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Why is brick and block so popular for building homes?

Date posted: 10 August 2015

In the UK, masonry – also known as traditional brick and block – remains one of the most common construction materials used to build new houses.

It offers great compressive strength and, by utilising modern materials and design methods, we can slim down contemporary masonry buildings in comparison to more historic structures.

Brick-and-block houses use a cavity wall construction consisting of two brickwork 'skins', one internal and the other external, separated by a hollow space known as a cavity, which is usually filled with insulation. The skins are held together with wall ties, all laid on to concrete foundations. Cavity walls are good at resisting wind-driven rain; they enable the use of low-cost, non-rigid insulation batts; and insulation is provided by slow-moving airfilms and airgap. As masonry is an absorbent material, which will gradually draw in rainwater or even humidity, the cavity is important because it allows the water to drain back out through weep holes –  either at the base of the wall system, or above the windows.

Build order

First, a brick-and-block house is constructed up to the first-floor level. Next, the load-bearing, internal walls must be built, then timber joists or a concrete floor are created and the build continues until it reaches roof level.

Costs

You can expect a two-storey, three-bedroom, masonry home to cost approximately £1,000 per metre square if the work is undertaken by a main contractor. If you decide to self-build you can make major savings, however, but you will need training in bricklaying skills.

Having the right tools for the job will make your work a lot easier. There are many basic items, such as trowels and chisels, that you may already have easy access to - and any you don't own you can readily buy or hire.

Brick and block versus timber construction?

Most experts tend to agree that there is no significant price difference between using these two popular building methods, in terms of price per square metre. So if price is not necessarily a huge factor, what else might persuade you one way or the other? One major factor that might spring to mind is durability: well-maintained brick walls could stand for centuries. There are, however, several other key issues to consider when choosing between timber-frame and masonry / brick and block construction:

  • Project flexibility: First off, brick and block construction offers far greater flexibility than a timber framed house, which in contrast is engineered off-site using precision machines – then transported onto site, demanding a similar degree of precision in the foundations and footings. Bricks, on the other hand, allow for any small issues to be rectified, and even enable you to change your mind on major design decisions such as the number of walls you want on the interior. Further flexibility is offered by the fact that extensions are easy to add to brick homes, and internal layouts can be changed in the future by knocking down original walls. Even load-bearing walls can be removed just as long as a load-bearing steel beam is put in place to offer the necessary support.
     
  • Insulation: Concrete upstairs floors - which are not an option with timber-frame houses – provide superb sound and thermal insulation. Equally, block walls have solid acoustic properties, whereas with a timber house you would need to invest in acoustic membranes.
     
  • Project speed & timescales: When it comes to project deadlines and build speed, brick and block certainly falls behind timber-frame. It might take you 20 or more weeks to construct a house in masonry, compared with perhaps 12 or more weeks for timber frame. Taking into account the lead time for timber frame, however (which could in itself represent 12 or more  weeks in many cases, while it is being created in a factory), the overall timings may not be that dissimilar.  In addition, masonry self-builds tend to be quicker nowadays thanks to the use of modern materials. Lightweight thermal blocks (e.g. Aircrete) are easy to handle and can be supplied in large sizes, speeding up the build process, while you can also use thin joint glue mortars as opposed to traditional cement to further speed up the build.
     
  • Financial considerations: Generally, self-build mortgage providers tend to lean towards favouring masonry construction methods. They usually drip-feed funds at pre-agreed build stages (e.g. once foundations are complete; wall plate level; roof on; and practical completion). This method of releasing money at different stages is not well-suited to timber-frame builds which demand a larger payout up-front to cover the price of the frame itself, and therefore suitable mortgage options are more likely to be limited by a timber-frame method than a masonry construction.
     
  • Energy efficiency: Every home that is being built – regardless of construction method – has to meet very strict levels of energy efficiency. A well-insulated cavity wall should have a U-value of around 0.25. Any further energy efficiency does not result from choosing between masonry or timber-frame, but rather factors such as size, type and orientation of windows; even better insulation; and air-tightness. Bricks have a high ability to store heat (known as thermal mass), which means your walls will absorb heat throughout the day then release it throughout the night – helping to maintain an even temperature. Timber boasts zero-carbon credentials, but remember that bricks can be surprisingly eco-friendly too: they are often manufactured close to home, using materials that would otherwise be thrown in landfill, and they can be recycled. And you could even choose to use reclaimed bricks.

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