Bricks could be one of the best building materials ever created. Just ask the three little pigs. And as Ric West, Marketing Manager for Austral Bricks Victoria points out, they are, in theory, infinitely recyclable. Some bricks will inevitably get broken during clean up, but a good brick has the potential to last for thousands of years.

If there is a downside to bricks it’s in the embodied energy they add to a building. On a weight-for-weight basis clay bricks actually have a low embodied energy – far lower than some building materials such as aluminium, glass, steel and even plasterboard. But depending on the construction method bricks can make up most of the weight of a house. With most brick kilns being fired with natural gas all that embodied energy can represent a big chunk of a building’s carbon footprint.

Sawdust solution

Brickworks Limited is Australia’s largest brick maker and now two of its brands, Austral Bricks (TAS) and Daniel Robertson Bricks, have gone carbon neutral.

Most of the reduction in carbon emissions comes by firing the kiln with sawdust, considered a waste product by the timber industry, rather than with gas. In addition, other energy efficiency measures were introduced. “The old electric drier was replaced with an efficient gas sawdust dryer, a gas burner replaced a coal burner and we’ve installed more efficient lighting,” says Brickworks Technical Manager, Cathy Inglis.

If Austral Brick’s plant in Longford, Tasmania, relied on natural gas for the firing process it would produce over 8,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. With sawdust as the fuel and helped by the other energy improvements it only produces 215 tonnes. Forestry-based carbon offsets that comply with the National Carbon Offset Standard are then purchased to achieve full carbon neutrality.

Brickworks is not the first company to use sawdust in brick making, and the Longford plant has been fired with sawdust for over 20 years. However Cathy says it is the first brick plant to improve manufacturing efficiency to a point where carbon neutral certification became a viable option. “There is a small cost involved in buying carbon credits,” she says, “but the business is able to absorb this so there is no additional cost to customers.” Carbon neutral since mid-2013, the bricks were launched in March 2014. Interest skyrocketed and Cathy expects carbon neutral bricks to feature in many sustainable projects.

More than a token gesture

Austral Brick (TAS) and Daniel Robertson bricks might be Brickworks only certified carbon neutral bricks, but bigger reductions in emissions have actually been achieved elsewhere.

Aside from the energy and water efficiencies implemented at the Wollert plant in Victoria, Cathy lists a range of initiatives around the country. Landfill gas that was previously flared and wasted is replacing up to half of the natural gas used in some plants. Commercial, industrial, demolition and green wastes are being trialled as replacement fuels. Biosolids from a range of sources are being incorporated into the brick mixture to create lighter bricks that save energy in the manufacturing process, and also in the transport of the final product. And in WA, surplus heat from a sawdust-fired boiler will be used to generate electricity.

These projects are all part of Brickworks’ mission to reduce its energy consumption, environmental footprint and operating costs by moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. All up, it is anticipated that these initiatives will avoid over 50,000 tonnes carbon dioxide emissions each year and substantially reducing operating costs. Grants from AusIndustry’s Clean Technology Investment Program have helped to partially fund these projects.

Save more energy, live more comfortably

Ric points out the practical benefits of building with brick. He refers to a study undertaken by the University of Newcastle* which compared the real-world performance of several house construction types. This showed that insulated double-cavity brick created the most stable internal temperature and lowest heating and cooling costs despite it not having the highest insulation (R) rating. “When considering the whole of life costs, it takes about 8 years for the energy savings to offset the embodied energy of the bricks,” says Ric. “And now with carbon neutral bricks the net benefit is from day one, as there is no payback time for the carbon emissions.” Unfortunately, Ric observes that most home buyers don’t understand what it costs to run a house. “They are put off by any significant increase in upfront costs with some sustainablitity options, and forget about the future savings on energy bills. Fortunately there is no extra cost in carbon neutral bricks so it’s a win for both the home owner and the environment.

Attitudes appear to be changing, however, and Ric feels much of this is driven by architects. Where they go, both with home design and the choice of building materials, others in the builder industry follow. “There has definitely been a swing back to brick in the last few years,” Ric says. Cathy also believes that there is increasing demand for more sustainable building products which she attributes to the changing mindset of architects, environmentally conscious homeowners and large commercial developers.

Past, present and future

Bricks may not be hi-tech and sexy, and most of us barely give them a second thought. But with their unique blend of structural and aesthetic qualities they have played a major role in our built environment for centuries.

Now there is a carbon neutral option. And with greater recognition of the long-term energy savings offered by brick construction, you can bet London to a brick that they will be around for a long, long time to come.

*A summary of the University of Newcastle study “Energy Efficiency and the Environment” is available here.

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