What’s clay brick?

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Clay brick is a popular building material used in construction worldwide. The process of making bricks has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, with clay mixed with water and an aggregate before being fired in a kiln. Brick is valued for its insulating properties, durability, and attractiveness. While other materials have been developed as alternatives, few match the durability of brick.

Clay brick is a very popular building material used in the construction of residential, commercial and industrial structures. While refinements have been made to the brick-making process, it remains largely unchanged from the production of the earliest bricks, estimated to be around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. Indeed, brick making in underdeveloped areas of the world is indistinguishable from what took place thousands of years ago. The size of the bricks also remains largely unchanged, although there are variations between regions, which may reflect that larger bricks will provide more insulation in colder regions.

Clay brick is made by mixing clay with water and an aggregate such as sand to prevent shrinkage and provide bulk. The mud is worked to a relatively thick consistency, pressed into molds, and fired in a kiln at temperatures up to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius). Many different processes and procedures have been developed for the firing process, and modern brick factories can produce millions of bricks each year. Another source of bricks is recycling; when brick structures are demolished, intact bricks are routinely collected and reused.

In addition to construction, clay brick was also used as flooring, but in the age of automobiles it proved unable to bear the load. Roads around the world that were originally brick have been paved or replaced. Brick pavers are popular in residential applications, however, in features such as patios and walkways. Similarly, many cities are experimenting with clay brick paving as a way to introduce an aesthetically pleasing element into pedestrian areas.

In the United States, clay brick is valued as a building material due to its insulating properties, attractiveness, and durability. Many historic structures, such as Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, feature brick construction. At less than 300 years old, however, Independence Hall is a relatively new addition to the long list of ancient brick structures found in Europe. As the Roman legions spread their empire, they brought with them portable kilns for firing bricks, and examples of Roman masonry can be found across the continent. In the UK, for example, brick has been used almost exclusively for centuries. Similarly, bricks and brick structures that are nearly 4,000 years old have been discovered in China.

When brick is used to make load-bearing walls, the walls on the lower floors of a structure must support the weight of the upper floors; therefore, the higher the structure, the thicker the walls on the lower floors must be. For example, the Monadnock Building in Chicago, opened in 1896, is a 17-story brick structure, but the walls on the ground floor are nearly 20 feet thick. It was this inefficient use of space that led to the use of iron, and later steel, for framing tall structures; when such structures have external brick walls, they are simply built around an existing iron or steel frame and are not load-bearing.

In modern times, many different materials have been developed that are practical alternatives to clay brick in terms of cost, ease of installation, and insulation properties. Few such applications match the durability of brick, however, and the look and feel of brick remains very attractive. For both light paving and construction applications, brick remains popular.

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