Bricks and stones will make our homes

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Dinah Starkey uses fairy tales to investigate building materials.

Building materials have their strengths and weaknesses as the story of the three little pigs make plain. Straw can make a perfectly good house and many medieval buildings depended on a deep, thick roof of thatch to keep out the wind and rain. A thatch of wheat or rye straw, properly laid, is light and weather proof but it is also inflammable and it lacks the durability of wood or stone - as the first little pig found out to his cost.

The second little pig may have made a better decision. Half-timbered houses have stood up to the elements for centuries. It would take more than a bit of huffing and puffing to bring them down. But building a robust timber house is a job for a craftsman. Perhaps the second little pig's workmanship let him down.

According to the story, the third little pig got it right. You can't beat brick for a solid, durable house. Many modern builders would tend to agree. Cheap, strong and easy to assemble, brick has been popular since the 16th century and it remains one of the most widely used materials today.

Stories and nursery rhymes contain all sorts of references to houses and dwellings. Of all the fairy tale characters, witches show the greatest disregard for the practicalities. From a structural point of view, gingerbread has little to recommend it, and, as the story of "Hansel and Gretel" demonstrates, it fails miserably to withstand normal wear and tear. Baba Yaga, the Russian witch, lived in a wooden house that strutted on chicken legs. Alarmingly insubstantial, Baba Yaga must have relied on magic to keep it intact.

All these stories serve to demonstrate a universal truth. People have always built their houses out of the materials which lie to hand. Until the coming of the canals and railways, it was too expensive to ship stone or slate across long distances and so the choice of stone or wood, thatch or tiles depended on what was available in the locality.

Some of the oldest houses were made of unbaked earth. The cob cottages of Somerset and Dorset were made of mud, laid down in layers and allowed to dry. A plaster wash protected them from the rain but damp was, and still is a problem. According to an old Devon saying, "All cob wants is a good hat and a good pair of shoes." The hat was usually a thick roof of thatch and the shoes were a high plinth of stone or brick which kept out both damp and rats.

It's a safe bet that Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother lived in a house made of wood. Oak was the favoured timber because it lasted best. Timber-framed buildings were made of unseasoned wood, which was easier to work. As the beams dried out they tended to warp. Perhaps this is what happened to the little crooked house in which the crooked little man lived. Or maybe, like the King's School shop in Canterbury, it began to sag when its next door neighbour was demolished.

Wood houses have manyadvantages but they are not resistant to fire. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, many houses in the city were rebuilt in stone to ensure that such a disaster never occurred again.

Stone was, and is, the preferred choice for a house which lasts. But stone is more difficult to work than wood and the expenses of digging, dressing and carting it placed it beyond the means of ordinary people until the late Middle Ages. The typical fairytale castle is built of large blocks of stone which have been carefully dressed and cut to size. The houses of poorer people, by contrast, were often made of a jigsaw of rubble held together with plenty of cement. In the chalky downland country, people used flint which could be knapped or chipped into a more manageable shape.

Bricks have been around since Roman times, but it was during the Tudor period that they began to be widely used as a building material. Bricks are made of clay - a stiff, sticky earth - which has been fired in a kiln. Properly made they are practically indestructible and a brick flue doesn't catch fire. You often see 16th-century houses which are made entirely of wood except for the twisty brick chimneys.

Brickmaking took some skill. In early times the clay was trodden and squeezed to remove any trace of pebbles, which might shatter in the kiln. It was pressed into wooden moulds, left to dry for at least a fortnight and then loaded into a kiln and fired. Standard sizes were not introduced until 1571 but even before that bricks, wherever they came from tended to be roughly the same size because they were designed to fit snugly into a man's hand. Technological changes introduced in Victorian times speeded up both production and distribution, and from the 1850s factories and workers' dwellings, railway stations and town halls were built of red machine-made bricks.

Fairytales, which reflect a pre-industrial age, make little reference to the toughened glass and pre-stressed concrete which play such a part in modern buildings. The tales are a reminder of a past age and another technology. But the buildings, like the stories, still endure. A visit to a nearby town, or just a collection of postcards will enable children to look for different building materials and a small handling collection of bricks and wood, undressed stone, clay and cement blocks will help them to assess their strengths and weaknesses and begin to understand why people built as they did in the past, and how new materials have changed our life today.


Building sites are dangerous places, not the playgrounds they may sometimes appear to be. Children must never go on them unaccompanied by an adult. The dangers include:

* Falling from scaffolding and ladders

* Falling from stacked building materials

* Slipping into collapsing piles of soil or sand

* Playing on or near heavy machinery

* Falling into trenches and holes

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