Owner Built Homes and Homesteads: Brick Wall and Masonry Wall Construction

Ken Kern explains the basics of brick wall and masonry wall construction and considers a number of innovations in building methods with these materials.

| September/October 1973

From 100 to 150 million Asian families live in substandard houses—in crowded, unsanitary hovels. This estimate comes from a mission of the United Nations on Tropical Housing . The basic housing problem of Asian's millions was presented at the opening session of the 1953 United Nations Seminar on Housing and Community Development. 

American dwellings are bad enough, but they are mansions compared to what Asians have. It has long been taken for granted in America that the world's masses—the colored people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America—will remain miserably housed. It is taken for granted no longer—especially by the insurgent masses themselves.

Research on housing for underdeveloped areas has begun. In 1954 the National Building Institute, under the auspices of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, began a research project on low cost housing for the urban Bantu. Its final report, Research Studies on The Costs of Urban Bantu Housing, a thorough piece of work dealing with social, economic, and technical factors, establishes certain minimum standards of building performance.

Curiously, this capable research staff chose the familiar brick as the most satisfactory building material to meet basic housing requirements. The reasons for this choice can be appreciated when the nature of the material is understood, and one observes a master brick mason at work. For one thing, the size of the burnt clay brick has remained nearly constant since the manufacture of these building units was taken over from the baking of clay pottery in ancient Egypt. One advantage of small building units is adaptability to practically any design. The size and weight of a brick, moreover, are perfectly scaled to human use. A work rhythm develops as a master brick mason establishes his balance, picking up a brick with one hand and a trowel of mortar with the other.

The brick-on-brick procedure of wall construction, however, is far behind some of the latest monolithic wall-forming methods. Trade organizations like the Portland Cement Association, the Structural Clay Products Institute and the National Concrete Masonry Association were actually the first to anticipate the waning use of individual masonry units. These organizations have spent millions of dollars developing improved masonry units, tools and equipment for speeding block construction, and even more efficient systems of wall construction. As is usually the case in such highly organized projects, very little of this invaluable research has seen the light of day.

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