From Honesty to Imitation: The Sad Subversion of the Humble Brick

“Brick will never be an honest material again,” laments architect Brady Ernst. Are brick veneers here to stay?

Brady Ernst Brady Ernst

Brady Ernst is a licensed architect from Bozeman, Mont., and author of the popular blog Soapbox Architect, blending helpful guidance for budding architects with witty anecdotes about life in the profession. Click here for more of Brady’s architectural insights.

Donald Trump’s discarded campaign slogan, to “Make Bricks Honest Again,” will never happen. Bricks will forevermore be a durable veneer mimicking our fondness for the past. Slowly I am starting to succumb to this realization. Honestly, brick will never be an honest material again.

Brick is one of the oldest and cheapest building materials. Bricks are excellent in compression and were constructed for centuries by skilled masons to construct our greatest temples and our country houses. However, these skilled masons have nearly been eradicated from society.

Trump’s other campaign slogan, to “Make America Great Again,” also has its detriments. The manufacturing jobs that once made America great have either been outsourced to other countries or completely eliminated by automation. However, bricks have been eradicated not by automation, but because it takes considerably less skill to attach Styrofoam to a wall and paint it with acrylic polymer paint.

In our capitalist society, the cheapest option that adheres to the basic aspects of shelter and meets minimum code requirements becomes our preferred option. Therefore, nonrecyclable plastics have literally become a cheaper option than dirt. Our plasticized society has eradicated brick due to cheapness, but also because of warmth. Sadly, we Americans also want our houses insulated! When I lived in the coldest place on Earth (Alaska), some houses didn’t have insulation in the walls. OK, they had insulation in half of the walls but ran out of materials on the last barge shipment so just didn’t insulate the rest of the structure.

We no longer will tolerate living in these cold structures, so we demand insulation in not just a couple walls, but EVERY wall. America can no longer be great again because America will no longer settle for lack of insulation or disregard building codes. Yet, through these systems, we have sacrificed the actual aesthetic quality of the structure — the heralded brick.

New buildings with brick are not constructed as a permanent and enduring wall. They are attached to the outside of a house like a durable alternative to vinyl siding. It turns out that air and fluffy fiberglass with the Pink Panther logo are great insulators of walls. Double-wythe brick walls were originally constructed as two courses of brick locked together for increased durability.

Eventually, metal ties were engineered to separate these two brick walls: an exterior wall with an insulating air gap and an interior brick wall. But then material scientists had to create plastics, which led to Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes, the Ninja Turtle Van that could throw mini plastic pizzas — and whatever goes inside of buildings. Thus, constructing two brick walls became a useless waste of finances.

Diagrams via renovate.com.au and Carson Dunlop

I imagine developers in the early 20th century just settled for the fact that they had to build two walls. Perhaps I am just sad that no one in the future will rip the drywall off of an interior wall to re-decorate and discover a beautiful, albeit crumbling, brick wall beneath.

Interior brick walls are irrelevant as an actual structural wall. Wood two-by-fours and gypsum wall board are cheaper and require no skill. I guess I should be cautious in my blanket statements about the lack of skills needed by 21st-century carpenters; I realize nails and wood require some skill and experience. I am afraid if I were to construct a wall it would, most likely, suffer the same consequence as the shelves I mounted: collapsing with a racket in the middle of the night, jarring everyone awake searching for the cat because instead of blaming one’s carpentry skills, it must have been a 10-pound-11-ounce cat up to no good.

The reverent Louis Kahn would often pontificate about his experiences talking to inanimate objects. In his most famous lecture, he spoke to a brick: “If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, ‘What do you want, Brick?’ And Brick says to you, ‘I like an Arch.’ And if you say to Brick, ‘Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, Brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an Arch.’ And it’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use.”

This statement never left me with a sense of profoundness. Perhaps he was a better orator than his quoted words because this quote always conjured images of a Disney fairy tale — with Kahn as an architectural caricature equivalent to Cinderella chatting with forest creatures.

Via SkyscraperCity

However, his continuing conversation is rarely quoted where he states, “Well we have a lot of material around, we can do it one way, we can do it another. It’s not true. You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of just shortchanging it or giving it an inferior job to do, where it loses its character.”

Kahn believed that the proliferation of concrete lintels would devalue the amazing compressive and aesthetic properties of brick. Instead of a concrete lintel, now many lintels are styrofoam with a limestone stucco finish coat to mimic the appearance of concrete. We no longer understand brick’s character; furthermore, brick has jumped from the lintel to an exterior wainscoting wallpaper.

Honoring the traditional appearance of the brick will maintain the character of brick. Seriously, instead of placing brick on a portion of your wall, clad the entire wall with brick. Or terminate the brick into inside corners. And place a cap on the top of the bricks — because wood siding should not be thicker than a 3-3/8-inch brick. Undoubtedly, brick is more expensive than vinyl siding, but shortcuts in the application of the brick will actually devalue the appearance of your house more than cladding the entire structure in vinyl.

Via Soapbox Architect

Much to the chagrin of Kahn, brick will never be an honest material again. Kahn lived in a disparate world, a fantasy land with talking bricks, yet the basic intrinsic properties of materials were heralded.

However, let us combine the fantasy land with our current reality. Let us pretend that all brick structures are constructed to what they say they want. Therefore, make the brick lintel — but support it with a steel angle. Construct the brick arch — but infill the light-framed walls with insulation. Pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and convince them that the faux-brick is actually solid masonry. Maybe, just a little, I am succumbing to this new reality.

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