diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 25, 2021

London's homes were once built from bricks, but these days they're much more likely to be built from fake bricks.

Many modern blocks of flats look like they're built from bricks, because that's the modern aesthetic, but no bricklayers ever turned up to build them. Instead it's all done with panels hoisted onto the front of the building so it looks like brick. Here's one dangling into place.

You see it a lot round my way because the Lower Lea Valley is Construction Central. First a concrete shell goes up, floor by floor, and then when the building's mostly finished they smother the outside in large brickish rectangles. It's all a bit of a cheat.

It's not a recent phenomenon. Concrete skeletons have been the favoured way of constructing flats and tall buildings for years - much less hassle than trying to lay brick walls several storeys above the ground. Masking them with coloured panels was the big fashion in the late 2000s, and later stuck-on tiles, but bricks have since become the covering of choice for a more vernacular look.

If you look closely you can spot which buildings are proper brick and which are merely brick-panelled. The artificial walls are all made from identical panels so there are telltale vertical lines where they meet, regular breaks which might be structurally disastrous if built in the traditional manner. It usually looks fine from further away, but close-up it's a dead giveaway.

Basically this stuff is brick cladding, and cladding hasn't exactly had a good press of late. So what on earth are we doing shrouding our buildings in sheets of fake brick?

(and breathe, and go away and do some quick research)

Ah, ok, they're called brick veneers. You can have all sorts of veneers, the overarching term being 'masonry veneers'. What we're getting a lot of in London are brick veneers.

Loads of companies make brick veneers, their explicit aim to "Give The Appearance Of Hand Laid Brick Walls". Sometimes they're actual full bricks, carefully stuck to a panel with adhesive and surrounded by mortar. Other times they're slices of brick, perhaps quite thin slices, better known as brick slips.

For many years our homes have been built with two outer layers, officially called wythes, with a gap inbetween for insulation purposes. Originally both layers were brick, back when you could squeeze foam between them as cavity wall insulation, but then people worked out they didn't both have to be. Only the interior wythe needed to be load-bearing and the outer wythe could be anything, hence the introduction of flimsier coloured panels and more recently all these brick veneers.

Modern flats therefore tend to be constructed out of concrete masonry units, providing the inner strength in a cost effective way, and once these have been stacked up into the sky the builders come back and cover everything with brick veneer. Incorporating the window frames in the panels also helps keep costs down because it's a lot cheaper to add your glazing at ground level.

The air space between the outer and inner wythe is good at preventing 'thermal bridging', i.e. the tendency of heat to escape when two conducting materials touch each other. Energy expended on heating your flat is less likely to leak out, and if a heatwave hits the warmth is less likely to leak in. Also brick's not always especially waterproof, so the internal gap allows any rainwater that soaks through to flow down what's still the outside of the building and 'weep' away through special holes.

Yes, these prefabricated brick veneers are indeed a means to enable developers to employ system-building procedures and cut costs, and very much a visual cheat. But they also have benefits including better insulation, acoustic buffering and air moisture regulation, plus the brick facing is more durable than a lot of other materials, requiring little or no maintenance over the lifetime of the building.

Basically they're cheap but they're not all bad. They also help to get London's housing built faster and provide an architectural uniformity that might otherwise be lacking. But I bet there are thousands of Londoners who think they live in a brick building when in fact they live in a concrete shell covered in slices of brick veneer.

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