How your choice of bricks can have a transformative effect on your project, by Janine Stone’s Jeremy Spencer

For centuries, good-quality bricks, skilfully laid, have been at the heart of the greatest architectural projects, from Hampton Court to Battersea Power Station. Bricks remain key to both the appearance and structural integrity of high-quality new builds.

Carefully planned, beautifully made bricks and highly skilled craftsmanship combine to add texture and architectural distinction to a new building. Giles Kime asks Jeremy Spencer of Janine Stone why such a simple material can have such a transformative effect on the success of a project.

What are the characteristics of a good quality brick?

Historically, bricks were a readily available local material, designed to be about the size of a human hand. Ubiquitous, durable, beautiful, sustainable, largely maintenance free, acoustically dense, heat resistant and with great compressive strength, they are the ideal building material. I’ve always taken delight in both old and new buildings that show well considered brickwork. They can be used cheaply and practically, but when they’re used creatively, they can really elevate a building’s aesthetics.

All bricks, whether hand- or machine-made, are used for their specific attributes, colour, pattern, texture, strength, dimensions. Choosing the right bricks for a project takes time to test and compare samples, and any special shapes or sizes need to be identified early because they usually have a long procurement time. Distinct bricks around windows, band courses and cornices really can make the difference to a project. Up and down the country, there are local favourites, which often depend on the available clays that dictate the base colour.

When refurbishing and extending a building, you usually need to match the existing brickwork, or make a deliberate contrast. In my experience, local authorities will frequently insist on a sample panel of brickwork to be accepted before work starts, as a condition of approval.

Hampton Court’s famously intricate brickwork.

Why is brickwork so vital to the great architecture of the past? And are there some examples you could share?

I love St Pancras Station. It’s a real symphony of creative articulation using bricks and stone. Clients particularly like the combination of handmade red brick with beautiful stone detailing around the architectural elements. Although this combination is expensive to achieve, it can make a building truly distinctive with a modern appearance that’s anchored in the great building projects of the past. But choosing a favourite is difficult: the articulation, profiles and expression the Victorians found using bricks and stone in areas such as Cadogan Square, many parts of Westminster and Mayfair are astounding, as are some of the calmer façades of Georgian brick buildings.

There are so many great examples, both in the UK and abroad: George Gilbert Scott’s cathedral-like power stations in London, the joyful creativity of Hampton Court’s chimneys, the Buddhist buildings in Bagan, Myanmar, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, Lutyens’s many superb brick buildings, including Daneshill Brickworks (which produced 10in by 5in by 1½in elegant narrow bricks, a module he put to great use).

The Pantheon, Rome, is probably the oldest building in continuous use and its influence is notable throughout the world of architecture. Although bricks weren’t used expressively there, they do form the main building blocks of the structure in an amazing array of Roman arches.

The ancient wall of the Pantheon in Rome.

Some houses we’ve worked on in Chelsea are made up of bricks from different parts of the country, as they were built during or after the First World War, when there was a shortage, so the original selection and supply was probably designed to allow for a wider mix of colours and textures, visually brought together by the use of ‘red rubber’ bricks around the openings. (Red rubbers are also known as ‘soft reds’ and they are easier to shape.)

Although brick is regularly used on many new builds and extensions , the lack of design imagination and skilled artisan bricklayers means that what could be a glorious building with fantastic detailing can become very mundane. At Janine Stone, we pride ourselves on the creativity that goes into our brick-designed buildings and the selection of our bricklayers to create homes of distinction.

How did Georgian and Victorian brickwork compare?

In Georgian times (1714–1830), brick was often used for specific purposes in stone structures, vaulting or internal partitions, and in urban and rural areas alike, where it was influenced by the local vernacular. Holkham Hall, in Norfolk, was largely built in brick to a special dimension cast as exact replicas from ancient Roman bricks. But it was with the growth of the railways in the Victorian era that the use of bricks really exploded — stations, bridges, tunnels, stations.

The way bricks were produced came under close industrial scrutiny, resulting in advances in kiln technology, mass-production processes, and standardisation of sizes. There was a golden age of decorative brickwork between 1860 and 1890 that saw special bricks used in even the most functional of buildings. The skill and number of bricklayers grew, too, but was eventually curtailed by the First World War, which put an end to the great brick-building era.

Holkham Hall, a brick-built 18th-century country house.

Among the architects of the past, which ones had a particular understanding of brickwork in your view?

There are so many: Sir John Soane (the son of a bricklayer) and his students had a scholarly knowledge of bricks bonds and how to use them, as did master builders and bricklayers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The brick-face dimensions — stretcher (1), header (½) and queen closer (¼) — formed the parameter of designing elevations to reduce the amount of cut-brick work and maintain structural strength. The Flemish influence from the early 16th century inspired decorative patterns within the bond.

William Butterfield developed these to great effect in the High Victorian Gothic era. The main bonds are English and Flemish for a full brick-thick wall and stretcher for a half brick-thick wall, but there are many variations that have been used over the centuries and continue to be.

What does great brickwork lend to a new building?

Great brickwork can lend a complete modular aesthetic to a new building. It can highlight architectural elements and showcase great craftsmanship. The articulation, colour, texture and pattern of a brick building’s envelope holds limitless creative opportunities and has been used to great effect in many great buildings.

William Butterfield created decorative patterns with bricks (seen here at Keble College, Oxford)

How is this incorporated into the overall architectural plan?

As the main building block, the dimensions of a brick will often influence the dimensions of a building’s architectural elements: the radius of a curve, the height and width of a window, an arch, an opening, or the thickness of a wall, to name a few. When bricks are used creatively and expertly, the design and materials can resonate and become great architecture.

What bricks should I use for my project?

Great question. The choices and options open to anyone undertaking a new-build or renovation project today are immense and it’s not easy to visualise how the result will look simply by selecting this or that brick.

This is where modern technology can provide designers with an advantage over their predecessors. At Janine Stone, we use photo-realistic computer modelling to help develop the design and show our clients how the building will look from every angle before any brick is laid. They can see what would happen if we change the style, size or texture of bricks, from beautiful, handmade ones to machine-made versions. The bond, colour, texture, size and pointing can all be checked as if we simply photographed the finished building.

This approach takes a little longer at design stage, but ultimately helps us experiment with some interesting options for our clients to choose from, so we can deliver the perfect house for them.

Janine Stone & Co specialises in building and renovating great houses, incorporating architecture, interior design and construction management, and has been providing Country Life with insights and expertise through this ‘Masterclass’ series for the past few months. To speak with Janine Stone & Co, please telephone 020–7349 8888 or visit