Tone on Tuesday 131: Our love affair with brick and tile | Architecture & Design

2022-07-11 21:43:28 By : Ms. Alisa Chan

”You might just as well talk to a brick wall.” “I like talking to a brick wall- it's the only thing in the world that never contradicts me!” - Oscar Wilde, Act 3, Lady Windermere’s Fan

Most Australians are snobs about building materials: real houses are made from face brick and terracotta tiles, everything else is inferior; so when it comes to home design, they love three things: big plans, low costs, and ‘brick and tile’.

From the 1960s project home builders learnt how to use ‘brick veneer’ to meet all three desires, but their legacy is having created 50% of our housing stock as under-insulated, rotting boxes. Here’s how.

The early history - not brick-and-tile

Our earliest cottages were ‘wattle and daub’ – battens with mud – roofed with timber shingles and canvas. Unsecure and weather-frail the settlers pined for the qualities of homes left behind: solid brick walls with slate roofs, and they set about obtaining it.  However, the desire for a ‘solid home’ met with difficulties for first settlers. Having exhausted the cabbage tree palms, they found the Angophoras and Eucalypts too tough for their 18th C English axes.

Soon good clay was found, and the convicts turned to brick making. They hand shaped ‘sandstock’ bricks and burnt them in crude kilns (where they found gum trees better as kiln fuel than structure); and used imported slate (for the ‘landed gentry’) and imported ‘corrugated iron’ replaced timber shingles. The solid Australian home was on its way, with an Animal Farm-like cry - ‘brick is good, all else is bad’.

In the 19th century the bricks got bigger, designed for huge Irish-convict hands, the brick sizes were now the largest in the world. Whilst brick quality improved, they were still dimensionally and aesthetically crude, thermally and structurally poor and porous. The solution was to disguise them by rendering over.

Prestigious civic buildings were built in stone (Yellowblock sandstone in Sydney, Bluestone in Melbourne). The rest were solid brick with render over, often carved with ‘coursing’ to look like stone.  The tradition of upmarket fronts to buildings in Australia is underway: if stone is better than brick, and brick is better than weatherboards, let’s build in brick and make it look like stone. 

Other remedies to the poor quality were borrowed from India, where the NSW Corps had served, adding ‘verandas’ and ‘bungalows’ as new words to the fledgling Aussie dialect. There are more innovations. Corrugated metal roofing is imported, cast iron columns and panels arrive as decoration for the verandas, not the main game.

Other climatically appropriate materials appear (timber houses in Brisbane, limestone blocks in Perth) but brick holds sway. But, even with eaves, verandas and render the ‘solid’ walls, two or three bricks thick, leak badly. They are ill-suited to the heavy Australian rain and humidity. Two technological revolutions in the 20thC try to remedy that issue, to ensure that brick will always be our favourite material.

Double, Cavity or Full Brick

The first revolution is ‘cavity brick’, although it goes almost unnoticed amongst the stylistic and social changes brought about at Federation: freestanding homes, not terraces, built for owners not renters, on larger ‘quarter-acre’ blocks, and most noticeably, built in a wholly new’ style. ‘Federation’ adopted the English ‘Queen Anne’ style of 50 years earlier, requiring ‘honesty in materials’ and ‘displays of craftsmanship’. 

Cavity, double, or full brick construction is central to this stylistic change.  It uses two ‘leaves’ or ‘skins’ of bricks, with a space in between, held together by metal ties, to ensure the inner wall remains dry no matter how wet the outer skin may be.  The inner skin is the structure, leaving the outer skin to be decorative.  And how extravagantly decorative the new style turned out to be in pushing out the fuddy-duddy Victorian era. 

Better quality bricks, in wildly contrasting colours, are trimmed in ‘tuck-pointed’ mortar to emphasise the neat and accurate bond.  New brick shapes make fancy sills and heads to doors and windows, including the round ‘oeuil-de boef’. Facing the street are high-quality ‘face’ bricks, whereas the plain sides and rear are built in ‘commons’. The front is special, picked out in ‘specials’.

By now the once practical ‘corrugated iron’ or steel roof becomes a reviled membrane, to be replaced with more solid terracotta tiles at the earliest opportunity. Imported from France they become known for the port of export, Marseille (although few houses in that city have the Australian pattered tile). The tiled ridges are capped in terracotta kangaroos, cockatoos and platypuses as finials. Riotously bright and cheerful Federation becomes Australia’s favourite style.

Our leading mid-century architectural historian, Max Freeland, claimed cavity brick construction as an Australian invention, but later academic Miles Lewis showed that it had been invented and in limited use in Europe for many years in the 19th C. But its instant popularity and pervasiveness made Australia the centre of its development and use for 50 years, until the second revolution: timber frame construction with a veneer of brick.

Material shortages after the ‘30s depression, and particularly after WW2, drive a desire to find alternatives to bricks. The timber frame for walls came to the fore, now that the technology to wrestle the Australian hardwoods had been developed in floors and roofs. But what to clad it with?  Weatherboards are difficult in hardwood, bricks are scarce and expensive, so fibrous cement sheet, the humble ‘fibro’, becomes the most common material. Later the dreaded asbestos.

The explorations of timber frames by AV Jennings in the 1930s led to acceptance by authorities and banks. All agreed that ‘fibro’ and timber cladding were poor, so the timber frame gets a ‘veneer’ of brick on the outside of the building (structurally made from a hardwood or softwood frame and trusses for the roof framing).

The brickwork, formerly the solid structural elements providing acoustic and thermal performance for the building is now reduced to a thin veneer applied to the outside to give the appearance of solidity, all the while the frame inside is doing most of the work. By 1960 the dominant paradigm of ‘full-brick’ is over (except in Perth).

Bricks can now be variously coloured and patterned with the new extrusion and wire cutting techniques. The terracotta roof tiles are mimicked in coloured concrete. It’s all about the achieving the look of ‘full brick’ at a lower price. A veneer of brick over the frame gives the illusion of solidity and a sense of individuality can be promoted in a standardised plan and elevation. 

The Powerhouse Museum summarises: “Compared to the traditional double brick house, a brick veneer house is cheaper and faster to build without sacrificing the status of a solid brick house.”

The English critic Nicolas Pevsner called it the “poverty of diversity”; and NZ architect David Mitchell in ‘The Elegant Shed’ explained its allure as “everyone sees their own house in colour and the rest in Black and White”.

Over time, the most significant change in vernacular homes, replacing the internal brick structural leaf with a timber frame, has raised numerous issues in performance, causing the greatest set of problems we have in housing construction. Most relating to moisture, from outside to in.

Starting with aesthetics, the least problematic issue. Bricklaying is a dying craft (literally). Once in command of the whole house, and complex forms, bricklayers had huge skills to go with the wide range of brick shapes. Now they are asked for flat walls for dull box shapes with no sophistication. They have gone from craft, to trade to subcontractor. Consequently, dumbed down. No wonder you can’t find creative bricklayers, or indeed any.

Bricks are porous, more so the mortar. Hence the cavity was invented to allow the moisture / water that enters through the bricks and cracks to fall inside the ‘cavity space’ to be pushed out by flashings (through weep holes). It seems an odd idea to let the water in, only to direct it out, but every building system now uses this ‘rain screen’ design.

The bricks are held on to the timber frame with metal ‘ties’, originally made from galvanised steel that quickly rusted, leaving the bricks to come loose. Now made from stainless steel they can still suffer from previous issue of poor installation that directs the water inside. Water ingress also occurs through poorly fitted windows, so the frame gets wet, from water directly or moisture vapour indirectly.

The timber frame was originally made from hardwood, strong but hard to join and susceptible to movement as it dries and shrinks. Radiata Pine plantations matured in the ‘60s giving a ready supply of softwood for frames but, like the hardwood before, it developed mould in the frame, and a perfect dark, warm, and humid environment for termites. Hence two responses: the termite eradication industry, and timber preservation.

We now have two forms of preservation, Copper Chrome Arsenate (or CCA) and Light Oil Solvent Preservative (or LOSP), but we still have a vast number of older houses with frames that are deteriorating from ‘dry rot’ (curiously caused by water ‘drying out’ the timber), and termites. Vigilance is the only prevention, but householders are notoriously lazy in undertaking house maintenance.

Frames can have insulation. Both reflective and bulk to a level of R3 or above. But it almost never does. The cavity can be filled with ‘batts’ but isn’t as it can’t be seen and is not a selling point. Insulation is hard to retrofit to brick veneer, unlike brick cavities which can be safely insulated, or additional insulation in the ceiling.

Sixty years of uninsulated brick veneer gives Australia the poorest climate-adapted houses in the OECD. And much of our country has the mildest of climates. No other developed country would allow one third of its homes to be built without that most basic requirement for thermal comfort and energy saving – reflective roof insulation under the tiles and bulk insulation on the ceiling.

Finally, the interior. Plasterboard is essentially a sheet of plaster reinforced cardboard, soft, easily damaged, and very susceptible to moisture, as we have seen in the recent floods. It was originally nailed, then glued and nailed, and now nailed and screwed, but any movement can wriggle it loose.

There are changes afoot in brick veneer. The traditional 110mm thick brick has been reduced to 90 or 70mm in thickness to reduce the material for the ‘veneer’. Vapour barriers in the from of a ‘wrap’ are now mandatory. Insulation, held inside the wrap is more common. In areas where resilience is needed cement-based sheets replace plasterboard.

In the name of greed, we have created suburbs, on the (flood) plains extended, full of the world’s largest homes, beautiful to the common palate, with the favoured look of permanence, but rotting away inside. Rather like a coffin in a marbled tomb it’s a timber box, clad with masonry to give it the illusion of permanency, but both are rotting from the inside. We have a name for the problem in our houses: ‘brick veneereal disease’. 

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]

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