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An Overview of the American Brick Industry

What is Brick and How Is It Made

Brick is made from clay and shale - some of the most abundant materials on earth - and then fired in a kiln at up to 2,000° F. By going through a chemical-transforming, vitrification process in the kiln, the minerals in the clay/shale unit fuse together and become a material that looks great, lasts an incredibly long time and needs practically no maintenance.

Many people think that brick-shaped units made from other materials are just like genuine clay brick. This mistaken assumption could lead to disappointment. Concrete "brick," which may look like brick at first glance, is inherently a gray unit that relies on a cement paste to bond the materials together and an admixture of pigment for color. Concrete "brick" is actually much weaker than clay brick - a fact unknown to many people. Units made from other materials, such as fly ash, also claim to perform and act like brick. Unless a credible, third party source can show equal performance with that of clay brick, any claims about the product performing as well as genuine clay brick are totally baseless.

The only kind of brick that has a proven track record of long-term durability, natural aesthetic beauty and performance is brick made from clay and shale. Genuine clay brick has been, and continues to be, one of the most valued and preferred building materials.

Longstanding Beauty in almost Every Architectural Style

Fired clay brick has been used as a primary building material in North America since before the United States became an independent nation. Because of brick's incredible longevity, one can still see many of America's early, colonial, brick structures - ranging from Virginia's St. Luke's Church (est. 1632) and Boston's State House (circa 1713) to Philadelphia's Independence Hall (1732-1753). 

With its modular-unit size dimensions and built-in design flexibility, brick has always been a material of choice for this country's residential and commercial structures. Thomas Jefferson used it extensively in the University of Virginia, which is one of the finest examples of American-inspired, Palladian architecture in existence. The Monadnock Building, an excellent example of the Chicago Style, was completed in 1893 and is still the tallest all-brick skyscraper in the world.

 Wiki image of Independence Hall
Philadelphia, PA
Photo by Dan Smith

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Wiki Image

 Monadnock Building
Chicago, IL
Photo by Brian Trimble

Many of the 19th century brick buildings designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, developer of the distinctly American Richardsonian Romanesque style, are still used today. Frank Lloyd Wright used brick for many of his Prairie Style residences throughout the Midwest, and architects during the Art-Deco period used brick on the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Philip Johnson built with brick in his projects, "The Glass House" (and neighboring "Brick House") - milestones of the International Style. In the 1990s, Mario Botta selected brick when he designed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is the first building he ever designed in the U.S. Finally, Pelli Clarke Pelli used brick as the exterior cladding material in The Solaire. After the building was completed in 2003, it was recognized as the first residential tower in New York City to attain a LEED® Gold Rating. Visit our Brick In Architecture Awards page to see some other outstanding brick projects completed recently. 

Wiki Image of the Robie House
Chicago, IL
Photo by Dan Smith

Wiki image of the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art,
San Francisco, CA

The Solaire
New York, NY
Photo by Brian Trimble

Clay pavers are another type of clay brick that have been used in the United States since colonial times. Many of the clay pavers on Boston's Beacon Hill have been in use for 200 years. Charleston, West Virginia installed the world's first clay brick street in 1870. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway installed over three million clay pavers in 1910-1911, and they are still residing under the asphalt surface. Today, genuine clay pavers are selected for garden pathways, driveways, sidewalks, patios, plazas and even roadways because of their natural beauty, superior color retention and low maintenance requirements. Since the color of a clay unit is literally fired through the body of the unit, it does not fade or require sealers like concrete units do. Learn more on our Paver Information pages. 

Alley on Beacon Hill,
Boston, MA
Photo by Brian Trimble

The clay brick pavers in this
patio will never need sealers
to retain their color.

Friendship International Park,
Cincinnati, OH

A Heritage of Unsurpassed Performance

Brick's durability has also been a major reason why the product has so often been selected as a building material. For example, President George Washington mandated brick or stone for party wall construction in the capital city's row houses almost 220 years ago. Several American cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Maine, and St. Louis, adopted the wide usage of brick - and often mandated its use in local building codes - in the aftermath of devastating fires. Because of the material's ability to withstand harsh elements, brick was often used in lighthouse construction on the coastlines of the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The Cape Hatteras Light, which was completed in 1870 and is still in service today, is the tallest brick lighthouse in America and widely known as "America's Light."

Interestingly, brick outperforms today's newest wall cladding materials. In September, 2004 the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University showed that homes built with brick offer dramatically more protection from wind-blown debris than homes built with vinyl or fiber-cement siding. In fact, the tests showed that a single wythe of brick exceeded the impact resistance requirements for high velocity hurricane zones in the Florida building code. The image to the right shows how a standard 2x4 at 25 mph went right though this fiber siding cement. This is not so with brick and the 2x4 simply bounced off the wall.  Learn more by going to Shelter from the Storm.

Brick is one of the few building materials that attain a one hour fire rating by itself. Other materials such as stucco, manufactured stone, vinyl, EIFS and even fiber cement siding need to incorporate fire-resistant materials in their wall systems in order to achieve a one hour fire rating.

Today's brick can also perform well in seismic events. In 2009, a study funded by the National Science Foundation showed that buildings constructed with brick veneer/concrete masonry can resist earthquakes above the Maximum Considered Earthquake for Seismic Design Category D without collapse. Since the test proves that brick is actually carrying a portion of its own load, the requirements in the prevailing building code are actually more stringent than necessary. See for yourself on You Tube.

A Product for the Current Building Environment

It's not surprising that America's homeowners have an overwhelming awareness of brick. Consider this: in almost every state in the union, there are streets and/or squares with the name "Brick," "Brickyard," or "Brick Kiln." Brick is one of the leading cladding materials used in schools, health care facilities and government institutions, and many of us shaped our perceptions of brick when we went to brick schools and lived in brick houses and apartment buildings. Brick's modular size gives it a level of design flexibility not found with many other materials.

Brick's modular size gives it a level of design flexibility not found with many other materials.

Moreover, homeowners consider brick as the ideal/preferred material for exterior cladding more often than any other, and over 80% of homeowners would consider brick when purchasing or building their next home. (Source:Ducker Worldwide, 2008.) Learn why homeowners should consider brick.

Rather than serving as a load-bearing structure, brick today is typically used as a veneer that is anchored or adhered to a variety of backing systems. To maximize its application in today's building environment, most brick is made differently than it was a few decades ago. For example, instead of shaping units into individual molds, over 90% of currently made brick are manufactured by an automated extrusion method. In this system, the raw material is pushed (or forced) through a die, turned into long ribbons of brick material and then cut to the desired height. Core holes are often included to help in firing and lighten the weight of brick units. Unlike the traditional practice of hand-loading brick units into periodic (such as beehive) kilns before and after firing, most brick is now fired in tunnel kilns - a continuous process where the units move slowly through the kiln on rails or kiln cars and exposed to the firing. Additionally, manufacturers offer customers more color and texture options than ever with the increased usage of face coatings. These advances mean that today's brick is not only available in thousands of colors, shades and textures, but today's brick is also stronger, more dimensionally-precise, and easier to handle than brick manufactured a few decades ago.

At the same time, countless builders, designers and homeowners insist on the timeless, classic appeal and "character" found in brick made by traditional manufacturing methods. Many brick manufacturers make both extruded and molded brick, and some manufacturers make brick by hand. The result is that one can easily replicate a classic look by using new brick that look exactly like the brick found in America's most historic and treasured buildings, houses and streetscapes.

Most brick manufacturers also follow environmentally-friendly policies. For example, brick is made from local resources, which cut down the need to transport the product over long distances. In fact, there are at least two brick plants located within 500 miles of 49 of the country's top 50 metropolitan statistical areas. Approximately 80% of brick kilns are fired with natural gas, and several facilities use fuels of bio-based materials from other industrial applications and waste products, such as methane gas and sawdust.

This brick kiln uses landfill gas as an energy source.

Many companies have also reduced their need for municipal water. Mined pits are reclaimed so the resulting property can be used for a variety of functions, including lakes, wetlands, natural areas, development as residential sites and golf courses. To find out why brick is the most sustainable green building material made, go to

Significant Contributions to the U.S. Economy

Brick's usage trends are somewhat concentrated and can vary at the local level. According to the 2008 Annual Brick Industry Report, over 75% of brick shipments come from the South Atlantic, West South Central and East South Central regions of the country. Texas and North Carolina account for the largest brick shipments amongst the states. Over 80% of brick sold is for residential construction, 16% is for non-residential purposes and 3% is for paving applications. Additionally, the wall share of brick varies significantly by geography; sometimes cities in the same state can have significantly different brick usage patterns.

Yet, the brick industry operates and contributes to the economy on a national scale. In a normally growing economy, the brick industry manufactures approximately 9 billion "standard brick equivalents" per year. Even in a challenging year like 2008, BIA data shows that brick was manufactured in over 160 plants located in 38 states. Moreover, the brick industry contributed over $8 billion to the economy and helped employ almost 200,000 Americans during this same time period. Over 10,000 Americans worked in brick manufacturing jobs (including union labor), 20,000 in distribution and transportation jobs, and an additional 140,000 skilled masons and contractors helped install brick throughout the country.

The Brick Industry helps employ almost 200,000 people in the U.S.
Photo by Brian Trimble

In combination, the industry contributes approximately $2.00 to the economy for every brick produced. (Source: Ducker Worldwide, 2009.)

In sum, the brick industry has played a vital role in our building practices, cultural heritage and national economy to date and will continue to do so in the future. Architects, builders, and homeowners will value brick's aesthetic, performance and sustainable qualities that are adaptable to almost every style and building application. Members of the brick industry will continue to enhance their own business practices and offer a huge variety of outstanding, high-quality brick products in a vast array of colors, textures and shapes. Together, there has never been a better time to use genuine clay brick.