Logan Certified Mixed Use Update: Brisch Brick, A Local Material


Another peek inside our mixed use commercial/retail loft coming this Spring/Summer. We found that the salvageable Chicago Common brick on our non-street facing wall was made by Brisch Brick Co., and traced the origins of this natural material to Chicagoland. Adaptive reuse is one of the supporting pillars of our design philosophy, which always chooses intentionality over blanket bulldozing. Not only does salvaging quality materials save us (and our clients) time and money, it fits neatly into our ethos of doing our part for the environment when it comes to the spaces we use to live, work and relax. Although we may not have contact with the landfills that exist in our subconscious like a bad dream, we know they’re out there. Plus the artifacts we salvage usually have an interesting story behind them.

Thomas Brisch was the President of Brisch Brick Co. Brisch emmigrated from Germany and founded the Brisch Brick Co. with his brother Michael. His obituary is printed below.

Brisch Brick Co. and six other local companies in Chicagoland were producing Chicago Common Brick by the truckload, making Chicago a brick-producing marvel for many decades. Chicago Common Brick can be found most anywhere in Chicago alleys and in old buildings. The local clay that made it was deposited by a glacier long ago, and turns a lovely light pink when fired in a kiln. Chicago Common Brick is not often found on the face of buildings because it was meant to serve as a structural element or a firewall; more uniform looking bricks slowly overtook the “rustic” look, and CCBs fell out of fashion. Nowadays, we embrace the breaking their distinguished aesthetic, and find these bricks to be quite valuable; you can even order them online! Brisch Brick Co. was one of the local brick manufacturers that took advantage of Chicagoland’s vast dolomite quarries. Dolomite bricks are more porous than other types of brick, making them very breathable. At the time of the Tribune article “Chicago Clay, Stone Help Build it”  (Chicago Tribune, June 26, 1953), there were about five quarries of limestone and dolomite within a moderate range of Chicago. The material, because it was so plentiful, was ridiculously cheap and was used abundantly in old Chicago buildings.

The last Chicago Common Brick manufacturer closed in 1981. The quarries were active from the 1850s to about the 1980s. The bricks were mainly used as interior and side walls, but the 1930s saw them front and center when architects like Frank Lloyd Wright appreciated their organic nature. Some forty years later, with brick demand in decline, uniformity in demand, and concrete blocks replacing bricks as the cheapest choice, the CCB hovered near extinct. It can be sought after through salvage and vintage markets.

In addition to our reasons for loving adaptive reuse, the element of local bricks made of local clay is hugely relevant when considering sustainable design. For one, local clay was plentiful, and therefore a resource no one was in danger of depleting. Non-depletion is a major point when considering the overall material sustainability in building projects. Two, clay and brick are natural materials, with great thermal mass properties (absorb heat during the day, release it at night), breathability, and biodegradability. There are zillions of kinds of bricks used all over the world, but traditionally they include materials whose chemical structure has simply been altered by exposure to dry heat, and will easily biodegrade without harming the local ecosystem. Being made of local clay also means cutting down on needless transportation and greenhouse gases that would otherwise be accumulated during the journey from source to site.

Brick also is known for its longevity and fireproof-ness (it is made in fire, after all), perhaps explaining its popularity in Chicago. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NSIT) assumes masonry will last for a century with little to no maintenance. But of course, buildings much older than that exist, and with a little restoration, that crumbling English church or charming archway could be good as new for many more years.

Speaking of adaptive reuse, building codes exist to protect people from falling plaster, or worse. But brick gets a free pass (after thorough vetting to standard of course); it is one of just a handful of materials that building codes allow to be reused.

CCB bricks used to be known as “Chicago Pinks”. Doesn’t get more Chicago than that.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our Brisch brick odyssey, and that the next time you see some exposed brick you look out for the Brisch name!