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Building the Local reimagines bricks with local waste materials

Responding to the threat of globalisation to small-scale industries, UK designer Ellie Birkhead started Building the Local, a project that explores the values of brickmaking and reimagines the process with local industrial waste materials.

Globalisation brings all kinds of products within reach, but it also threatens small-scale industries that can’t compete with low-wage countries. Building the Local is a reflection on this issue. According to Birkhead, it “considers local manufacturing to be an essential part of cultural identity and sense of place, and explores the values – aesthetic, social, ecological and financial – embedded in crafts-based industries and their interrelationships.”

Birkhead focused on the Chiltern Hills in southeast England. One of the casualties of deindustrialisation in this area is the craft of brickmaking. The designer worked with the last active brickyard in the region, introducing local waste products from neighbouring industries into the brickmaking process.

Birkhead designed six different types of bricks, using materials from another industry. The first type is an unfired brick, also known as strock, which uses hair from a local hairdresser. The hair acts as a fibre to bind the clay together, as alternative to straw. The second and third types use respectively sheep’s wool and horse manure in the same way.

The last three types are all fired bricks, which do not need a fibre to bind them. The fourth type of brick uses straw ash to make glaze. The ash is a waste product from local farmland belonging to the brickworks and adds new colour to the brick. Glass from recycled bottles, collected at the local pub is also used for glazing.

The last type of brick is made with spent grain, a waste product from beer brewing. The grain is added to the clay body of the brick. During the firing process, the grain bursts in the kiln, leaving a porous brick, which is more insulating, lighter and uses less clay than the original brick.

By integrating local waste materials into the brickmaking process, Birkhead aims to turn the brick into the icon for the future of craft and industry. She states, “Building the Local enhances the materiality of the traditional brick through new industrial connections, in an effort to rebuild the endangered ecosystem of local manufacture.”

Photos: Ellie Birkhead