Knowledge Hub

Is clay brick sustainable?

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass net zero emissions into law. This means that the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases are required to reduce by 100%, relative to 1990 levels, by 2050. To achieve this goal, it is the government’s aim that all sectors of the UK economy will be decarbonised by 2050. This will clearly be a challenge for all industries, not least for the construction industry.

The sustainability of the building materials supply chain will, quite rightly, come under increasing scrutiny. So how will a product that has been made more or less the same way for hundreds of years stand up to this scrutiny?

The key when considering the purchase of any product is to look at the bigger picture. Where is the product made? How was it made and by whom? What resources go into making it, transporting it, using it? What is the life expectancy – and lifecycle – of the product? What, if anything, is being done to improve the product’s sustainability?

Let’s look at those questions more closely:

Where is clay brick made?
The vast majority of the UK’s clay brick requirement can be satisfied by the UK domestic clay brick industry, with factories located across Britain.

How is it made and by whom?
Nearly all of the UK’s brick manufacturers are members of the Brick Development Association (BDA). The BDA’s Brickmakers Quality Charter (BQC) makes it easy to identify responsible manufacturers. BQC holders are required to demonstrate their compliance with, and adherence to, a range of internationally recognised standards.

What resources are used to make clay brick?
Unsurprisingly, the main ingredient of clay brick is clay. British clay brick manufacturers will typically own the quarries from where they extract their clay and, more often than not, the clay pit will be located close to the clay brick factory, minimising transport and its associated emissions.

Once a clay pit comes to the end of its useful life, it will often be given back to nature. Forterra’s Kings Dyke Nature Reserve, for example, is a former clay pit that is now an award-winning reserve, home to an abundance of wildlife.

Kings Dyke

How is clay brick transported?
Clay brick is transported on heavy goods vehicles that are designed to maximise efficiency and minimise emissions.

Forterra has recently invested £21 million in upgrading its fleet to Euro 6 engines with lighter weight bodies that also accommodate higher payloads. As well as reducing the emissions associated with each vehicle movement, the increased payload means fewer movements are required.

What resources are required to be able to use clay brick?
Clay brick requires little more than mortar, steel ties and the skills of a bricklayer. This is in contrast to concrete brick which requires greater stainless steel reinforcement that, as well as adding to construction time, adds to the carbon footprint of a structure built using them.

What is the life expectancy of clay brick?
You don’t need to look very far in the UK to see clay brick buildings that are centuries old. A 150-year-old brick building will look at least as good as when the bricks were first laid. It is the longevity of clay brick, and its need for little to no maintenance, that contributes to its sustainability as a building material.

What is the life cycle of clay brick?
When a building made of clay brick reaches the end of its current purpose it can be repurposed or demolished and the bricks refurbished, re-used or recycled many times over.

What are clay brick manufacturers doing to improve sustainability?
The industry is following a Decarbonisation and Energy Efficiency Roadmap, with many manufacturers already switching away from the higher CO2 emitting fuels such as coal.

At Forterra, multi-million-pound investments are being made to improve the efficiency of its factories. A £95-million investment in its Desford factory will see it become Europe’s largest and most efficient brick factory, capable of producing 180 million clay bricks a year, enough to build 24,000 family-sized homes. The new, state-of-the-art factory will deliver market-leading efficiency and sustainability credentials that will minimise the environmental impact of both plant and product.

For a product that has been around for 2,000 or so years, clay brick stands up to scrutiny surprisingly well.

You can read more about the sustainability of clay brick in our e-book.