The traditional building block of British homes fell out of favour - but now bricks are making a comeback. What's behind their remarkable fall and rise in popularity?
The conveyor belts are running again. The kiln is fired up to its maximum temperature of 1,025C. Machines stretch clay, cut it into brick shapes and shrink-wrap the the final product in plastic.
Staff in high-visibility jackets ensure quality is maintained. Duds, chipped or smashed, go into skips. Eight million pristine bricks are stacked in the yard, in pallets of 468, ready to transport to builders across the UK.
It wasn't always like this at Hanson Building Products' Huncoat brick works, just outside Accrington, east Lancashire, which began operating in the late 19th Century. Huncoat re-opened this January after closing in 2008. For almost seven years only pigeons, security guards and maintenance staff visited.
Huncoat had fallen victim to the same forces that affected the entire UK brick-making industry. When house prices slumped in 2008, so too did demand for building products. And for years bricks were considered old-fashioned by many cutting-edge architects, who often favoured glossier, sparklier finishes.
But they are once again in huge demand. UK manufacturers produced 464 million of them in the first three months of this year - up 5% on the same period of 2014, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This followed a 17% rise from 2013 to 2014.
"Bricks and mortar" is synonymous with housing. This persists even though other materials - glass, steel and concrete among them - are available.
"We live on an island that's quite damp," says Simon Hay, chief executive of the Brick Development Association. "It also has extremes of temperature. Bricks can withstand it all. That's why you see so many brick Victorian and Edwardian buildings, which have hardly needed any maintenance since they were built - maybe a bit of re-pointing at most."
Wood cladding is a feature of many modern buildings but, Hay says, this can wear more rapidly, sometimes becoming unsightly if not maintained.
"At the creative end, for architects, bricks are an incredibly open-ended material, allowing all sorts of interesting designs," Hay says. Brick buildings, for years overlooked in architectural competitions, have started to figure more prominently. "Of course, most bricks go into housing," says Hay, "but they're also becoming more sought-after for top-end design. They're fashionable."
To cope with current and anticipated national building demand, brick works have also re-opened in Ewhurst, Surrey, Hartlebury, Worcestershire, and Claughton, north Lancashire. A new plant has started in Chesterton, Staffordshire.
UK brick stocks more than halved from 702 million bricks in 2010 to 349 million last year, according to the ONS. Shortages caused architects to report delays to projects, some taking as long as five years to get completed. But the stocks have recovered a little since then, suggesting brick makers are coming to terms with the situation.
The last batch of bricks made at Huncoat in 2008 remains un-emptied in an old, disused shed, its load a ghostly reminder of the building's former purpose. "There's nothing as eerie as a deserted brick works," says Paul Wingfield, manager of the manufacturing plant. "It seems so devoid of life to be in a large building with no one in it."
But now a new, larger shed next door houses two production lines. Hanson Building Products decided last autumn to re-open the plant. "We had to turn things around in a few months from being a mothballed site to a fully functioning brick works," says Wingfield. "There's been so much goodwill towards the place. Lots of people who lost their jobs have applied to work here again, even if they've already got jobs elsewhere."
Bricks from Huncoat are famous for their extreme hardness, allowed by the chemical make-up of the clay gathered from the neighbouring quarry. They became known as "Nori" bricks. The name originated when the word "iron", denoting their strength, was painted upside down on the works chimney. The resulting misapprehension led to a joke which became a widely used nickname.
Or maybe it was because the moulding of the word on the bricks themselves was back-to-front. No one seems to know. Either way, the name stuck and the quality of Noris became a source of east Lancashire pride. They constituted the foundations of the Empire State Building and the Blackpool Tower. "Next time you visit New York, think Accrington," novelist Jeanette Winterson, who grew up in the town, has recommended.
These days, most demand for Huncoat's bricks comes from the domestic market. The plant is about to raise its production to 140,000 bricks a day, about 46 million a year. The workforce is expanding from 32 to 54 next month, the operation moving to 24 hours a day. The procession from clay to finished brick takes about a week.
How are bricks made?
- Different clays extracted from a number of areas across the country often dictate the colour and properties of the finished brick, providing a clear indication of the clay's origin
- Clay bricks and pavers are made up of a great variety of natural clay deposits which together with the firing characteristics of the manufacturing process govern the resulting properties of the brick or paver
- The clay is crushed and mixed with water to form a pliable material which can be moulded into different shapes and sizes
- Once fired to a very high temperature it reaches a hard and weather-resistant form
Huncoat's re-opening coincided with the design world taking a renewed interest in brick, a material thought to have been invented in Turkey or the Middle East 9,000 years ago.
One of the short-listed entries to Royal Institute of British Architecture's Stirling Prize last year was the brick-faceted Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the London School of Economics, which necessitated the manufacture of 6,000 specially shaped bricks to create its irregular shape and latticework. The winner was Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, which also combined modern design with traditional materials, including an auditorium made from 25,000 reclaimed bricks.
The short list for this year's Royal Institute of British Architects National Awards - effectively the preliminary stage of the Stirling Prize - shows brick continuing to excite. One nominee, the redevelopment of St Mary of Eton Church in east London, uses a modern red-brick design, interspersed with blue and white, for the exterior of flats. On Wednesday, the Brick Development Association held its first Design Day Brick Works in London. Architects and artists gathered to "celebrate brick as an artistic medium".
Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne visited Huncoat in January. Osborne called its restart "the strongest possible evidence" of an economic revival.
"If you'd said this time last year that we'd be in this position by the middle of 2015, I would have called you optimistic at best," Wingfield says. "In brick terms, the Nori was always regarded as a Rolls-Royce and we've kept that quality going at Huncoat. It remains to be seen how far we go."
More from the Magazine
In 2007 the Labour government set a target for 240,000 homes to be built a year by 2016. The UK is nowhere near that. Why, asks Tom de Castella.
Photographs by Phil Coomes
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