Building Blox: Week 4 – Bricks, blocks, beams and more bricks

What we did:

  • Brickwork up to ground level
  • Block and beam delivery
  • Brick selection

This week was another reminder that despite having a main contractor who on paper is responsible for conducting all the works… reality I have to take over

…when I think things may be flagging and not care too much about stepping on toes. On a similar note, I also saw how so many construction jobs may have corners cut after (un)intentionally skipping over bits of work the client may not notice.

With the foundation issue resolved, a gang of Romanian sub-contracted ‘brickies’ moved in to lay the blocks and bricks for the part of the structure sitting below ground level. These guys looked more like a boyband than construction workers, ready for a night out to celebrate their tidy work. How they didn’t manage to get mortar on their smart jeans and shoes after throwing up bricks I haven’t quite figured out…

The Brickies Boyband

The Brickies Boyband

The downside of the boyband’s quick work was that the contractor didn’t get enough time to check if things were being done correctly and/or have his work coincide with it.

An example of this are wall ties; structural cavity walls made of an inner leaf of blocks (the big grey ones) and an outer leaf of bricks need to be ‘tied’ together using small bits of steel at regular and frequent intervals, to ensure both layers remain parallel to each other – see pic below.

Wall ties

Wall ties

On my daily rounds I saw some of these were missing on the rear wall, but was assured it was going to be done retrospectively, which is fine, but not ideal. This made me think that with many technical standards key to a building’s integrity, I’m sure some may often be overlooked or skipped. In my case I have a competent builder, myself, surveyor, building control and warranty provider checking, so I’m confident we will be fine.

However, in less professional setups, and in an…

...industry famed for ‘cowboys’,

…where builders constantly have cost pressures and often a real lack of checks and balances, can we be sure our (smaller residential) buildings are being constructed properly? An aim of mine with this blog is to help people understand construction is not rocket science and can/should keep our builders accountable even through basic technical and procedural understanding. In that context, please let me know if there is anything else you’d like me to focus more on herecomment below or email me.

Of course another solution is to use ‘pre-fab’ construction, where some of the structure is made in a factory to a defined and consistent spec. An example of this is using ‘SIPs’ (Structural Insulated Panels) which would get around many brickwork issues and are more eco-friendly. I’m planning to use these kinds of systems in my next project, but wanted to keep things simple and traditional this time around.

Structured Insulated Panels

Structured Insulated Panels

Early in the week the digger driver broke his chain of Marlboros with the excitement of getting a new toy – a shiny bright blue forklift. The forklift delivery was expertly timed 15min before the heavy beam and block floor arrived on the biggest truck so far. This couldn’t fit down the narrow access so had to be lifted from the roadway to the site.

A beam and block floor is essentially a substitute for laying a massive concrete slab for the ground floor. This is a lot more common on non-residential builds and for homes the jury’s out on which is better, but in this case as the foundations are relatively deep, we had to have one.

This is how it works

Long concrete ‘upside-down-T-shaped beams’ are elevated using concrete blocks at each end, so they are suspended over a void. The beams are equally spaced, parallel to each other so there is a gap between each. Blocks are then placed between all these gaps so you have a solid level floor which is later covered in insulation and screed, which is a thin concrete-like material on which finished floors can be laid. Check out the diagram below.

Beam & Block floor

Beam & Block floor

Friday was brick shopping!
Brick shopping

Brick shopping

Like with selecting your tiles and flooring, there are plenty of choices on paper. The difference is most builders’ merchants supply to trade, who are more interested in lower prices and what’s in stock, so of course only these remain popular.

Choices on paper isn't the reality.

End result = in reality there are only a few types to choose from at a reasonable price and 90% of staff at the merchants and most contractors can’t advise you on alternatives. The solution was driving around to find a ‘brick geek’ who understood my frustration and could find me something.

One of the less obvious impacts of the housing boom and more recently a higher import costs (cheers Brexit), is that building materials have reduced in supply and become more expensive. This means they have to be sourced earlier and more diligently. With a fixed price contract specifying particular materials, this should be ok, as long as the client checks these are still going into the building.

Being part of the material selection process is part of this scrutiny, but not until you as the client see the right pieces on site and making up the building can you be certain. All of which if done wrong may result in you creating a bigger pain for the contractor than the one in his back from laying all those bricks!

Substructure brickwork completed

Substructure brickwork completed

Next week we get on to the filthy subject of the drainage, and people management.

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