But the brick as we know it causes significant environmental problems, by using up raw, finite materials and creating carbon emissions. That’s why Gabriela Medero, a professor of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, decided to reinvent it.
Originally from Brazil, Medero says she was drawn to civil engineering because it gave her passion for maths and physics a practical outlet. As she became aware of the construction industry’s sustainability issues, she started looking for solutions. With her university’s support, Medero joined forces with fellow engineer Sam Chapman and set up Kenoteq in 2009.
The company’s signature product is the K-Briq. Made from more than 90% construction waste, Medero says the K-Briq — which does not need to be fired in a kiln — produces less than a tenth of the carbon emissions of conventional bricks. With the company testing new machinery to start scaling up production, Medero hopes her bricks will help to build a more sustainable world.
The problem with bricks
Although they’re made from natural materials, there are problems with bricks at every step of their production.
A clay quarry in Andalusia, Spain Credit: Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
Once made, bricks must be transported to construction sites, generating more carbon emissions.
Enter the K-Briq. To make it, construction and demolition waste including bricks, gravel, sand and plasterboard is crushed and mixed with water and a binder. The bricks are then pressed in customized molds. Tinted with recycled pigments, they can be made in any color.
Earlier this year, Kenoteq won its first commission — to supply bricks for the Serpentine Pavilion 2020 in London’s Hyde Park (although the project has been postponed until summer 2021 due to the current pandemic). Designed by architectural studio Counterspace, the building will incorporate K-Briqs in grey, black and 12 shades of pink. The Pavilion’s lead architect, Sumayya Vally, says that as a recycled product, the K-Briq appealed to her. It “embodies” the past through its use of old materials, she says, adding that because the bricks can be customized, they allow “the designer to be a part of the construction process of the material,” creating unique opportunities in architecture.
The Serpentine Pavilion 2020/2021 was designed by South Africa-based architect studio, Counterspace. Credit: Counterspace
Why can’t old bricks be re-used?
But it’s not that straightforward. According to Bob Geldermans, a climate design and sustainability researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, reclaiming bricks is an expensive and “labor-intensive process.”
A brick kiln in West Sussex, in the south of England. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Medero says that K-Briqs could solve both these problems.
Gabriela Medero and Sam Chapman, co-founders of Kenoteq, say they have created a sustainable alternative to traditional fired clay bricks. Credit: Kenoteq
Kenoteq currently operates one workshop in Edinburgh, which can produce three million K-Briqs a year. Medero is looking at scaling up — but it’s hard to create a revolution in construction.
Geldermans says that the industry is notoriously slow to change — adding that legislation often lags far behind innovation, so construction companies are not incentivized to adopt sustainable practices and materials.
Stephen Boyle is the program manager for construction at non-profit Zero Waste Scotland which, along with organizations including Scottish Enterprise and the Royal Academy of Engineering, has provided Kenoteq with funding. He attributes the industry’s conservatism to a “chicken and egg” situation. Innovative startups need large contracts to allow them to scale, he says, but struggle to become competitive without a large operation already in place.
Gabriela Medero, co-founder of Kenoteq, came up with the idea for the K-Briq over a decade ago. Credit: Zero Waste Scotland
Over the next 18 months, Medero plans to get K-Briq machinery on-site at recycling plants. This will increase production while reducing transport-related emissions, she says, because trucks can collect K-Briqs when they drop off construction waste. “We need to have ways of building sustainably, with affordable, good quality materials that will last.”