On a recent visit to the Art of the Brick exhibition, which featured 80 LEGO creations by artist Nathan Sawaya, I was reminded of the power of the humble brick. It was used to create dinosaurs and human statues, replicate famous artworks and animals. And the construction industry uses brick just as creatively to give buildings rhythm and distinctive identities.

Dinosaur made from over 80,000 LEGO bricks
As more and more London buildings require refurbishing, restorating or even new build, we need to make sure they fit in with their surroundings. The LEGO generation has grown up and is embracing bricks to create stunning building facades, sensitively linking the old with the new. And often the results are award-winning. At last year’s 2014 Brick Awards Rick Mather Architects said, “Brick is being re-discovered by a new generation of architects, and the 2014 Brick Awards showcases a range of beautiful and innovative brick buildings. Architects are aware beyond the traditional use of brickwork, that brick material gives the designer control of both creative and disciplined detailed solutions with enduring results.”

Bricks in the city

The BAM-built new East Ham Civic Campus won the Best Public Building at the 2014 Brick Awards. We had to build the new customer service centre and library next to a Grade II listed Edwardian Technical College and Town Hall, which we also restored. The project showcases Michelmersh Brick Holdings’ newest handmade innovative product i-line, a slim line modern brick to compliment striking contemporary designs. The Brick Development Association Brick Awards judges’ comments stated, the “Customer Service Centre + Library is a well-designed building which sits well in its immediate context, and provides a valuable resource for its neighbourhood. The quality and use of brick detailing is high and consistent throughout and its solid structure is beautifully put together and well executed. Vertical brick ribbing on the buildings external facade creates an interesting aesthetic and contributes to the overall beauty of the project. The architectural quality is powerful in terms of spatial and light manipulation.”

Award winning brickwork on East Ham Customer Service Centre and Library

The brick identity

Sometimes, it’s about linking the values of the past with the buildings of the future. For example, BAM is currently building a new student accommodation block as part of the King’s Cross Central development. The 198 bedroom tower will mainly be occupied by students attending the Aga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) and the Institute for Ismaili Studies (IIS), which will be built nearby. To link the new build to the Aga Khan Foundation’s identity, the architect has specified hit and miss brickwork for each bedroom window, which creates a lattice effect reminiscent of oriental window designs. They’ve also chosen mixed brickwork to give the building rhythm, made up from rows of soldiered bricks (bricks stacked vertically), which contrast dramatically with the standard horizontal bricks.

The rise of the brick in interior design

Exposed bricks for interiors are one of the hottest interior design trends of the last few years. Offices, restaurants and universities are all embracing the brick as an internal façade; bricks are sturdy, honest, and linked to a place’s history – values that businesses want to reflect to attract customers.

BAM has had to turn external brick walls into internal feature walls for two major London education buildings in the last few years. At Westminster Kingsway College near Victoria, what were previously the external facades of the building are turning into the internal wall for the new atrium. We’re using a TORC system which uses a mixture of low air pressure, little waste and inert fine granulate to clean the bricks and restore their original colour.  We’ve also reused bricks to close up openings, rather than disposing them as waste.

We did a similar exercise when we built the award-winning University of Arts London campus at King’s Cross, which links the old Grade II listed Granary building to the new extended Central St Martin’s school. BAM sensitively cleaned some of the brickwork to restore the original colour, and some parts of the wall had to be rebuilt using traditional techniques.

We’re also restoring the Victorian brick arches of the Fish and Coal Buildings at King’s Cross, which will become restaurants.

Increasing biodiversity through innovative bricks

Despite their basic shape, there has been some innovation in the brick world; most notably the ‘bat-box brick’, which fits in discreetly within a brick wall but provides additional nesting opportunities for local bats. We’ve installed these at the restored Victorian Stanley Buildings outside St Pancras Station, now known as 7 Pancras Square. BAM has also built some into the adjacent Grade II listed German Gym, while sensitively restoring the detailed Victorian brick façade.

So there you have it. Bricks, like many construction materials, are basic in shape but can be used in a plethora of ways to create unique, attractive buildings that fit in with their surroundings and make communities feel like the building has always belonged there. Hopefully the next generation of architects, structural engineers and builders will be just inspired to preserve London’s past and build its future with the help of the brick.

About the author

Hanna Hayward

Sustainability Advisor

Hanna is a Sustainability Advisor for BAM Construct UK operating in the London region. She is responsible for managing the region’s sustainability program and provides advice to client and project teams, with a focus on resource efficiency, environmental management and sustainable construction.

Previously Hanna worked for the Environment Agency. In the four years since working for BAM she has been recognised as IEMA Graduate of the Year runner up in 2013, 2degrees Top 25 under 25s working in Sustainability in 2014 and recently featured in Building magazine Rising Stars of Sustainability 2015.

Read more articles from Hanna Hayward