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February 7, 2007 10:48 AM CST

Brick Valued in Public Safety and Eco-Design


A Habitat for Humanity development. Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity.
A Habitat for Humanity development. Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity.

Demand is high for energy-efficient, "green" construction with sustainable designs, and it continues to rise. But now, the focus from businesses and homeowners is on safe, durable structures that also have low environmental impact.

As a versatile building material, brick provides all this and more. The raw materials in brick are chemically inert and thus will not contribute to indoor air pollution. Brick is fire-resistant, recyclable and offers insulating benefits. Brick's thermal mass absorbs and stores heat until it is needed and partners well with either passive or active solar energy. Recent studies indicate that brick homes lower heating and cooling costs by up to 8 percent when compared to homes clad in vinyl. Because brick saves owners more money over time and provides more safety than non-masonry siding materials, developers are using it to construct retail and office space, residential structures, schools and other public facilities in a wider variety of styles than ever before.

An increasing number of municipalities and private organizations regard brick as a means of beautifying an area with materials that will last, providing the community with safe, sustainable structures that will improve the quality of life for generations to come. Towns and cities across the nation have adopted masonry ordinances, ensuring that future growth within their community will include some level of brick, which can preserve a community's character and boost its economic viability.

These benefits are of particular importance to Allan Tibbels, co-executive director of Habitat for Humanity, who said building with brick ensures the long-lasting structural integrity his organization looks for in a building project. "Since we rehabilitate row houses and construct with brick, we have been pleased to work in partnership with brick providers and brick masons to complete beautiful and affordable homes for Habitat families," he said, referring to Sandtown, a neighborhood in Baltimore.

In addition to the warmth, durability and beauty brick provides, it is also fire-resistant. Brick will not ignite, burn or emit toxic fumes when exposed to extreme heat. Both the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 compelled local leaders to adopt construction mandates requiring the use of masonry in high-density areas. These legacies are considered the forerunners of modern masonry ordinances. Added benefits today are that owning a brick home or building can result in lower fire insurance premiums, as well as higher resale values.

Moreover, brick provides excellent protection against extreme weather conditions. The Brick Industry Association (BIA) funded research at the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University, clearly demonstrating that clay brick cladding provides superior defense against wind-blown debris when compared to other siding materials. In the tests, engineers fired a 7-1/2-foot-long, nine-pound 2 x 4 at a brick veneer wall at 34 mph. It bounced off the brick, causing no damage to the interior wall. A 2 x 4 fired at the same speed penetrated a vinyl or fiber-cement sided wall by more than five feet, piercing the interior wall. The test was representative of weather that would generate wind speeds between 100 and 140 mph. In addition to brick's proven defense against wind-blown debris, it is better equipped to shield against ensuing water damage that often is part of such extreme weather events.

Since 2000, the U.S. insurance industry has paid out more than $39 billion to cover damage caused by hurricanes, tornados and other natural disasters. This figure represents more than 50 percent of the combined payouts for all catastrophic events in the preceding 30 years. The 2005 hurricane season in particular prompted more commercial and residential homeowners to reevaluate the materials they use for construction.

Brick was used as the primary exterior building material for the first LEED-certified elementary school. Photo courtesy of Spark Productions.
Brick was used as the primary exterior building material for the first LEED-certified elementary school. Photo courtesy of Spark Productions.

The eco-friendly attributes of brick are well suited for parameters that are important to national, green-minded organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). This group offers a rating system — a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable structures, otherwise known as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) rating. In addition, masonry products often are harvested, manufactured and used locally, minimizing the consumption of fossil fuels and vehicle pollution incurred with long-distance freight transport. These characteristics, along with brick's energy-efficiency, inert properties, minimal waste and recyclability, contribute points when using brick in the LEED® rating system. The Council now partners with local governments on incentive programs that support the "building green" principle — a natural fit for brick.

Brick was used as the primary exterior building material for the first LEED-certified elementary school built in the United States. Completed in 2002, the Third Creek Elementary School in Statesville, N.C., spans 10 acres and brick is a contributor to its eco-friendly design and public safety features.

Christine A. Subasic, P.E., LEED A.P., is active on committees within the USGBC and serves as a consultant to The Masonry Society. When asked about the role brick can play in sustainable design, Subasic said, "Brick masonry can play an integral role in sustainable design because it embodies many of the characteristics desirable in sustainable design: durability, minimal maintenance, no off-gassing (no VOCs), good acoustic performance, thermal storage capability, and it is made from an abundant natural resource [clay]."

According to Michael Chandler of Chandler Build-Design Creative Construction in Chapel Hill, N.C., brick offers a good exterior foundation, creating a seamless, safe flow between the interior and exterior of a home. As a builder who has constructed homes with a strong emphasis in using green concepts for more than 16 years, he said that while it's paramount to incorporate eco-friendly design and safety features into public buildings, it's equally important to incorporate these same benefits into residential structures. "There are a number of benefits to brick beyond its thermal mass," Chandler said. "When it comes to patios, for example, brick is a good alternative because you remove all the safety hazards you might see with treated wood and lumber that can begin to rot quickly."

Patios and other brick structures can last a lifetime. Brick has an amazing life cycle — conservatively estimated at 100 years — and there are many examples that are much older, some by centuries.

The actual "embodied energy" of brick (the energy required to mine, manufacture and transport it), is approximately 4,000 BTUs per pound or 14,000 BTUs per standard brick. According to the AIA Environmental Resource Guide, that's less than concrete, glass, steel, aluminum or even wood. And it's far below the embodied energy of EIFS and fiber-cement products.

Brick and masonry systems are beneficial elements in green design and the construction of safe, durable structures that will be an asset — not a liability — to a community. A growing number of builders and homebuyers look at brick to reduce energy bills while protecting the environment. Added to that awareness is the emerging knowledge that masonry materials provide a high level of safety while reducing insurance premiums, making brick both aesthetically and economically attractive.

About the Author

Eric N. Johnson, P.E., has 25 years of engineering experience, and has been director of engineering at Brick SouthEast. He holds a bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s in structural engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2005, International Code Council. This article originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of Building Safety Journal.


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