The best bricks for your build

Jason Hughes of Imperial Bricks has tips on choosing bricks for your self-build

Many self-build projects may be on hold while we work through the COVID-19 crisis, with homebuilders and renovators using the time to research the right products for their projects and compare for value, durability and the all-important kerb appeal.

The choice of brick is one of the most important aspects. So it’s worth taking the time to choose carefully, and research what’s available – and appropriate – first. Size and colour have to be right, particularly if it’s an extension to or a conversion of an existing property. Planning and conservation officers often have strong views on what is acceptable, and usually look for something which will work with existing architecture.

There’s a huge selection of bricks on the market to choose from now, and your architect, contractor or merchant will be able to advise on local requirements. Reputable brick suppliers will also be able to support self-builders through this process.

Handmade bricks are particularly popular for self-builds or small, upmarket developments. Adding depth of character, charm and kerb appeal to any project; the face of each handmade brick is unique. An authentic match for the local area can ensure new builds instantly blend in with their surroundings. In conservation areas, some planning officers may request reclaimed bricks, but these are expensive and increasingly difficult to source in the quantities required. Moreover, the quality is unreliable at best and there is usually a high amount of wastage. A new handmade brick can achieve the reclaimed look, without the drawbacks.

Colour changes everything

The first step is to select the right colour for the geographic area and the style of building. The UK is a relatively small country but the regional variations are huge. In the past people made bricks from their local clay, so within the space of a few miles the predominant colour can change from red to yellow, taking in pink, blue or grey along the way. London, for example, has yellow and red – and even within a small area the colour can vary as the bricks have endured different conditions (e.g. smog, weathering) over the years. Repeat this across the country and you have some idea of the range in what was traditionally used.

New handmade bricks can be produced to match any of these variations. Brick manufacturers offer many colours as standard, but if there isn’t a perfect match from stock a bespoke blend can be mixed.

Another variation is the sizing. Before 1965 all bricks were imperially sized, so any repair or extension should be imperial too for a perfect match. And imperial sizes differ depending on the area, with bricks in the north traditionally larger than those in the south. But it’s worth noting that for a complete new build, handmade bricks also come in metric sizes, to work with modern lintels and blocks. A weathered or aged finish can ensure metric handmades sit perfectly alongside existing properties, whether that’s an infill site in an urban setting, or a new development in a rural village.

Paul Lockwood, who specialises in building bespoke family homes, comments: “Given the volume of new build construction in our area, we prefer to use materials which set us apart; handmade, reclamation-style bricks in metric sizes can give us the traditional look we want.”

Meanwhile, for modern methods of construction, handmade brick slips can be used with timber or steel framing, for fast track builds that still deliver on kerb appeal. Slips (cut from whole bricks) are also increasingly being used internally to create feature walls that either match external brickwork or draw on new trends e.g. lime washed, linear, or glazed options.

Quality counts 

Finally, and above all, go for quality. The bricks you buy will cost maybe 6 per cent of the total materials bill, but are one of the biggest contributors to its overall value. The first defence against the elements, bricks have to stand up to the harshest of conditions. They should be CE marked, which will ensure each batch meets current British standards and has been tested for freeze-thaw performance, compressive strength, water absorption, soluble salts, and dimensional tolerances at the minimum.

Help is on hand

Choosing the right brick may seem daunting, but there’s plenty of support available; take your time and always ask for sample bricks. Many merchants have sample boards of locally suitable bricks, so the customer can get a better idea of how a brick mix or ‘blend’ would work on a larger area to create an overall effect, and what colour mortar works best. Lime mortar should always be used with handmade bricks, as it is breathable and allows for natural movement.

In normal circumstances site visits can be arranged but in the current Coronavirus pandemic they may be difficult to arrange. However, you should be able to get further advice direct from the manufacturer who can offer expert guidance over the phone, via email or even apps, checking photos of the desired look against their product portfolio, or offer a bespoke solution.

Jason Hughes is managing director of Imperial Bricks