“I’m on the edge of crazy when I’m laying brick”
March 7, 2018 8:33 AM   Subscribe

The bricklayers work with ruthless efficiency, scraping and slathering mortar brick after brick, tamping each down to ensure everything is level. By the end of a single hour, with thousands of spectators watching, they have built a stretch of wall that would be a day’s work for a mason building at a normal pace.
posted by standardasparagus (41 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Bricklaying contests look pretty amazing. I had a search for the British equivalent and found this 1952 Pathé film
posted by sarahdal at 8:50 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

Bricklaying’s most important tools — a trowel, a bucket, string and a wheelbarrow — haven’t changed much over centuries.

I love that. I love things that don't need improvement. They perfected it hundreds of years ago, no need to change. it works.

We had a chimney built a few years ago and I was so impressed by the skill of the mason. Every brick, every corner, square and level. He could only build it a few inches at a time, otherwise the weight of the bricks would crush the mortar, but over a couple weeks it slowly went up perfectly straight. Just one guy, slowly and methodically building a thing the same way he'd have built it a hundred years ago.
posted by bondcliff at 8:56 AM on March 7 [7 favorites]

I did quite a lot of work on construction sites a while back, and while not with bricklayers, there were bricklaying teams on site. It's highly skilled, and particularly on larger buildings, a team effort to get the right bricks and fresh mortar to the right person in the right place at the right time. Skilled brickies were definitely at a premium.

Also, brick walls are very complex. There's many different designs and techniques, not just this simple one skin overlapping courses approach.

Somewhat dystopically, I was wondering if AI bricklaying machines would start to be a success if buildings were designed around their capabilities (that is, to be simpler and probably more boring).
posted by carter at 9:03 AM on March 7

I've a relative, he's not a brickie but he's worked in building for years. I remember him telling me that most brickies have to retire or find something else to do a lot earlier than other workers because it's so knackering on your body.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:05 AM on March 7 [4 favorites]

Also saw this not too long ago, a rather unexpected hobbiest bricklayer. Of course there was also this chap.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:07 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]

Nearly two-thirds of bricklaying contractors say they are struggling to find workers,

I've helped my father build two brick houses in the course of my life. The work fucking sucks. Bring on the robots.
posted by Talez at 9:17 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]

It's not bricklaying per se, but the biggest automated threat to bricklayers is probably something like this.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:17 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

“The machines will never replace the human,” Mr. Buczkiewicz said. “They will help down the road and they will make it that we won’t need as many workers, but given the shortages we’re seeing now, that’s probably a good thing.”

But he added, “There’s a human element to a craft that you don’t get from a robot.”

This is the same hubris that told us that humans were the only tool users and the sole beings on the planet capable of sentience. People like Mr. Buczkiewicz would still be in denial while living in a beautiful brick home designed and built by a robot.
posted by Revvy at 9:18 AM on March 7

Hmm the slow mo videos don't really give me any indication of the speed that they describe in the article. A quick search on YouTube mostly returns videos that have been edited so you can't actually watch someone lay down a row of bricks. Why is this so hard to find? It must be mesmerising to watch, you can see people in the audience with their hands to their faces gripped in suspense!

I also want to know what they do with the short walls after the competition...
posted by like_neon at 9:41 AM on March 7

In addition to dabbing with watercolors, Winston Churchill was a skilled brick layer.

I also want to know what they do with the short walls after the competition...

Donate them to the poor, I expect.
posted by BWA at 10:27 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

Bricklayers will be in trouble when robots start growing wythe
posted by Flashman at 10:35 AM on March 7

The brickwork in the old San Francisco General Hospital buildings is really spectacular. The buildings aren't seismically safe, so there are no patients in them, just administrative offices and outpatient clinics (occupied one hopes only by people who can run when the big quake hits).
posted by rtha at 10:49 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure why your average bricklayer would declare themselves 'safe from robots' when legitimate amounts of brick on commercial buildings is fake and your average brick neighborhood (still bricked by brick layers) is painted because the houses look like they all have terrible skin conditions even though the 'laying' part is done well.

There are many forms of automation/robots and different forms of obsolescence.
Of course, there will still be brick craftmen to produce buildings like those rtha mentioned. But they probably won't be building many suburban homes anymore.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:08 AM on March 7

The buildings aren't seismically safe

Perhaps this speaks to the dubious future for brickwork.
posted by JackFlash at 11:20 AM on March 7

I would imagine that a great deal of a bricklayer's 'work at hand' includes prep, logistics, judgement calls, on-the-fly adjustment, and other rather hard-to-quantify tasks - so perhaps we should take into account the whole of the job rather than the obvious slather 'n' stack when comparing them to robots.
posted by gyusan at 11:22 AM on March 7

Most places aren't seismically active in the way that California is? I don't think it speaks ill of brickwork.
posted by Ferreous at 11:27 AM on March 7

Tradesman keep up on modern techniques and best practices; I'm sure that despite the appearance of nothing changing these people are skilled workers who keep up with modern code and standards with regard to safety practices for a given area.
posted by Ferreous at 11:29 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

JackFlash: "Perhaps this speaks to the dubious future for brickwork."

Nah, pretty much all old buildings weren't seismically safe.
posted by Mitheral at 11:33 AM on March 7

Ferreous: "Most places aren't seismically active in the way that California is? I don't think it speaks ill of brickwork."

My entire city is made of brick, largely over a hundred years old. I think that brick is pretty safe outside of the west coast.
posted by octothorpe at 11:53 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Older brick buildings may not have been constructed to the seismic standards necessary for a current hospital occupancy, which has stricter requirements than most other buildings (that category also includes fire and police stations). Brick is hardly ever used as anything other than a veneer over something else anyway.
posted by LionIndex at 12:01 PM on March 7

"Brick is hardly ever used as anything other than a veneer over something else anyway."

And, as I have found out first hand, those masonry veneers are not insurable for earthquake, at least here in the Pacific Northwest.
posted by bz at 12:32 PM on March 7

Most places aren't seismically active in the way that California is? ... I think that brick is pretty safe outside of the west coast.

The New Madrid earthquake in 1811 destroyed the town of New Madrid in Arkansas. It caused damage in St. Louis, diverted the Mississippi River, toppled chimneys as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, rang church bells in Charleston and rattled New Yorkers.

Insurance companies are no dummies. In most places they charge higher premium rates for homes built with brick.
posted by JackFlash at 12:37 PM on March 7

This reminds me of a folksong.
posted by freakazoid at 12:39 PM on March 7

According to this state insurance guide for PA:
• Type of Construction: Frame houses usually cost more to insure than brick.

I assume that's because of fire protection. Personally, I'd never buy anything but a brick house but fortunately, frame houses are almost non-existent around here.
posted by octothorpe at 2:27 PM on March 7

For another example of bricklaying robots, check out Fastbrick Robotics' Hadrian 105.
posted by grimjeer at 3:50 PM on March 7

All these kids growing up today playing Minecraft have a bright, bricky future ahead of them.
posted by The otter lady at 4:30 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

Brick as a building material is, in terms of raw quantity, massively less used than it was in its heyday. Specify a factory wall as structural brick (in English or Flemish bond if you want to make me really happy) and see what the response from builders is. We don't build that way anymore and haven't for quite some years, but brick used to be one of the default structural materials of the world. No one does this anymore - these were (are still sometimes) warehouses for god's sake.

The linked tradies are really fast and skilled but I think they would have got an amused snort out of a brickie from 100 years ago, just for building a plain cavity brick wall entirely in stretcher bond for a start.
posted by deadwax at 5:49 PM on March 7

Personally, I'd never buy anything but a brick house

That would be mistake in many parts of the world (not that I'm saying it is for you), brick, particularly non-structural, does not fare so well on highly reactive soils like clay - you will pretty much definitely end up with cracking. A lightweight framed house will often behave with a lot more grace when the earth moves around it.
posted by deadwax at 5:52 PM on March 7

It's a culture shock going from Perth which is near 75% brick for suburban housing (fibro on frame is the rest) to California which is 95% timber framing to Mass which is 95% colonial. Colonial to me means the house is an old, old, OLD houses from the early 20th century but sure enough, they're all pretty new and just look old which just confuses the living hell out of me.

I honestly hated buying a house out here because everything to me just looks cheap.
posted by Talez at 6:14 PM on March 7

I had the same reaction to California. All the houses look like they're going to blow away at any minute.
posted by octothorpe at 6:54 PM on March 7

I've lived in San Francisco long enough now that when I return to the East Coast for visits I am made vaguely uneasy by the number of brick structures I see!
posted by rtha at 7:34 PM on March 7

Some people may be surprised by how many houses that look to be brick are actually brick veneer - lightweight timber framing doing the structural work with an external cladding of brick doing not much more than keeping the rain out.

That's the way of it in most of Australia (not WA though), I'm not sure about the US.
posted by deadwax at 8:27 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

houses that look to be brick are actually brick veneer - lightweight timber framing doing the structural work with an external cladding of brick doing not much more than keeping the rain out.
posted by deadwax at 10:27 PM on March 7

I haven't worked on many houses since living in Florida and Texas (moved here 1977) as I've only worked commercial work. But in the Chicago area, which is where I'm from and where I worked on many houses (my father was a home builder, I started in the trades young) if a house is brick it is absolutely 2x4 framing with a brick veneer. The foundations on houses with brick thus needed to be wider so that the bricks had room to lay on the foundation. There is a space between the frame wall and the brick veneer, and the brick wall is attached to the frame wall by using corrugated metal ties nailed to the frame wall, which lay inside the mortar.

People like brick homes and I don't blame them -- they look great (especially with a talented and creative brickie), and they are much more substantial than any of the cheezy, sleazy-looking siding put on many homes. The only real disadvantage is the cost, which is considerable.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:55 PM on March 7

One of the best things about brick is the thermal mass it lends buildings. I've lived in both solid brick (actually two layers of brick separated by a cavity) and brick-veneer homes, and the solid brick ones were much more energy efficient. As long as you opened the windows at night you could mostly do without air conditioning even during the hottest parts of summer, although a few days that were hot and humid would make the place unpleasant.

I'm in a brick veneer home right now and I wish I had the thermal mass of brick once again. Brick veneer is the wrong way around IMO: we should put the brick part inside, and just put insulated panels on the exterior.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:26 PM on March 7

That's called reverse brick veneer, the Pritzker winning Glen Murcutt may be the most famous proponent. I have a friend who built that way, it works very well.

Thermal mass without insulation, as you have with cavity brick (which non construction people often call solid brick), can be very hit and miss. If you have the right climate for it it can work very well. Somewhere like Melbourne and it will generally be very hard to heat in winter and uncomfortable, possibly very much so, after or towards the end of a hot run.
posted by deadwax at 10:33 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

I fucking love good brickwork.
posted by deadwax at 10:34 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

John Henry
posted by Nameless at 3:18 AM on March 8

There's a shortage of bricklayers because they all start out as hod carriers and quit after a few days. Can't blame 'em.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:24 AM on March 8

Love brick? Then you must have a look at Brick, A World History by James W.P. Campbell. Extraordinary photos by the incomparable Will Pryce, scholarly, interesting and highly readable text by Campbell. A fantastic book.
posted by Jackson at 5:42 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

I definitely used way too much mortar when I built my brick steps. The brickies building the walls barely butter the ends of the bricks, whereas I filled in the narrow sides of each brick so that the mortar goes the entire way through each brick join. It is really quite an odd experience working with bricks. I'm no where near an experienced brick layer, but I am careful and precise so my steps are done to a very high standard and are only a few mm out of plumb and level over the entire steps, ie well within the amount of mortar required for each join anyways. A skilled brickei would have been able to build the steps in a day, wheras it took me nearly three, but it is something that an interested amateur could easily accomplish with no major trouble. The skill really comes with speed, and if speed isn't an issue (small project and plenty of time to do it) then the skill isn't really a big deal as much as attention to detail is important and checking and rechecking level and plumb. I'm sure that a skilled brickie would also have doubled or tripled the cost of the steps as well.
posted by koolkat at 6:39 AM on March 8

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