Benefits of building with clay, plus examples (#SuperNaturalMaterials 3)

This is the third post in our Super Natural Materials series – you can view the whole series here.


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The versatility of clay

The use of clay dates back to the earliest human civilisation and clay bricks have been a popular building material since the Babylonian civilisation in 3000BC. The naturally malleable fine-grained earthy material is incredibly versatile, used for ancient writing tablets, cooking pots and kitchenware, artwork and, of course, for building.

Because of its strength, durability and abundance – among other benefits – bricks and tiles made of clay are some of the most popular building materials ever. As well as its historical use, building with clay has undergone a resurgence in recent years following more public interest in sustainability, health and artisan craftsmanship.

In this post, we’ll explain our top 5 benefits of building with clay and offer examples of clay building from our own work and the work of others.

Benefits of building with clay

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    Tichborne Street mixed use development with red linear or Roman bricks

    Versatile

    Clay rivals wood in its amazing versatility. In building it is used to make bricks, tiles and plasters, as well as the low-impact natural building materials adobe, cob, rammed earth and wattle and daub. Bricks can be fired or unfired. Tiles can be used on roofs, floors, or walls. Clay plasters can come in different textures, colours and finishes.

  • Durable

    A house made of bricks will last for generations. They are expected to last at least 100 years, but many have lasted far longer than that. They are also very low-maintenance, are resistant to both fire and water and don’t rot or rust.

  • Insulating

    Clay has excellent insulating properties because of its high thermal mass. It absorbs, stores and releases heat very effectively, making the building interior cooler in summer and warmer in winter. This makes the internal environment more comfortable and also reduces energy demand and associated carbon emissions. Even a 15mm clay plaster coating will have a significant insulating effect.

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    Portland Villas 11 houses with red brickwork and timber

    Recyclable

    With careful deconstruction bricks and tiles can be reused in other projects. As they don’t need to be melted down into base material and can be reused as they are it is an extremely low-energy method. Clay also has the ability to be easily reformed when wetted, so other clay materials can be recycled. As a natural non-toxic material it can also be safely and ecologically returned to the Earth and never needs to go to landfill. As a finite material, albeit an extremely abundant one, it is key to the future circular economy that it can be recycled.

  • Healthy

    Clay also has significant health benefits over other materials because it is completely natural, non-toxic and inert, with no VOCs or chemicals off-gassing from the material. As well as regulating temperature, clay is also a humidity regulator. This not only makes a more comfortable environment, it prevents mould and fungal growth in the home. All this creates a superior internal air quality which is important for health, especially when you consider that people in Europe and America spend around 90% of their time indoors.

Koru projects showing use of clay

Tichborne Street

This mixed-use development of flats and workshops in the heart of Brighton utilised linear of ‘Roman’ bricks which are longer and shorter than traditional bricks. The striking red brickwork coupled with the large grew-rimmed windows fits into the local style yet also looks fresh and contemporary and adds colour to the street.

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Highlands Road house with reddish brown brickwork

Portland Villas 11

These two semi-detached family homes are made with a traditional palette of red clay bricks and timber, which suits the local vernacular of the street and fits in with the neighbouring properties. The traditional familiarity of the brickwork softens the contemporary form and detailing of the properties.

Highlands Road

This detached house is a contemporary reimagining of an Arts and Crafts style house, and the natural materials of clay and zinc are a key part of that design philosophy. The design utilises interior clay tiles and external reddish brown brickwork, which adds a traditional feel to the more contemporary zinc roof.

Other examples of building with clay

Given the enormous potential of building with clay, it’s hard to choose just a handful of examples. Here’s a few interesting ones to show some of the diversity available.

In this beautiful restaurant setting, clay plaster is used to create a feature wall rich with pattern and texture. The sculptural properties of clay mean you can create bespoke finishes that are impossible with paint.

This simple matte clay plaster combines with the whole timber, rounded walls and wood stove to create a rustic cosy interior. Contrasts with the restaurant above which is more contemporary chic.

The durability and versatility of clay floor tiles means as well as for interiors they can be used outside as well, like in this beautiful walled garden. They have used unusually shaped tiles to create a pattern.

Clay brick is generally considered a traditional material best suited for traditional styles of architecture. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Here, dark brown clay bricks are used to build a very quirky house with a very unusual playful form.


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