Is It Worth using Reclaimed Bricks?
"...now is a good time to start question why shouldn't reclaimed bricks considered as an alternative?"
Peckham Courtyard, Dowlas Street
Partly inspired by the Waste Age Exhibition we all recently visited, this article looks to develop a further understanding of using reclaimed bricks, from the economic, technical, environmental and theoretical perspectives, with a hope to unlock some myths in reusing masonry elements to be used in your next building project. Two of Unagru's completed projects adopted to incorporate reclaimed brick within the build, The Boat and Pavilion and Peckham Courtyard.
“An estimated 2.5 billion bricks arise as demolition waste each year (almost equal to the number we use new each year!), but only 5% are reclaimed for reuse, with the rest crushed for fill. Challenges involve the removal of hard cement mortars and assurance on quality, but many more than 5% should be suitable for reuse.”
Bricks are probably the most common construction material, with their long history and background in building homes for many in the UK. As shown in Great British Brick Storage (2022), the appetite for bricks in this country is growing, and stock availability could be worsened by the recent unrest in Europe (Woodfield, 2022) – with a potential increase in the price of newly produced bricks, now is a good time to start to question why shouldn’t reclaimed bricks considered as an alternative? Especially when you consider that throughout the life cycle of a building, refurbishment or restoration, construction works create a supply of used bricks when they demolish aspects of existing properties, that could be reused.
In general, reclaimed bricks can be categorised into three forms (BuildGreenNH, 2021):
 Old brick: Used bricks that were once part of another building. Many people use these bricks to blend new extensions with the existing building, or to create outdoor patios, fireplaces, walls and fences.
 Salvage brick: Pieces of brick removed from older structures before being demolished. Most salvage bricks are sold through scrap yards and recycling centres.
 Scrapped brick: Pieces of brick left behind after manufacturing processes like cutting, drilling and moulding. These pieces are sometimes called rejects or scraps.
We often get asked, what is the benefit of using reclaimed bricks?
Historical and heritage value
“Rescued from old buildings and cleaned up, reclaimed bricks have edges that are typically worn and irregular, and may have remnants of mortar due to their original use. Good quality reclaimed bricks only require two workable sides, one bond and one stretch. Many will have fine creases, characteristic folds and variations in colour that typify old brickwork. It is this combination that many feel gives reclaimed materials a charm and character all of their own.” (Ace Reclamation, 2017)
Reclaimed bricks have the aged and patina effect that new bricks just can’t replicate. The bricks have withstood weather and time, giving the material a certain charm, like an antique piece “with character by being fully matured and weathered” (ArchitectureToday, n.a). This is also particularly relevant to be “more sympathetic in appearance within a sensitive context” (Leach, 2021) for the Listed Buildings or those located within Conservation Area, where the texture and colour of the reclaimed bricks are able to match with the existing building or neighbourhood. At the Boat & Pavilion we selected reclaimed bricks to blend the new addition of the building seamlessly to the existing.
Sustainability and environmental-friendly
“According to the Brick Development Associations Sustainability Report 2021, the raw materials and production of new bricks outputs 213kg of CO2 per tonne. They also state that the reuse and recycling of bricks at the end of their life has an output of just 16kg of CO2 per tonne. In the construction industry, the amount of bricks used in a single project can be quite high. This is a point of concern for the construction industry, as each year, approximately four billion tonnes of bricks are used in building projects around the world.” (ReclaimedBrick-Tile, n.a)
By using one piece of reclaimed brick, one less new brick is to be used. In term of embodied energy, a three-storey masonry-built house contributes 50% more than an equivalent timber-framed, larch-clad house. Reusing the bricks is a significant move in reducing carbon emission as a wise and sustainable resources management, given that bricks remain as the prevalent form of construction that demands an average of 2.4 billion new bricks that release 2.6 billion kgCO2e in the UK annually (Mounsey and Webb, 2021).
With modern technology and advancement, it is fair to say that reclaimed bricks are easily recyclable and more of them should be kept out of our landfill. But it takes time, cost and effort to take an existing, used brick and make it suitable to reuse, the process of removing debris, mortar or reinforcement steel bars that might be attached to the bricks, making them clean once more. This has also lower negligible embodied energy if bricks can be sourced locally, no toxic emissions from the manufacturing process, and diverts demolition waste from landfills (Greenspec, n.a).
By adopting the reclaimed bricks as “an eco-friendly option due to their usage being a form of unprocessed recycling” (LRBM, 2017), it is a much better option than the used bricks getting thrown away or discard at the factory to recycle, here more energy is consumed for the process which can be quite enormous.
Cost and Availability
We are often asked if reclaimed bricks are cheaper than the new bricks? The quick answer is not all the time. Even when bricks are sourced free of charge from site where demolition works are happening, the time and effort might not be as simple or cost-saving as imagined. Each brick requires careful inspection and cleaning up before they can be reused. Usually, not all the bricks from a demolition are safe to be reused, as the structural load-bearing elements or “established with frost resistance, soluble salts, strength, water absorption and size, all of which are covered by the standard,BS EN 771-1.” (ArchitectureToday, n.a) will vary.
This does not account for the labouring, which included the cleaning of debris and dirt, as well as the brushing and chipping off of the old mortar (Simon, 2021). Unlike modern mortar, lime mortar is harder to remove, especially from pre-1940s buildings, which will be reflected in higher labour cost (Greenspec, n.a).
Reclaimed bricks should be tested to ensure they are still structurally sound. Even if the bricks are not fit for load bearing purposes they can still be reused, for non-load-bearing uses such as pavement, cladding or aesthetic purposes.
The average price of reclaimed bricks varies depending on colour and availability, the common blends could cost up to 85p-90p per brick, for a rarer brick it could cost up to £1.50 per brick, due to the additional cost of sourcing and laying the bricks (Ace Reclamation, 2017). Obviously the price of reclaimed bricks could be discounted when buying in bulk, depending on the quantity and reclamation yard.
In comparison a new common brick, which is only suitable for internal structures, range in price from 20p to 40p per brick; engineering bricks, which can be used externally and have better compressive strength and protection against water and frost, can cost up to 40p each brick; and facing bricks are priced from 40p to £1.20 per brick, depending on materials and manufacturing technique. New bricks are a cheaper alternative to reclaimed bricks, whilst also having the assurance of complying with building standards and are a consistent quality (Greenspec, n.a).
“Reclaimed bricks can originate from old mills and stately houses to pavements, range in age from a few years to centuries old, and come in a variety of colours, shapes, sizes and textures - some even contain fossils and other debris from their original source. This means that when selecting your materials, you want a wide range that reflect these variations and are in keeping with the period of your home.” (Ace Reclamation, 2017)
To summarise the choice of using reclaimed bricks in your next project is not straightforward, it is one for each owner to review and decide for themselves. Here are some key points we would think should be taken into consideration when looking to incorporate reclaimed bricks:
 It is important to consult the architect or specifier about the budget concern and management by looking for the “reclamation yard who is known for sourcing quality materials” (Ace Reclamation, 2017)
 You may visit online resources or specialised groups such as Brick Development Association for guidance before purchasing and using the reclaimed bricks.
 To bring some reclaimed bricks samples to the site for the testing to match the existing bricks from the criteria of condition, colour, texture and size.
 If the reclaimed bricks are sourced from the proposed site, the materials should be stored appropriately against the weather and carefully restored before being integrated into the new project.
For further reading regarding Reclaimed Bricks, we have contributed our thoughts to several articles in Homebuilding & Renovation online:
Written by Gary Yeow
Edited by Nancy Hargreaves