Solid Foundation: Contemplating the UK’s love affair with brick

When it comes to house building material of choice in the UK, brick remains the undisputed king. Here, Andy Batterham, Group Technical and Innovation Director at Ibstock, takes a look at the shape of the UK’s brick manufacturing market, examines the role Ibstock is playing to innovate across the sector and explores what the current challenging climate due to COVID-19 means for the wider brick industry.

The state of the sector

To paraphrase an oft-quoted Mark Twain quip, the reports of brick’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. For several years now, doomsayers have suggested brick – the long-standing material of choice for UK housebuilders – is under threat from newer construction methods, or that volatile economic climates will adversely impact the country’s brick manufacturing capabilities.

In fact, recent research reveals the opposite to be true. More than 70% of all new-build housing projects in the UK still use brick as their primary material (a figure that increases to three quarters for self-builders), showing that brick manufacturing is enjoying something of a renaissance.

The key driver of this trend has been the private housing sector. From the government’s 2015 pledge to build 1.5 million new homes by 2022, to initiatives such as the Help to Buy scheme super-charging first-time buyer demand, a robust market for private housebuilders has resulted in an increased demand for bricks.

And while that progress may have been stymied in recent months with the government enforced lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are green shoots beginning to emerge, with a number of construction specialists – including Taylor Wimpey – announcing they’ll be resuming projects in May. Ibstock has also begun to safely bring some colleagues back in to the workplace, from Monday, 27th April, with a phased approach to restart activity in some of our factories over the following weeks, prioritising those with higher demand and ensuring we can continue to support the UK’s construction industry and get Britain building again. You can read the full update here.

An evergreen solution

Looking behind the bigger picture, what makes brick still such an appealing material for housebuilders and homeowners? Chief among these are flexibility, aesthetics, durability and thermal mass.

Unlike other building methods, such as timber frames, which are precision-engineered and thus require the same level of precision when being laid on-site, brick can be flexible and more easily adjusted to accommodate design changes or last minute project requirements.

Housebuilders, of course, consider the needs of the eventual homeowners, whose preference is still weighted toward brick. This is down in no small part to the key advantages brick can deliver for homeowners. Take, for example, an exterior wall made of brick; it’s increased durability does not deteriorate as rapidly as other materials, minimising the need for maintenance further into the structure’s lifespan. Many, myself included, consider that bricks just get better with age as their aesthetic qualities change with time.

Architectural fashions may come and go, but the prevalence of centuries old buildings nationwide tells us one thing very clearly – brick is built to last.

Bricks also prevail as the material of choice in the UK because of the country’s climate. Brick has thermal mass and in the right type of construction helps moderate indoor air temperature – an important consideration for Britain’s notoriously unpredictable weather.

Supporting the industry

At Ibstock, we’re committed to supporting our customers choosing to use brick in their projects and developments. The centrepiece for this has undoubtedly been the launch of ‘The I-Studio’, a game-changing space for innovation and inspiration for architects, specifers and housebuilders.

The studio is designed to provide support to every facet of the construction supply chain. Stand-out functions include a product selector, which enables architects to select from more than 218 brick slips and project their drawings onto the wall to experience the exterior and interior aesthetics with each style of brick. The offering is backed by an in-house team of experts, on hand to provide specialist insight into the best products to use to meet the unique requirements of each project.

Ibstock is also continuing to invest in the scope and scale of the products we offer. Recent additions to our growing product portfolio include MechSlip; an innovative, fire-safe brick slip cladding system developed in conjunction with Ash & Lacy, specifically designed to meet the needs of larger-scale and high-rise housing developments.

Prioritising sustainability

But we take our commitment to sustainability as seriously. To that end, we’re proud to say that our Eclipse factory has been named the most resource efficient brick manufacturing plant in the country. What’s more, earlier this year, we launched a brand new solar farm; a key milestone in our sustainability journey.

Recognising the importance of strengthening sustainable practices across the construction industry supply chain, 95% of our raw materials are sourced in the UK and from on-site quarries; all important factors in ensuring our products are British through and through. Indeed, that focus on British quality follows through into our core value of local production meaning local delivery, with our products travelling an average of just 62 miles to market. In addition to that, we now use 65% less energy compared to the 1970s, a remarkable achievement we are hoping to take even further across the next decade.  But… what about this little fact. A typical smartphone has a carbon footprint of greater than 70kgs over its life which is about four years, while the average brick is only 0.6kgs and lasts 150 years!

As with any business, there’s more still to be done to further the sustainability credentials of our products and processes, we have made good progress and are committed to pushing ourselves to achieve even more. Read our blog exploring the ‘quiet revolution’ of brick manufacturing in the UK here.

Looking ahead

In our sector we are all aware that the widening skills gap is an issue that could impact new build levels up to and beyond 2030. The industry as a whole must work together to consider how it can nurture the talent of tomorrow, and ensure skills and knowledge isn’t lost as the current workforce retires. From investment in apprenticeships, to in-house training schemes and wage increases, the construction industry must identify how it can both safeguard against a skills shortage – and attract new talent to the sector. Ibstock is playing its part – we have been investing in an award winning apprenticeship scheme for over 10 years and it sees us with over 35 young engineers in our business ready to support our succession planning and receive the generations of brick knowledge passed on within our sector.

It’s been said hundreds of times already, but these truly are unprecedented times we find ourselves in. While there is undoubtedly going to be concern among the construction industry as to how it will bounce back from such extraordinary circumstances, all of the latest industry research shows that brick manufacturing has all the resilience needed to get Britain building again.

You can read a version of this article on PHDP Online.