Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thick as a brick ... but kinda smart. Self Shading Modular Masonry and Glass Blocks

Thick as Brick - but kinda smart

Something Old ... Something New

Modular Brick has been around for thousands of years. In all that time it has not changed
much. Aside from modularization of size, variations in color and surface texture and/or glazing the brick has remained relatively unchanged. There is a reason for this – It is a great building material. It is easy to make and easy to assemble on the construction site. The aesthetic variety it offers in it's limited size and applications is mind boggling. With the advent of the use of the computer in automated manufacturing and fabrication it is time the brick underwent a good 21st Century face-lift. Literally and figuratively. 

The building industries most beloved material has never performed in this way before. 
This project shows how one can improvise on a brilliant time tested modular building block
to make it environmentally responsive to sun in order to cut heating costs in the winter and
cooling costs in the summer. Through customization and location optimized face geometries this idea
begs the question : Can one improvise on the common brick in order to bring it into the 21st Century and why is this an exercise worth undertaking. Well the short answer is because this simple idea might create new green construction jobs, help people save money on heating and cooling costs and give folks an environmentally responsive alternative to common brick.

Brick and Glass Block have been used together in construction quite often since the industrial revolution. When brick sizes became standardized the glass block found a practical partner in construction. Glass block evolved to work with the standardized masonry unit sizes and in some cases (within single wythe non-load-bearing wall construction) the glass block became an interchangeable unit component. The two materials are in many ways very different. For instance brick can be erected in many differing patterns depending on what kind of wall one is building (structural or non-structural). It has the capacity to bear great compressive weight and is long lasting and very stable as evidenced in many millennia old buildings still in existence. A great resource to learn about this versatile building material can be found at the Brick Industry Association:

Glass-block on the other hand can only support it's own weight and that of limited material stacked directly on top of it to a degree. It is almost always installed in a stack bound due to specialized grid systems for waterproofing in exterior applications which limits the variety of applications that brick has in spades. It's a limited material in comparison to brick masonry. But it has one outstanding quality a brick does no have. Transparency.  
In this study the focus was to look at a tried and tested construction material and see how it might be rethought. See what the new possibilities might be when combined with contemporary technologies.
This is the kernel within the idea of Something Old ... Something New. How can a small change in something as common as a brick help it to work even better.

Something Old Something New also investigates how new technology within 3D modeling environments and analysis software can meld with standard modular building components that we use every day and what types of new benefits the resulting interaction might have.  As a matter of fact, we need not replace traditional materials – we can just give them a little nip and tuck in order to remake them into a 21st Century construction material.

Conclusion : SELF SHADING Modular Masonry and Glass Blocks

Why ?
● To save energy through self shading and solar harvesting
● Embedded with Fresnel lenses to amplify heat and photovoltaics to harvest solar energy

How does it work?
● The geometry does all the work
● The face shape is realized with the use of environmental analysis software and 3D modeling
How will it be made?
● Using existing masonry factories.
● The firing system is exactly the same only the face geometry and thermal aperture are new


● There are three options. 
  1. a solid state energy producing aperture and concentrated photovoltaic micro panel embedded within the block and plugged into a grid system. (High Cost)
  2. a simple modular masonry unit with the self shading face and sealed aperture. (Low Cost)
  3. a simple modular masonry unit to be used in double wythe load bearing exterior walls. (Low Cost)

● The firing system is exactly the same. The face will be custom molded for the particular area of the planet the wall will be erected. For the aperture and photovoltaic option two additional steps are required  in post firing.
Many thanks go out to my partner on this project Nelson Hernandez. We developed the concept and
prototypes in the Charles V. Schaefer Jr. School of Engineering Lab at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken - New Jersey.
Thanks also goes out to John Nastasi for his valuable input throughout development of the concept and fabrication of the prototype all of which took place in 2008.


  1. I don't understand, what exactly are you trying to sell me? A shape shifting brick?

    -Adam Ahmed

  2. Hi Adam, thanks for the comment. It's not a shape shifting brick but the face of the brick is molded depending on the location it is to be used. In this example the shape is optimize for self shading in the summer and full sun exposure in the winter in NY facing South. All the diagrams and environmental analysis images refer to sun exposure on the summer solstice when the angle of the sun is highest and winter solstice when the sun angle is lowest. We used data from Ecotect and IES software to determine the optimal face geometry for creating shade in the warmest months and full sun exposure on cool and cold months. I will clear up the post and add more specifics when I have some free time now that I know someone has actually looked at. Ultimately a shape shifting surface would make for a great exploration - I will have to look into that idea. If that is something that interests you it would be great to discuss. Thanks, Greg.