Historians say that the first brick was produced in a sun-dried form at least 7,000 years ago, somewhere in Southern Turkey. Several centuries later, the Romans introduced the brick firing method using mobile kilns. Since those ancient times, brick has been depended upon as an omnipresent, smallish building component in the form of a rectangular block, formed from clay or shale (or mixtures), then fired in an oven (kiln), a process that produces strength, hardness, and heat resistance.

“Good brick earth” contains 5% to 7% iron oxide. This gives the characteristic red color to the bricks. (Should the quantity of iron oxide be comparatively less, the brick becomes yellowish in color after firing.) The ancient brickmakers, who apparently were a pragmatic lot, believed each brick unit should not be larger than what one worker could easily handle.

Fast-forward 60 or 70 centuries and today the majority of bricks for construction in North America are reddish in hue and have dimensions of approximately 2-1/4 × 3-3/4 × 8 inches. That’s what we see in the buildings around us, that’s what we first think of when we say brick, and, for the most part, that’s what is specified as our brick material for commercial building purposes.

But there are new tricks and new bricks. There are new colors. There are new sizes. There are new shapes. Creative potential for today’s brick installations is limited only to one’s imagination. As a result, we all are subject to continual unveilings of new and exciting brick materials and inventive brick applications.

Today’s brick palette includes modern hues: oatmeal, silverstone, graystone, chestnut, cascade white, baystone, tan velour, and more. Other brick color options range from traditional reds and earthtones to pastel pinks, misty grays, browns, and deep burgundies. We now produce bricks using white clay, which gives a crisper, cleaner color tone to gray and pastel bricks. "This is something architects are always interested in learning more about,” says Matt Mara, Senior Architectural Representative at General Shale, one of our nation’s major producers of brick for all building purposes.

Dazzling effects by selecting new and exciting shapes on corners, coves, lintels, arches, sills and soffits are now becoming commonplace. Standard brick is now being complemented with bullnose internal corners, bullnose header corners, bullnose header inside corners, bullnose “rowlock” corners. and flatter external corners. Brick manufacturers have the ability to produce custom brick in sizes, colors, and textures based upon their customers’ very specific needs. Clearly, today’s brick should no longer be considered just a commodity, but rather a major design element.

There are new designs. More and more architects are mixing different brick colors and textures and shapes together to create unique building effects. For example, one popular brick design that we’re seeing more of is the “tumbled” or "used effect" brick. And perhaps not surprisingly, brick with a texture that resembles stucco has been embraced by architects. Pigmented mortars which either match or complement brick colors provide a whole new dimension for aesthetic brick design. When a specific color brick is matched with the same color mortar, more of a monolithic look can be achieved. Today’s building designs can also call for a smooth-surfaced brick being installed next to one with a rough textured surface. The possibilities for brick designs within the commercial construction sector are so numerous they boggle the mind.

According to Andrew Cook, co-owner/partner with William Stone Properties, a leading Florida-based builder of both commercial and residential buildings, “I’m from Savannah, Georgia and grew up with brick buildings all around me. We appreciate the classic red brick look, no question. But because our growing portfolio includes structures that are new, different, and modern, we keep trying newer ways to use brick. This has proven to be successful.”

Thin is in. Today’s thin brick veneers provide both beauty and value for either new construction or renovation projects. The look is the same as natural brick, but due to the reduced weight, builders no longer have concerns with load-bearing walls or having to reinforce subfloors.

“Even more practical advantages for outdoor and indoor applications are now attainable for architects specifying thin veneer brick. It can be used to successfully clad small interiors or large exteriors such as major sports facilities,” declared Jim Riccio, General Shale’s Thin Veneer Product Manager. “Thin brick veneer can be used in nearly any interior or exterior application including arches, columns, entryways, fireplaces, foundation walls, and specific flooring projects.”

Some modern building designs call for a rock-face texture. This not only gives a building’s exterior a façade that is less water absorptive than concrete, it also will last the life of the building and never need to be sealed. Using rock face texture within the interior brings the outside indoors (and vice versa) and also, absorbs light. Minimizing glare, especially on indoor surfaces, is just another factor considered by designers for their clientele in addition to the obvious aesthetics they’ll gain with this rugged, natural look.

The Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, N.C., a LEED Silver building, is an excellent example of designs combining the best in brick. Architects O’Brien/Atkins together with Clearscapes and tvsdesign came up with one of the most advanced treatments ever imagined using this ancient, time-tested material. Bringing together Silverstone Velour with Smoke Grey accent resulted in a state-of-the-art building exterior with a distinctive appearance not unlike an enormous, three-dimensional objet d'art. Using local materials manufactured within a 500-mile radius of the project site supported the use of indigenous resources and reduced the environmental impacts resulting from transportation. (This added to the project’s LEED scorecard.) The colored brick in the building was mined and manufactured by General Shale, less than 200 miles away from the jobsite.

“The focus of this project was to create an iconic, contemporary building right in downtown Raleigh,” stated Matt Mara. “A building clad with highly durable, attractive finishes that would stay in style for at least 50 years. The architects and our team were all on the same page. We knew we had an exceptional opportunity to do something new and exciting with brick. The results were obviously outstanding!”

Conclusion: Whereas much of the natural stone specified for America’s commercial buildings is non-domestic, the U.S. 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, data from the Brick Industry Association indicates brick was manufactured in over 160 plants located in 38 states. Even more significant, the brick industry contributed over $8 billion to the economy and helped employ almost 200,000 Americans during that same difficult time. 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. This is truly a Made in America industry.

Now that American business is finally coming back, and more than just a small uptick exists in commercial construction projects nationwide, doesn’t it make sense to consider making an investment in today’s brick materials?