Colour, texture, size and durability are the crucial considerations, says Steve Maxwell
July 7, 2017 by Steve Maxwell
Brick is the oldest building material in the world, but there’s more to brick than just a simple, familiar name. When you come across clients who are interested in brick for new construction or renovations, you’ll look good if you can answer their questions and explain how to choose brick wisely.
There’s more to explaining brick options than meets the eye. You’ll gain credibility if you offer clients insights they never even thought to ask for. Size, colour, texture and durability issues are all things you’ll need to explain to clients when you lead them as the guru on their project.
Brick Pros and Cons
“I like brown.” Some version of this simple statement is likely one of the first things a client will say about brick because colour is the most visually obvious detail. When it comes to helping your client choose brick colour, there’s one consideration worth starting with, and it’s probably not obvious to your clients: Solid colour or varied?
Many decades ago, when the clay brick industry was more primitive than it is today, batches of brick had naturally occurring colour variations because the clay varied as it came out of the ground. Deposits could be darker in some places and lighter in others. This accounts for the different shades you see in many kinds of antique brick on older buildings. As it turns out, varying colours like this makes buildings look great in an old-time sort of way. People recognize this nowadays, and that’s why some modern brick is intentionally made with two or three shades in a given type.
Of course, we now have the ability to make single shade brick and these create a more modern, formal look. So one of your first guru talking points should be about the way varied shades create a more casual, older and less formal appearance. Single shade brick is one important hallmark of a modern styling.
In some ways choosing brick colour is like choosing wallpaper. You look at samples, then make a choice. But you should never allow your clients to choose a brick colour based on simulations only. You really need to get them to see actual bricks laid into an actual wall. And the larger the display the better able your clients are to choose. Be sure to visit a brick display with your clients before letting them choose anything, and always use bricks from the same batch lot for consistent colour.
The situation with texture is similar to colour. Real antique bricks were sometimes made less regular than modern bricks. Older bricks often shows signs of wear and weathering. Modern brick makers recognize the appeal of varied brick shapes, so they intentionally create bricks with imperfections on them. Modern brick is also made with textured surfaces to create a softer look than smooth-faced brick. Besides colour, one of the most important reasons to see brick in context before choosing is to understand the effect that texture has on overall appearance.
Chances are good that you’ll hardly ever have clients who realize that bricks come in different sizes, but this is still something you need to bring up with them. That’s because brick size affects the overall look and feel of a building, at least to a certain extent. And it has to do with the way labour costs have affected brick manufacturing.
Years ago, one-third of the cost of brick construction was labour and two-thirds was materials. These days the numbers are reversed – two-thirds labour and one third materials.
With such a high cost of labour, there’s a tendency for bricks to be made in larger and larger sizes as time goes on. Bigger bricks make for a wall that goes up faster since there’s more brick in each hand. The visual difference between a large brick and smaller isn’t huge on your overall colour scheme, but it does make a difference with a smaller brick showing more mortar. If your client is looking for a heritage appearance, steer them towards smaller brick. Larger bricks help create a more modern look (and reduces labour costs).
One of your main jobs as a contractor is steering clients towards materials, designs and approaches that deliver as much quality and value as the building budget allows. And value is about more than just low cost. As building choices multiply and clients gain dangerous bits of knowledge online, the guru side of being a contractor is not getting any easier. Brick is one of those options that requires more explaining than other choices, but enduring value is the reason brick has been around for so long.
Even in countries like Canada that have many freeze-thaw cycles each year, brick can last indefinitely. It all comes down to how the raw materials react to absorbing moisture. That’s why Canadian brick manufacturers constantly test their bricks to ensure they withstand the test of time.
Savvy clients may wonder to you about the risk of bricks flaking and spalling over the years, so you should know some background on this situation. The primary reason that bricks flake and spall is attributed to poor design or installation of the brick. The Clay Brick Association of Canada publishes minimum durability standards for what’s called “exterior grade” brick. This is based on testing that includes measuring the amount of cold water absorbed over a 24-hour period, measuring the absorption after five hours of boiling the brick, as well as measuring the loss of brick mass after 50 freeze-thaw testing cycles.
There are few countries in the world that have as severe weather as Canada, especially in our regions of greatest population. The more freeze-thaw cycles a region experiences, the more it matters that brick not hold too much moisture. If the brick you’re using meets CSA Standard A82-06 for exterior grade brick, and is designed and installed according to local building codes and best practices, then it will last just fine in Canada.