, and in this article, I’ll explain why.
What Makes Brick So Sustainable
When discussing brick sustainability, it’s crucial to mention that the focus is primarily on clay bricks. While other varieties, like engineering bricks or fly ash bricks, are pretty sustainable, they can’t compare to the environmental soundness of clay bricks.
In the following sections, I’ve provided a few reasons bricks are more sustainable than most other building materials.
Bricks are made from clay, which can be easily acquired at any suitable location on the Earth’s surface. Of course, clay mining can be unsustainable when carried out without any thought for the environment, so it’s crucial to find out where your bricks are sourced from and ensure your manufacturer takes measures to reduce environmental impact.
Clay is found virtually everywhere, and it’s pretty easy to get a hold of as well. Clay typically lies near the upper surface of the soil, and a few hours of shallow digging will provide heaps of clay for brick construction.
Additionally, clay is abundant in nature, unlike more precious metals, which require complicated processes to extract from the soil. And if the manufacturer assesses the land appropriately before digging, they can significantly reduce environmental impact.
Sustainability isn’t restricted only to a product’s sourcing or energy consumption. We must also look at the energy consumed during the life of the product, and bricks offer an advantage in this aspect.
Its intrinsic durability is another factor that makes brick such a sustainable building material.
Unlike most other building materials, the brick will not corrode or weaken due to weather conditions. Their porous structure makes them less susceptible to weakening as a result of temperature changes. In fact, bricks don’t expand or shrink due to heat, and this sturdiness keeps them intact for years to come.
On the contrary, it’s believed that brick only gets sturdier with time, and little maintenance is required to ensure its longevity.
Some brick structures even stay intact for over five hundred years! And even if maintenance is required, the work involved is minimal and in such low frequency (68 years for cavity walls and 113 for solid walls) that the environmental impact is negligible.
3. Fire Resistant
While this may not be directly related to sustainability, it’s worth mentioning that bricks are resistant to fire, making them a lot safer than traditional building materials. Moreover, if there is a fire hazard in the building, the brick walls will remain intact, reducing the cost (and environmental impact) of reconstructing the damaged building.
Perhaps what truly makes bricks sustainable is the fact that the clay used to make it can be repurposed and used for other construction purposes.
There’s a growing market for reclaimed brick, and even if a building is torn down for whatever reason, the bricks used in its construction can be repurposed. Today, there are many manufacturing plants that can effectively separate the mortar from the bricks so they can be reused.
Recycling bricks removes the need for digging or firing, both of which can negatively affect the environment. By recycling bricks, you can avoid carbon emissions during the manufacturing process and ensure you have high-quality material to construct with.
And if you’re looking to create an older, more rustic aesthetic, recycled bricks might be just what you’re looking for.
These are some of the main reasons brick is so sustainable compared to other construction materials. Sure, there may be significant carbon emissions during the manufacturing process. Still, the durability and reusability of brick make it environmentally friendly in the long run.
How To Make Brick Construction More Sustainable
As discussed, brick is a pretty sustainable construction material. However, if you’re looking to minimize your environmental impact, there are ways to ensure your brick construction is more sustainable. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
1. Know Your Manufacturer
You could simply hire a contractor to take care of the building material, but if you want to have an impact, visit the brick manufacturer and check whether their bricks fit the bill.
You can inspect their plant and ask about their manufacturing process to determine their environmental impact.
Firing the bricks is perhaps the most unsustainable part of the brick manufacturing process. The reason this part is environmentally taxing is that fossil fuels are used to fire these kilns, and enormous quantities of heat and CO2 are emitted in the process.
You can reduce your impact by sourcing bricks from more environmentally-conscious manufacturers. For example, some plants use natural gas instead of fossil fuels, eliminating the need for this scarce resource.
Additionally, some manufacturing plants are set up with systems to contain and even redirect the heat produced during the firing process. This system reduces the heat released into the atmosphere and allows the bricks to be constructed more quickly.
You can also reduce your impact by determining where the manufacturer sources their bricks. Ideally, they should have a mine about five to ten kilometers from the manufacturing plant to minimize the environmental impact of transporting clay.
By thoroughly inspecting the manufacturer and figuring out where they source their bricks, you can significantly reduce your environmental impact.
2. Reuse and Recycle
While it may seem obvious, it’s worth mentioning, as most people may be reluctant to use ‘second-hand material.’ However, reclaimed bricks are typically as sturdy as regular ones, the only difference being that they were already used in construction before.
Bricks can even be turned into concrete for landscaping or specific structures outside the house.
Once your house is constructed, keep in mind that bricks are highly durable, and if you’re planning to reconstruct a portion of the house, you don’t need to tear down the walls. Instead, you can use the same bricks for reconstruction.
This durability is another reason why it’s best to invest in bricks because even if you need to make structural changes, you won’t have to change everything. Additionally, repairs and maintenance are pretty straightforward when you’ve got brick walls, and often you won’t have to worry about repairs for years.
3. Use Regular Bricks
This goes without saying, but clay bricks fired in a kiln are the most sustainable variety out there. Using special bricks will cost more both economically and environmentally and may lead to further problems in the long run. As a result, it’s best to stick to regular clay bricks for construction.
The Sustainability of Different Types of Bricks
Now that we know why bricks are sustainable and how you can minimize your carbon footprint when using them, let’s look at the different types of bricks you can choose and the environmental impact of each.
Burnt Clay Bricks
Burnt clay is the most common type of brick available for construction and the one being referred to throughout this article. Clay bricks come under four categories:
- Fourth-Class: Irregular in shape and broken down to combine with other materials.
- Third-Class: Poor quality and ideal only for temporary structures.
- Second-Class: Better than third-class bricks and solid enough but may contain tiny cracks.
- First-Class: Solid bricks with a smooth surface and enhanced strength.
This type of brick has been around since ancient civilizations, and its use dates back to 7000 B.C.!
Sun-dried bricks aren’t as solid or durable as clay bricks and are useful only for temporary structures. However, sun-dried bricks have the lowest carbon emissions of the lot and are ideal for DIY projects.
Made from solid concrete, these bricks are poured into a mold and then allowed to harden over time. You’re sure to find these bricks at any hardware store, and they are ideal for building outdoor walls and facades.
Concrete bricks may reduce CO2 emissions as they aren’t manufactured the same way as traditional bricks. However, they’re less durable and contain harmful chemicals and minerals that will leak into the soil over time.
These bricks are ideal for structures like basement walls, sewers, and manholes. They possess high tensile strength and low porosity, allowing little moisture to enter the brick.
Thanks to their density and thickness, engineering bricks also block chemicals from entering that can erode the structure of bricks from within. While engineering bricks may require more resources to produce, they’re the ideal building material for specific structures that we can’t do without.
Other Sustainable Building Materials
Clay brick is the ideal building material, especially considering that it’s sustainable and can be put to various uses. While there might be a wide range of building materials with a lower carbon footprint during their manufacturing process, it’s challenging to find a resource that lasts as long as brick and can be used in various applications.
However, brick can’t be used in all types of structures, and in some instances, certain materials work even better while leaving a lower carbon footprint. Here are a few of them.
Bamboo proliferates once it’s been planted, and there’s no need to replant or till the soil for the next harvest. Additionally, bamboo has high tensile strength, even when compared to brick, and can be used in various applications, including flooring and even the walls in some houses.
The only drawback with bamboo is that it needs to be adequately treated first as it tends to absorb water quickly and attract insects.
While cork can’t be used to construct walls, this material is ideal for insulation and for building fire-resistant sheets into the walls.
Cork is also non-porous and does not allow moisture or rot to set into its inner layers. If you’re planning a unique look at home, consider using cork to construct certain parts, like cabinets or flooring.
While cork is intrinsically sustainable, transporting it can be environmentally demanding as it must be shipped from the Mediterranean region.
3. Reclaimed Steel
Steel is ideal for laying a foundation in most structures, and if it’s recycled steel, the environmental impact of its production is almost negligible. The process of manufacturing steel involves mining, shaping, and heating metal, which can be quite resource-intensive.
However, repurposed steel avoids these environmentally-impactful processes and gives you a product of high strength and durability. Therefore, you won’t have to worry about replacing the steel too often.
Additionally, repurposed steel is also resistant to moisture, rot, and other elements that often ruin most sustainable building materials.
4. Rammed Earth
Rammed Earth has been used for thousands of years and is a sturdy material made from churning ingredients like gravel, lime, dust, and chalk. Once the ingredients are added, the mix is compacted and formed into shapes that can be used for construction.
When pressed tightly into walls or flooring, rammed earth gives a feel similar to concrete or brick. The best part is that it’s spruced from natural materials and doesn’t require heating in a kiln, significantly reducing the environmental impact.
Some environmentalists complain that the manufacture of brick leads to significant carbon emissions. While this is true, remember that no matter what resource we use, there will be some cost to the environment.
However, by using certain materials and ensuring we receive them from reliable sources, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint.
What makes brick so sustainable is its durability, longevity, and the fact that it can be easily reused. So while brick may seem unsustainable during its manufacturing process, it’s more sustainable than most other construction materials.
- 100% Cork: Good For The Environment
- Go Smart Bricks: All You Need to Know About Brick Recycling
- London Reclaimed Brick Merchants: Are Bricks Sustainable Building Material?
- Clay Brick: 500 Years is The Average Brick Lifespan
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Giovanni Valle is an architect, designer, internet entrepreneur, and the managing editor of various digital publications including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place. He is the founder of BuilderSpace LLC.