Building Materials: Brick and Mortar, or Building like the Third Little Pig


Chicago is a city of brick.  Partly due to the local availability of materials and (more) to the desire for permanence and relatively fire-proof buildings after that thing that happened in 1871.  Our downtown may be mostly gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers but Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and those neighborhoods are built of brick – both commercial avenues and residential side streets.  In the Courtyard Apartment Buildings, the Bungalows, and even in the sides and back of the Greystone Flats, brick is everywhere.  

This building material has pretty much been around since there were building materials.  Its most basic form can be created from mud blocks but the fired clay brick was used by the Romans and all through the dark ages.  Today it has been standardized into a recognizable unit that has a consistent dimensions … and then bastardized into fake cladding veneers that can be mounted on a 2×4 wall.

How does Brick Work

For the most part, bricks are stacked.  They can be used as decoration or as pavers but from a structural point of view bricks work by sitting firmly one on top of another.  Unlike concrete, poured into any form the designer chooses, or wood, cut and fit to endless lengths, a brick is rarely used in anything but its basic dimension.  That geometry – arranged so that three bricks stacked (with mortar) are equal to one brick set on end has been used in many configurations to create myriad shapes and forms of buildings without ever, changing itself.  The modular nature of the brick its its great strength.

Here’s some basic brick configuration terminology which you can use to impress your friends (or convince them you’re a nerd) the next time you point out a brick building:

brick orientations, brick position diagram, terminology

Note that each of the configurations above is made of the same brick (note: face bricks have on special finished side but still the same dimensions) so when you see a pattern in a structural brick wall with wide and narrow bricks, the narrow spaces represent bricks oriented back into the wall, not smaller bricks.  Using them, many patterns can be created.  Below are just a few of the most oft used patterns.

brick bonds

What does the Brick Want to BE?

One of the most famous quotes in architecture is a variation on the below.  Architect Lous Kahn asking, “what does the brick want to be,” to demonstrate the power of using materials in their most natural forms – using materials for what they are rather than as decorative finishes over hidden, unloved, structures.

”If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, ‘What do you want, Brick?’ And Brick says to you, ‘I like an Arch.’ And if you say to Brick, ‘Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, Brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an Arch.’

Louis Kahn – via the documentary My Architect

This conversation is at the head of much of modernism – the honesty of materials.  We like to use materials as they are rather than misapplying them to conceal what they could be.

Why not build with brick?

Brick construction isn’t ideal in areas with seismic activity – its nota  good idea in California, for example.  It also only works well up to a certain height of building.  As cities began to grow up in the centers brick stopped being useful as a structure and started being reduced to just a cladding which makes it much less fun.  That didn’t prevent brick from being a great go-to building material in lower-lying areas.  These days brick as become less common since many other methods are cheaper.  Masons are less common – Illinois only has about 3,000 brick masons (and that number is second only to New York state).

Solid Masonry vs Cavity Wall Construction

Nowadays, brick buildings have lost a little of their character and charm due to the mass standardization of their construction.  Modern bricks are more machined and less interesting to look at than their earlier counter parts.  And very view buildings are constructed solely of brick anymore.  It is much more common to use a cavity wall construction method where the structure of the building is supported with Concrete Masonry Unit blocks and only the outermost layer is decorated with brick.  Here’s a great explanation of the difference.  While cavity wall systems have some advantages (they can be insulated, for instance) they have much less character than their solid masonry counterparts.

From our point of view it is less interesting to construct a new building of brick, using a clad or cavity wall system, than it is to remodel and preserve an existing brick building constructed in the old way.

Notable Brick Structures

The Chrysler Building in New York City is the worlds tallest steel-supported brick building but the tallest free standing brick structure isn’t a building at all – its a smoke stack from the Anaconda Copper Company smelting operation, affectionately known as “the Stack”.  Its still standing 585 feet tall (that’s the height of the Washington Monument minus its pyramid) with an inside diameter of 75 feet at the base in Montana and part of the state park system there.

So the next time you stroll down a Chicago street (or in particular if you turn down an alley) take note of the brick all around you.