Consider the whole picture when choosing the most environmentally-friendly materials, says Phil Cox, director of Modern Masonry

Phil Cox_Modern Masonry

Old problems do not inherently demand new solutions. Although decarbonising ia an ongoing challenge for the built environment, we have long-standing strategies at our disposal which are too often dismissed in favour of passing trends.

For anyone building new, or undertaking extensive refurbishments, modish technologies can seem tempting, promising and exciting. However, tried, tested and proven traditional building methods can be equally, if not more, effective at improving energy efficiency.

Safe and resilient, masonry is a product particularly well-suited to future-proofing the UK’s building stock while helping reduce operational emissions. A heavy material, it works well with Passive Solar Design (PSD), having the required thermal mass to soak up solar gains.

Combined with passive HVAC, this approach can maintain optimal temperatures year-round, resulting in greener property, lowered utility bills and greater tangible long-term value.

Importantly, any approach to decarbonising must also consider the long view, which means adopting a more holistic understanding of materials. We need to take into account availability, logistics and design life. Masonry balances all three.

Future thinking also means adapting for climate change. A fabric-first approach can reduce the risk of overheating without mechanical means, while choosing the right structural materials can provide stability and resistance to water penetration in flood conditions.

In recent years, UK masonry has made significant steps towards becoming carbon negative. Increasing focus on embodied carbon means greater consideration of transportation and sourcing materials locally, to minimise emissions and import costs.

Blocks, being concrete, are 100% recyclable, allowing for circular manufacturing. Furthermore, intensive research is ongoing into utilising waste materials, such as PFA (Pulverised Fuel Ash) and FBA (Furnace Bottom Ash), in concrete products.

Information about the carbon impact of building products can paint a misleading picture, whether owing to outdated data or a lack of understanding of the materials themselves. Contrary to popular thinking, Masonry’s embodied carbon is comparable to that of other materials more frequently heralded as eco-friendly.

A comprehensive NHBC study of structural materials, cradle to gate, concluded that a timber-frame house has only 3% lower embodied carbon than a masonry-built house – a negligible difference.

Material sustainability is not always obvious. Before you dismiss the traditional as outdated or unsuitable, be sure to consider the whole picture. Masonry has stood the test of time for a good reason.

Phil Cox is director, Modern Masonry


Ideas for positive change


This is part of our Countdown to Cop26 coverage in the lead up to the world climate conference in Glasgow in November. We will be publishing more big ideas about ways to tackle the climate emergency over the coming weeks and you can find more here.

Do please send us your own thoughts about how to make construction greener! Email us, using the subject line “Cop26 ideas”, at