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Earth’s First Building Material

Dating back to about 4,000 BC, the first masonry arch of sun-baked brick was constructed in the ancient city of Ur, located in what was then Mesopotamia.

One of the great engineering feats of all time was the stone masonry structure known as Stonehenge. Stretching the concept of “unit” masonry, Britain’s Stonehenge was constructed over 4,000 years ago of 80 bluestones weighing 4 tons each and dozens of giant sarsen stones weighing as much as 50 tons each. Modern studies suggest that at least 600 men were needed to transport just one giant stone from its source to the temple site.

The famous Great Wall of China is possibly the greatest example of masonry’s impact on history. Constructed around 210 BC, it stretched for 1,400 miles and contained 3,873,000,000 brick. Durable and resilient, brick was chosen as the building material for the structure that protected an entire civilization.

As civilization advanced and cities arose, the need for buildings increased. Many cities that built first with lumber learned early on about the tremendous costs of rebuilding. After the great fire of the late 1600s, London rebuilt with brick and stone. Chicago’s great fire also transformed it into a masonry city and strict building codes were enacted, some of which are still on the books today. Denver’s great fire of 1863 had a similar effect. Masonry ordinances requiring that all buildings within the city limits be built of fireproof materials, i.e., brick and stone, remained in place for nearly 80 years.

A Good Friend to the Environment

Masonry materials have always been recognized as sturdy and attractive, but few realize that they are energy-efficient and earth-friendly, too. In today’s environmentally conscious world, masonry materials are “green” throughout their life cycle.

Brick originates from Colorado’s own clay, which is a nearly inexhaustible natural resource. During the clay mining process, virtually no harm is done to the environment. In fact, a single mining site may be used for more than a century. After a clay mine has been depleted, the pits can be converted into solid waste landfills or lakes for sports, recreation or conservation use.

There is no waste when brick is manufactured. For every pound of clay, nearly one pound of brick is produced with only slight moisture and mineral loss. In contrast, the mining of ore for steel production is 70 percent waste. Higher still is the amount of waste, 88 percent, in the mining for aluminum. The waste from both of these processes must be disposed of, a process that also uses considerable energy.

Most of the energy costs associated with producing brick – drying and firing – are lower than with most other building materials. It can take 90 times more energy to produce one pound of aluminum than to produce the same amount of brick.

Because brick is locally produced, very little energy is used to transport it to the building site. In contrast, most of the lumber used in Colorado home construction comes from somewhere else, adding to its cost and to its impact on our environment.

As a building material, brick saves energy. Brick’s mass prevents extreme outside temperatures from affecting temperatures on the inside. This process is sometimes referred to as “thermal lag.” Compared to other materials, an insulated brick cavity wall resists heat gain more than 50 times better than double-reflective glass, and nine times better than an insulated metal sandwich panel wall.

Also, because it is a natural material, brick does not expel any toxic substances or volatile organic compounds into the air. Nor does it ever require the application of any potentially toxic paints or coatings during its lifetime.

Perhaps brick’s greatest contribution to the environment, however, is its durability. The life span of a brick structure can be over a thousand years if designed and constructed properly. Even the most conservative estimates of a brick’s life expectancy is 100 years or more. Because of its longevity, brick is typically the last material in a building to require recycling.

In comparison, newer building materials like synthetic stucco, also known as EIFS, have a poor durability record. These can encounter problems like moisture intrusion, which rots the wood sheathing, and frequent damage from golf balls, woodpeckers, and even fists. That means more of these new materials will find their way to the landfills in our lifetime.

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