Delivering the vision

Bespoke brick making is undergoing a revival, as Michael Brown of Northcot Brick explains

The architecture of many of our towns and cities still reveals diverse regional characteristics dating back to the days when clay was quarried locally and towns had their own brick kiln.

Bricks were, by virtue of the plentiful local clay sources and variety of kilns used, bespoke and individual to any given location or even individual building project.

In modern times, ever increasing market demand has meant that many manufacturers have sought economies of scale through mechanisation and standardisation. This has resulted in high quality, consistent products at ever more competitive prices, but with arguably less ‘character,’ thereby undervaluing this immensely versatile medium.

However, some small independent manufacturers, which have not had access to the same levels of mass production and investment, have deliberately moved in the opposite direction by offering architects more tailored solutions.

Architects are increasingly looking for customised blends, sometimes driven by the need to meet planning constraints and respect regional identities by matching a specific brick type. However sometimes – as in the case of Manchester’s award-winning Whitworth Art Gallery – they are used to lift or brighten a traditional colour, while referencing its historical context.

To help offer the visual range of old brickwork, age-old techniques such as hand throwing or traditional coal firing to create naturally rich tones remain important. Although bespoke brickmaking can mean as little as a few minor tweaks to an exist- ing blend, more often than not it requires a complicated mix of finishes, textures, and new moulds made for non-standard sizes. In our experience delivering an architect’s vision can involve creating a blend of as many as seven different handmade bricks, mixed together in a precise and agreed ratio.

Specific colours and degrees of weathering are often required, and can generally be achieved through sophisticated antiquing processes and the adjustment of firing and setting patterns in the kiln. There has also been a noticeable trend towards designing with textured brickwork and the use of ornamentation through bespoke special shapes.

As architects continue to push for unique solutions, it is not surprising that bespoke brick making is undergoing a revival, having played a significant part in internationally recognised architectural projects like the Newport Street Gallery, winner of the 2016 RIBA Stirling Prize.

Newport Street Gallery

Designed by Caruso St John Architects, the Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall occupies a terrace of new-build and refur- bished buildings that line Newport Street’s eastern side. The central architectural inspi- ration was the original Victorian brick buildings, with the brickwork used to bind the old and the new elements together. The precise quality of the finish and the intricate brick detailing was an immense work of craftsmanship from manufacture through to the specialist brick laying skill required.

Two distinct bespoke blends were created to match to the fletton-style brick of the listed buildings, one requiring the removal of a specific colour and the other needing a crisper edge than standard. They were then fired the traditional way in order to give a natural variation and tonal richness.

Most brickwork was in Newport Light (181,000 bricks in total), a hard pale semi- glazed machine-made brick, laid mainly in a Flemish bond. The lower courses were constructed with a total of 17,000 Newport Dark bricks, laid in a header bond on a dark mortar.

A total of 6,000 bespoke handmade and standard machine-made special shapes were created to match both blend types, and a unique mould had to be made for each.

Michael Brown is the managing director of Northcot Brick