The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1847] Learning from Canada's Brick Masonry History


Walking up a gently sloping hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I noticed a Victorian red brick building off in the distance, or at least I figured it was Victorian from the number of charming pointy details sticking out everywhere. As I approached the building, a beautiful colour variation in the brick was revealed. Standing right next to it, I could see that the walls had been well maintained, and over the years a few bricks had been replaced here and there at different times giving the building a tapestry of slightly lighter and darker bricks. Standing in front of the building, I realized that it had been there for over a hundred years, and many people had worked on it to keep it standing; the brickwork became a rich layering of history and craft revealing the many hands that had a part in its creation and maintenance. I also realized that constructing with a method that can be easily repaired allows structures to stay standing for much longer, an inherently sustainable approach to architecture.

I would like to take a closer look at the history of building with brick masonry in Canada and at how building solidly – for the long term – just makes sense. I hope to demonstrate that the brick industry in Canada could shift our perception of building sustainably and set an example that could be followed in other places with access to clay and brick masons. Within this tradition, there are three main areas to discuss: first, historical aspects, including construction methods that have allowed these buildings to be adapted and re-used for different purposes over centuries. Second, I’ll review the social aspects and benefits of construction by brick masons using one's hands to construct a building, and finally I'll talk a bit about the future and the practical aspects of revitalizing the brick building tradition in Canada today.

One thing I've learned about architecture is to look at local examples and historic buildings for clues about how to build well and appropriately for the local climate – if a building has been around for a few hundred years, then its builders have probably done something right. Canada's colonial beginning denoted a point of transition towards permanent architecture in Canada, whereas indigenous Native and Inuit groups functioned primarily as semi-nomadic cultures. Consequently many Canadian architectural traditions stem from European roots, but are expressed with local materials; the use of local brick creates unique and distinct examples that reflect concurrently the colonial and local histories in Canada. Before trains and today's questionable shipping practices, people used what was near by to build and developed techniques to deal with local climates. Brick is one of very few materials that have been used historically in virtually every climate in Canada, from coastal to prairie. This is mainly due to brick's availability – there are clay and shale pits in every province – but it’s also because of the adaptability of the material to almost any building type and form.

Although brick has lent itself to every architectural style in Canada, the late 1800s mark the high point for the use of brick in this country. As noted in L.E. Shaw's book “My Life in the Brick Industry”, small scale brick manufacturers were located on the outskirts of most towns, and as production methods became more efficient with advances in steam power, brick makers popped up anywhere that suitable clay quarries were found. This meant that brick used for construction in expanding cities and towns was typically excavated from nearby clay pits, contributing to the local economy and providing work for the community. The small towns of southern Ontario are exemplary of this condition where use of polychromatic brickwork in Italianate style buildings is prevalent. These buildings include turn of the century farmhouses and main street shops that use uniquely detailed, regional yellow and red brick to create a vernacular typology that celebrates the locally available materials.

Before elaborate heating and air conditioning systems and highly technical construction techniques came into widespread use, there were very simple methods to deal with local climates in buildings: Too hot? Make windows that open. Too cold? Light a fire. Simple, but practical. These straightforward methods are demonstrated by large brick warehouses and manufacturing buildings that were built in many cities before air conditioning was available. In particular, the 401 Richmond building in downtown Toronto was configured to take advantage of passive heating and cooling principles by strategic placement of windows that open in the summer to vent hot air and draw in cool air from interior shaded courtyards through a process called 'the stack effect'. Additionally, the thermal mass of the building imparted by heavy brick masonry walls helps to keep it cool in the summer through 'lag' time, when the sunlight in the day is absorbed by the heavy walls, and heat is re-radiated outside at night time. These simple passive principles have allowed the building to stay in operation for over a hundred years under a variety of uses. According to the 401 Richmond web site, in its most recent re-invention it has become a home to over 140 small art galleries, cultural producers, and entrepreneurs.

These are only two of many examples of brick masonry traditions in this country. The variety of brick buildings in Canada is fantastic; ranging from two and three storey walk-up homes in Montreal, to Victorian row houses in Toronto, to large manufacturing warehouses in Winnipeg built in the early 1900s (similar to those in New York City). The building types varied to meet people's living and working needs, but brick masonry construction was used everywhere because of its durability and weather resistance in a variety of climates. In summary, these historic building traditions demonstrate that brick is a versatile material, is locally available, endures in our climate, and can be repaired, prolonging a building's lifespan.

On my way to class each day I have to pass through a lackluster, 1960s modern-styled institutional building. You know the kind: low ceilings, fluorescent lights, stuffy hallways and loud echoes. A few years ago, I went away over the summer break and returned to find the building's interior newly renovated for office spaces. Most surprising was that a new wall fronting onto the hallway was made of brick. More curious yet: this wall was not made of new material, but instead built with salvaged brick, using the material's character to combat the alienating starkness of the original hallway.

Bricks are made to fit in the human hand during construction as walls are laid out one brick at a time. When a brick wall is completed, it echoes this method of construction though a human scale and substance that people can understand and respond to. The warmth and texture of the material adds a depth to building construction that, even in the example of the renovated hallway, develops a richness imbued with an authentic human quality that results in a more meaningful architecture.

An area that seems to have been overlooked in the architecture of the last fifty years is the notion of permanence and cultural value. Somewhere along the line the desire for quickly produced buildings that fulfill a one time use with a twenty or forty year lifespan became the standard, replacing a tradition of constructing buildings of value that form an important part of a community over hundreds of years.

One result of this is a 'nagging sense of insufficiency' that as discussed in James Howard Kunstler's book “Home From No Where”. Kunstler illustrates the social detriment caused by the continuous erection and destruction of poorly considered buildings designed for short lifespans. Big box retail buildings are a rampant example of this problem. In addition to the well publicized issues around waste and the building industry, the psychological degradation likely has further reaching consequences than we've considered – it doesn't feel good to know that a building may only be around for a few years because we know it’s wasteful. We openly discuss the poor construction methods of new condo buildings that are erected in months, and no one is surprised when issues crop up shortly after their completion. Problems with concrete exteriors and new/imported materials that cannot be easily or aesthetically repaired contribute further to premature demolition and waste. If we were to use local brick instead, we would allow for maintenance of buildings; individual blocks could be replaced without serious aesthetic compromises, resulting in a "patina" over time that exhibits the age of a building and celebrates its history in the community. Part of the solution to premature demolition lies in developing architecture that is well crafted and carefully considered for its local climate. These buildings become better with age, and will readily be adapted and re-used for new purposes, such as the brick warehouses in many cities that have been converted to lofts and offices.

Cities and towns are made of buildings that we see and experience everyday as we live our lives in and around them. Therefore, they deserve adequate consideration and care. Buildings that are well crafted can become a cherished part of the community through the time and effort applied in their construction. As illustrated by the story of the new institutional hallway, brick lends itself to this tactile handcrafted approach that imbues a value which is intuitively understood by those passing.

In Shaw's “My Life in the Brick Industry”, the author discusses the appreciation that was awarded to brick masons by their communities in the late 1800s and early 1900s for their visible contributions to the community. This resulted in the development of highly skilled craftspeople and brick masons who took pride in their work and gained the admiration of the community through their intricate techniques and brick detailing – a mutually beneficial relationship that had beautiful aesthetic results.

People enjoy seeing things being built; an observation of construction sites reveals that people stop to watch. When watching a skilled bricklayer or craftsperson work people can respond to the scale of the project and develop social and emotional ties to the structure. Building with brick is a process that occurs brick by brick and the product expresses this method, resulting in a more enriching architecture. This attribute is often absent in many other construction methods, such as large concrete and glass buildings, which have few human qualities and induce a sense of alienation.

In the last hundred years, there has been a shift away from small family-owned brick making operations towards larger provincial manufacturers. In the late 1800s when brick making was a seasonal operation, it required little more than a shovel, some clay, and a fire to start one's own brick manufacturing company. Today, production is often year-round, and the expense of efficient manufacturing equipment has resulted in the amalgamation of many of these small operations into the larger provincial manufacturers that exist today.

Still relevant, however, is the use of these provincial or state operated manufacturers to supply locally manufactured products. The reduction in shipping requirements and development of a local building material that responds to specific climactic conditions is important; this is demonstrated by the east coast Shaw Brick Company that manufactures bricks for the extreme freeze-thaw cycling of the Canadian east coast climate. Furthermore, there is built-in accountability with the use of local materials because the supplier's reputation depends on the success of the building product.

In today's architectural practice, after many years of producing modern architecture divorced from climate and context, we are at a point of reflection where alternatives are being sought out to wasteful, energy-intensive methods of heating and cooling buildings. In recent years, the International Masonry Institute has worked with building technologists to develop insulated masonry wall systems that provide better insulation values for consistent temperatures. Additional opportunities exist outside of Canada as has been demonstrated by the 'Think Brick Australia' group, working hard to make the brick manufacturing process more efficient, reduce the total embodied energy in the product, and reduce its ecological footprint overall. According to, these types of changes have resulted in an estimated 50 per cent reduction in energy consumption over the past 25 years in the brick manufacturing process. When combined with the enduring nature of the material and its social value, this makes for a time tested and sustainable building product.

Brick masonry has played an important role in forming Canada's built environment and continues to us teach lessons about appropriate building construction. Due to the inherent value of human workmanship and beauty, carefully-crafted brick buildings have typically been passed down or adapted and re-used because of sound construction techniques, ease of reparability, and the desire of the community to maintain buildings which they care about. When combined with new and passive sustainable technologies, there exists a profound opportunity to develop a brick masonry architecture that is well crafted and environmentally sound. Canada, and other countries, can benefit from re-establishing this once thriving building practice.



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