Recycling Old Bricks

Bill Sitkin says, "At the heart of recycling, for me, is a great love for this planet and the awesome natural systems that support life here. I have always been a 'dumpster diver' and developed a used building materials and deconstruction business known as The ReStore in Crestone, Colorado. I look forward to your questions on anything about recycling materials or deconstructing buildings."

Questions and Answers

Q: My husband and I are building a new home on his great grandparents acreage. I have salvaged many of the bricks from the original part of the home's basement. Some have been through fire, are chipped etc. I would like to use them around, but not in our new fire place for sentimental reasons. My husband is afraid they are soft and not safe to use...and is there any easy way to clean them up?

A: Your husband and you could test the bricks by doing a comparison with new ones. Support the ends of the bricks on two 2x4's (just like you see when a judo expert is about to break a brick). Take a weight (20lb dumbbell will work) and beginning at 2 feet high, drop the weight on each brick in the center. If they both survive, increase to 3 feet, etc. My thought is that since the older bricks have been in essence - re fired - they will prove to be stronger. Maybe I am wrong, but give it a go and let me know what happens. There is a certain charm to old bricks that may be lost in the cleaning process. Mixing old with new might give a nice look.

Q: I want to build/design my house using local, natural,recycled and super-efficient materials. I am gathering bricks from demo guys, stone and rocks from the site, used beams and wood etc... I want to build in Texas so it will be hot and cold. One item I would like to use is pallets to frame the house. Like the ones that go on trucks to ship stuff, then place rock and bricks over that on the outside and insulate the inside with wool or the paper. Can I do this, and will it provide good insulation? Also is it ok to use all the old bricks and blocks?

A: (Kelly) Recycling used bricks and pallets is a great idea. People have actually been making very strong roof trusses with pallet wood (making lots of triangles with the short pieces). Your house will be much more comfortable if you place the masonry materials on the inside, and then insulate them on the outside...or if you can collect enough, it might be even better to make a double wall with the bricks and leave an air space of at least 6" (or stuffed with insulation) between the two shells. Then use the pallets to make your roof, and insulate it well and use metal roofing or something to keep the rain out.

Q: My husband and I are building a house with recycled cement block and are on a very tight budget. I've been trying to find a method of insulating the cavities and was wondering about the possibly packing them with household waste such as plastic grocery bags, cardboard boxes, newspaper, etc. I also wondered about pine straw which is in endless supply on our property.

A: I have used plastics and household trash for insulation and have found it to be OK. A better insulator would be styrofoam and styrofoam popcorn that that is used for shipping. Most of your friends no doubt receive packages with styro protection of one sort or another. As for the pine straw, I would experiment with dried first as it would not mold.

Q: Why can't demolished concrete walls, sidewalks be used like cement blocks with mortar and made into a house/wall, etc? It would seemed to me that used pieces of concrete would adhere as well to cement and mortar as bricks or stone does. Somehow I get the impression that this is not the case.

A: (Kelly) Concrete rubble is often called "urbanite" and is used mainly for fill or rubble trench foundations or such. The reason it is seldom used in construction as you suggest is that the pieces are generally so irregular that it is awkward to build with them. Mortar will adhere...it is just difficult, and time consuming, to build with them. Using urbanite in a slip-form concrete wall would be more feasible.

C: I'm writing from Historical Bricks in Iowa City, IA to communicate that historical bricks are also a green product. Most times, though, they're overlooked as a green material. You write a lot about sustainable products and ours are sustainable enough to receive LEED points from the USGBC. Bricks can lower the temperature of a surface that is covered in asphalt or concrete, and many cities across the country are using it for climate control. In Vinton, IA, for example, and Edwardsville, IL, cities have chosen responsibly to uncover the asphalt and renew the historic brick underneath. Not to mention that building bricks are good for retaining heat and cold to thus maintain an indoor temperature. In the early 1900s, bricks were one of the most important building material used. Now, however, what will happen to them? Historical Bricks has saved over 90 thousand tons of bricks from being tossed into landfills. Recycling and bricks is good for the environment and even better for the clients who can feel good and green about reusing them.

Q: We are wanting to create a raised bed at my daughter's school out of urbanite with plaster over it so it can be decorated with mosaics. Can you plaster directly over the urbanite?

A: (Kelly) I would think that the urbanite would take a plaster well enough; you might try to leave the surface rather rough to give the plaster more "tongue" to grab onto. You also might do a little test to see...

Q: I wondered if you have ever heard of using concrete test samples for construction? These are the cylindrical sample of concrete pours. They measure 4 - 6 inches wide and approx. 12 inches long. They are solid concrete, quite strong, and typically free! Why waste them? They are better than tires! Any ideas?

A: (Kelly) I am not familiar with these samples, but from your description I would say that they could be used for construction in much the same way that bricks are typically used: mortared into solid masonry walls where this is appropriate. Obviously you would need to find enough of them to make the project worth while.

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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.