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What Is Structural Masonry—And Why?

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

Structural brick is the dominant material used in building The Joinery. Photo: Molly Evans

The Joinery will have brick interior and exterior walls. A portion of our brick was generously donated by Michael McWilliams. The rest we are sourcing from Acme Brick, which has a plant a few miles from our neighborhood in north Tulsa.

This explainer on structural masonry comes Austin Tunnell, founder of Building Culture, the Carlton Landing-based design/build firm helping make The Joinery a reality. Building Culture specializes in solid brick masonry homes.

Structural masonry refers to the practice of using masonry, brick or stone, in such mass that it becomes self-supporting. Sufficient stabilization usually begins to occur when a wall reaches 8 inches thick of solid masonry for something small, say, a garden wall. Larger structures, like houses, are usually 1 foot thick—like the home you are standing in—or more.

It is one of the oldest building methodologies, and by far the most resilient. From the Egyptian pyramids and Roman Pantheon to the Vatican and the Biltmore, stone and brick masonry have been used to build the world’s most iconic and enduring structures. Though it wasn’t just reserved for monumental buildings; it was just as widely used to build the humblest of cottages. It is simply how most of the settled (non-nomadic) world has built.

Brick masonry, specifically, was popularized by the Romans with their exploration into arches—a tool used to span large openings in a masonry structure without massive stones (compared to the huge stone lintels spanning the columns in the Greek Parthenon)—ushering in new possibilities and a whole new era in architecture.

A sample of modular brick from Acme. Photo: Molly Evans

It was only recently, with the Industrial Revolution and its offspring of mass-produced nails, lumber mills and processed materials, that the building methodology used through most of human civilization was upended. Collectively known as “stick-framing," masonry was replaced by two-by-fours, plywood and plastic wrap. Stick-framing itself was a remarkable innovation, enabling quick, cheap, mass-produced housing. A helpful tool, to be sure, when quick and cheap housing is needed, but it has since become the

only tool.

Even as wealth in the U.S. grew drastically post WWII, and far more permanent housing could be afforded by a great deal of the population, size trumped quality. Rather than build better homes, we simply built cheap homes bigger. Since 1973, the average new house size has increased 62 percent (from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,687 square ft in 2015). Over the same time, the average household size has steadily decreased, meaning the square feet of living space per person in a new house has nearly doubled in the last 45 years.

Even luxury housing, when an increase in size is finally nonsensical, we simply apply increasingly expensive lipstick. But the bones remain cheap. The home is but a sturdy tent with decorative gold plating. And tents don’t last. In fact, the average lifespan of a house in the US is 70 years. We now have a country full of mass-produced, temporary housing.

Don’t be fooled by the new brick and stone buildings you see today—they are merely a thin veneer, a cladding, held up by the sticks behind them. Many of them span openings with thin sheets of metal that rust away all too quickly. They are pretending to be brick buildings. And that’s why they never look quite right—they are just illusions.

When a home is sculpted from over 60,000 hand-lain brick, of course the outcome is authentic. It’s human.

There are still structural brick buildings in America in the old downtowns, and especially in the old cities: Savannah, Charleston, Chicago. And they are by far the most coveted buildings, being retrofitted into the coolest lofts, coffee shops and offices. Why? Because in our disposable culture we long for something real.

At Building Culture, we believe houses can be more than the chemically laden, machine-produced shelters churned out by the construction-industrial complex. They can be homes—places we love, care for and feel intimately connected to. They can enrich our lives and communities, and contribute to a cultural heritage worth passing down. But first we must rediscover how to build authentically and remember how to build things that last.

This is why we choose to build with structural masonry. It is the most durable building methodology in existence, and its authenticity is self-evident. Why is a brick the size it is? To fit the human hand. What is it made from? Clay—the stuff we’ve been walking on and digging our hands into for millennia. When a home is sculpted from over 60,000 hand-lain brick, of course the outcome is authentic. It’s human. And with each passing year it gains beauty and patina. It takes care of, and is taken care of, by many as it is inherited by successive generations. Its walls tell stories. It lives.

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