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Brick Construction: A Guide to the Materials and Methods

Block is a similar term referring to a rectangular building unit composed of clay or concrete, but is usually larger than a brick. Lightweight bricks (also called lightweight blocks) are made from expanded clay aggregate.



Fired bricks are one of the longest-lasting and strongest building materials, sometimes referred to as artificial stone, and have been used since circa 4000 BC. Air-dried bricks, also known as mud-bricks, have a history older than fired bricks, and have an additional ingredient of a mechanical binder such as straw.

Bricks are laid in courses and numerous patterns known as bonds, collectively known as brickwork, and may be laid in various kinds of mortar to hold the bricks together to make a durable structure.

The earliest bricks were dried mud-bricks, meaning that they were formed from clay-bearing earth or mud and dried (usually in the sun) until they were strong enough for use. The oldest discovered bricks, originally made from shaped mud and dating before 7500 BC, were found at Tell Aswad, in the upper Tigris region and in southeast Anatolia close to Diyarbakir.[4]

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In the middle of the third millennium BC, there was a rise in monumental baked brick architecture in Indus cities. Examples included the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro, the fire altars of Kaalibangan, and the granary of Harappa. There was a uniformity to the brick sizes throughout the Indus Valley region, conforming to the 1:2:4, thickness, width, and length ratio. As the Indus civilization began its decline at the start of the second millennium BC, Harappans migrated east, spreading their knowledge of brickmaking technology. This led to the rise of cities like Pataliputra, Kausambi, and Ujjain, where there was an enormous demand for kiln-made bricks.[13]

The earliest fired bricks appeared in Neolithic China around 4400 BC at Chengtoushan, a walled settlement of the Daxi culture.[14] These bricks were made of red clay, fired on all sides to above 600 C, and used as flooring for houses. By the Qujialing period (3300 BC), fired bricks were being used to pave roads and as building foundations at Chengtoushan.[15]

According to Lukas Nickel, the use of ceramic pieces for protecting and decorating floors and walls dates back at various cultural sites to 3000-2000 BC and perhaps even before, but these elements should be rather qualified as tiles. For the longest time builders relied on wood, mud and rammed earth, while fired brick and mud-brick played no structural role in architecture. Proper brick construction, for erecting walls and vaults, finally emerges in the third century BC, when baked bricks of regular shape began to be employed for vaulting underground tombs. Hollow brick tomb chambers rose in popularity as builders were forced to adapt due to a lack of readily available wood or stone.[16] The oldest extant brick building above ground is possibly Songyue Pagoda, dated to 523 AD.

By the end of the third century BCE in China, both hollow and small bricks were available for use in building walls and ceilings. Small fired bricks were first mass-produced during the construction of the tomb of China's first Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. The floors of the three pits of the terracotta army were paved with an estimated 230,000 small bricks, with the majority measuring 28x14x7 cm, following a 4:2:1 ratio. Up until the Middle Ages, buildings in Central Asia were typically built with unbaked bricks. It was only starting in the ninth century CE when buildings were entirely constructed using fired bricks.[16]

...the kilnmaster had to make sure that the temperature inside the kiln stayed at a level that caused the clay to shimmer with the colour of molten gold or silver. He also had to know when to quench the kiln with water so as to produce the surface glaze. To anonymous labourers fell the less skilled stages of brick production: mixing clay and water, driving oxen over the mixture to trample it into a thick paste, scooping the paste into standardised wooden frames (to produce a brick roughly 42 cm long, 20 cm wide, and 10 cm thick), smoothing the surfaces with a wire-strung bow, removing them from the frames, printing the fronts and backs with stamps that indicated where the bricks came from and who made them, loading the kilns with fuel (likelier wood than coal), stacking the bricks in the kiln, removing them to cool while the kilns were still hot, and bundling them into pallets for transportation. It was hot, filthy work.

Early civilisations around the Mediterranean, including the Ancient Greeks and Romans, adopted the use of fired bricks. By the early first century CE, standardised fired bricks were being heavily produced in Rome.[17] The Roman legions operated mobile kilns,[18] and built large brick structures throughout the Roman Empire, stamping the bricks with the seal of the legion.[19] The Romans used brick for walls, arches, forts, aqueducts, etc. Notable mentions of Roman brick structures are the Herculaneum gate of Pompeii and the baths of Caracalla.[20]

During the Early Middle Ages the use of bricks in construction became popular in Northern Europe, after being introduced there from Northwestern Italy. An independent style of brick architecture, known as brick Gothic (similar to Gothic architecture) flourished in places that lacked indigenous sources of rocks. Examples of this architectural style can be found in modern-day Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Kaliningrad (former East Prussia).[21]

Long-distance bulk transport of bricks and other construction equipment remained prohibitively expensive until the development of modern transportation infrastructure, with the construction of canal, roads, and railways.[citation needed]

Production of bricks increased massively with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the rise in factory building in England. For reasons of speed and economy, bricks were increasingly preferred as building material to stone, even in areas where the stone was readily available. It was at this time in London that bright red brick was chosen for construction to make the buildings more visible in the heavy fog and to help prevent traffic accidents.[24]

The transition from the traditional method of production known as hand-moulding to a mechanised form of mass-production slowly took place during the first half of the nineteenth century. Possibly the first successful brick-making machine was patented by Henry Clayton, employed at the Atlas Works in Middlesex, England, in 1855, and was capable of producing up to 25,000 bricks daily with minimal supervision.[25] His mechanical apparatus soon achieved widespread attention after it was adopted for use by the South Eastern Railway Company for brick-making at their factory near Folkestone.[26] The Bradley & Craven Ltd 'Stiff-Plastic Brickmaking Machine' was patented in 1853, apparently predating Clayton. Bradley & Craven went on to be a dominant manufacturer of brickmaking machinery.[27] Predating both Clayton and Bradley & Craven Ltd. however was the brick making machine patented by Richard A. Ver Valen of Haverstraw, New York, in 1852.[28]

At the end of the 19th century, the Hudson River region of New York State would become the world's largest brick manufacturing region, with 130 brickyards lining the shores of the Hudson River from Mechanicsville to Haverstraw and employing 8,000 people. At its peak, about 1 billion bricks were produced a year, with many being sent to New York City for use in its construction industry.[29]

Unfired bricks, also known as mud-bricks, are made from a mixture of silt, clay, sand and other earth materials like gravel and stone, combined with tempers and binding agents such as chopped straw, grasses, tree bark, or dung.[32][33] Since these bricks are made up of natural materials and only require heat from the Sun to bake, mud-bricks have a relatively low embodied energy and carbon footprint.

The ingredients are first harvested and added together, with clay content ranging from 30% to 70%.[34] The mixture is broken up with hoes or adzes, and stirred with water to form a homogenous blend. Next, the tempers and binding agents are added in a ratio, roughly one part straw to five parts earth to reduce weight and reinforce the brick by helping reduce shrinkage.[35] However, additional clay could be added to reduce the need for straw, which would prevent the likelihood of insects deteriorating the organic material of the bricks, subsequently weakening the structure. These ingredients are thoroughly mixed together by hand or by treading and are then left to ferment for about a day.[32]

The mix is then kneaded with water and molded into rectangular prisms of a desired size. Bricks are lined up and left to sundry for three days on both sides. After the six days, the bricks continue drying until required for use. Typically, longer drying times are preferred, but the average is eight to nine days spanning from initial stages to its application in structures. Unfired bricks could be made in the spring months and left to dry over the summer for use in the fall. Mud-bricks are commonly employed in arid environments to allow for adequate air drying.[32]

In many modern brickworks, bricks are usually fired in a continuously fired tunnel kiln, in which the bricks are fired as they move slowly through the kiln on conveyors, rails, or kiln cars, which achieves a more consistent brick product. The bricks often have lime, ash, and organic matter added, which accelerates the burning process.

The advantage of the BTK design is a much greater energy efficiency compared with clamp or scove kilns. Sheet metal or boards are used to route the airflow through the brick lattice so that fresh air flows first through the recently burned bricks, heating the air, then through the active burning zone. The air continues through the green brick zone (pre-heating and drying the bricks), and finally out the chimney, where the rising gases create suction that pulls air through the system. The reuse of heated air yields savings in fuel cost.


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