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Clay Bricks and Green Architecture: A Match Made in Sustainability?


“There’s no use thinking of bricks when all you have is clay,” muses an old saying, elegantly summarising the integral relationship between earth and architecture. Clay, one of the earth’s most bountiful and malleable resources, has been used in building construction for thousands of years.

Indeed, clay bricks have a rich history and have built some of the world’s most renowned structures. But in the modern age, one question often takes precedence: “Are clay bricks sustainable?” As we journey into this exploration, we’ll delve into the role of clay bricks in the wider context of green Architecture and sustainable construction practices.

At Shear Architectural Design, we’re committed to creating sustainable, innovative designs that are not only environmentally friendly but also aesthetically pleasing.

Are Clay Bricks Environmentally Friendly?

As we plunge deeper into the world of clay bricks, we first address the question: “Is clay brick environmentally friendly?” The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think. On one hand, clay bricks, such as burnt clay bricks, hollow clay bricks, or the popular red clay bricks, are derived from a natural, abundant source – clay. This means they have a lower environmental impact in terms of raw material sourcing compared to synthetic construction materials.

However, the production process of clay bricks, particularly the firing or “burning” stage, requires a substantial amount of energy. The firing process often involves burning fossil fuels, leading to carbon emissions – a significant contributing factor to global warming. Thus, the carbon footprint of clay bricks becomes a crucial aspect to consider.

While it’s true that brick and clay have a long-standing relationship, the carbon footprint of clay bricks is determined by the energy consumed during the manufacturing process, which often outweighs the eco-friendly sourcing aspect. This is particularly the case with common burnt clay bricks, which require high temperatures to be created. To mitigate this, sustainable alternatives such as Adobe clay, Porotherm clay blocks, and terracotta bricks can be used. These types of clay bricks utilise more energy-efficient manufacturing methods.

Alternatives to Clay Bricks

Delving deeper into the world of clay bricks, we find ourselves considering alternatives. Some might ask, “Why burnt clay bricks are not sustainable?” Again, the answer lies in the firing process. However, there’s a growing market of ‘green’ bricks, such as Porotherm blocks, that offer a more sustainable solution. These bricks are fired at lower temperatures, leading to lower carbon emissions.

Another option is the use of unfired or “sun-dried” clay bricks, commonly known as Adobe bricks. Adobe clay, made of a mixture of clay, sand, and straw, is dried naturally in the sun, hence eliminating the carbon-emitting firing process. It’s a type of sustainable brick that boasts of an excellent thermal performance, meaning homes built with Adobe stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Alternatives: The Rise of Green Bricks

As we continue to navigate through the complex world of sustainable materials, we can’t ignore the rise of green bricks. These are bricks designed to minimise their environmental impact, either through their manufacturing process, use, or both. Examples of green bricks include Porotherm bricks and blocks, terracotta air bricks, and other types of clay air bricks. The key here is to remember that in sustainable Architecture, every element should have a minimal impact on the environment – including bricks.

Porotherm bricks are a prime example of this ethos in action. Manufactured by Wienerberger, these bricks are praised for their thermal efficiency, strength, and sustainable manufacturing process. Porotherm blocks are fired at a much lower temperature than traditional bricks, which reduces the energy needed and therefore, the carbon emissions produced.

The Most Eco-Friendly Clay

At this stage, you might be wondering, “What is the most eco-friendly clay?” Whilst clay is a natural, abundant resource, not all clays are created equal in terms of sustainability. Fire clay bricks, which are highly durable and heat resistant, are commonly used in high-temperature environments, such as kilns and furnaces. However, their production process involves high-temperature firing, making them less eco-friendly.

On the other hand, as we’ve mentioned before, Adobe clay, used in sun-dried Adobe bricks, is one of the most sustainable clays due to its low-energy production process. Adobe clay bricks require no firing and are naturally sun-dried, reducing their carbon footprint significantly.

The Benefits of Clay Bricks

While we’ve discussed the environmental aspects of clay bricks, let’s explore the benefits they offer. Despite their carbon footprint, clay bricks, be it Dutch clay pavers or hollow clay blocks, have several advantages:

  • Durability: Clay bricks are highly durable and can withstand the test of time, some even improving with age.
  • Thermal properties: Clay bricks have excellent thermal mass, storing and releasing heat over time, helping regulate indoor temperature.
  • Aesthetics: With a variety of types like Chelmer Valley bricks or clay brick pavers, clay bricks offer a natural, warm aesthetic that many homeowners and Architectural Designers appreciate.

At Shear Architectural Design, we use our expert knowledge of sustainable materials to design homes that balance aesthetics, sustainability, and functionality. Whether it’s a barn conversion or a new build house, our team of Architectural Designers meticulously incorporate these elements into every project we undertake, making us the go-to for Architectural Design service.

An Expanding Market: NFP and NFX Bricks

As we venture into the final leg of our exploration, we turn our attention to NFP bricks and NFX bricks. These categories refer to the strength and durability of clay bricks, as per South African National Standards (SANS) 227:2002.

NFP (Non-Facing Plastered) bricks are often used in construction where aesthetics aren’t a priority, as they’re typically plastered over. On the other hand, NFX (Non-Facing Extra) bricks are of higher strength and are utilised where increased structural integrity is needed. While not directly linked to sustainability, the use of these brick types should be considered when making environmentally conscious decisions about a project.

Prayag Clay Products: Sustainability In Focus

Another notable mention in the world of sustainable clay bricks is Prayag Clay Products. This company based in India, specialises in producing high-quality, eco-friendly clay bricks. Their focus on sustainable manufacturing processes, combined with high-quality products, offers a promising model for the industry.

At Shear Architectural Design, we advocate for such sustainable manufacturing processes and the use of eco-friendly materials in our projects, whether it’s for house extensions, garage conversions, or driveways.

Making the Right Choice for Your Project

While we’ve seen that clay bricks can both contribute to and hinder sustainability, the key lies in making informed choices. Remember, sustainability is not just about the materials you use, but also about the processes involved in their production and disposal.

At Shear Architectural Design, we take a holistic approach to sustainability. We help our clients navigate the complexities of sustainable construction, from gaining planning permissions to selecting the right materials like hollow clay blocks or Chelmer Valley pavers for their specific needs.

Conclusion: A Sustainable Future with Clay Bricks?

Clay bricks, with their natural origin and multiple benefits, will undoubtedly continue to play a role in construction. The question is: can they be a significant part of a sustainable future in Architecture?

The answer might lie in striking a balance. The use of more sustainable alternatives to traditional clay bricks, like Adobe and Porotherm bricks, coupled with green manufacturing practices, can pave the way for clay bricks to become a more eco-friendly option.

With an array of sustainable alternatives, advancements in manufacturing, and a deeper understanding of environmental impacts, clay bricks and green Architecture could indeed be a match made in sustainability.

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From all of us at Shear Architectural Design, thank you for reading, and we look forward to transforming your ideas into structures that stand the test of time.


As always, thanks for reading!

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is intended to provide a general understanding of the subject matter. It is not intended to provide specific advice for any specific circumstances. Always consult with a professional before starting any construction work.


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