Rebuilding masonry brick by brick

August 4, 1995

Masonry, the use of brickwork and stonework, was once a skilled art. Today, brick and stone block are invariably flat faced and dull. But the art of the mason could be revived, thanks to work at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology on new methods for the design and construction of buildings using structural masonry.

Malcolm Phipps, professor of structural masonry at UMIST's department of civil and structural engineering and project leader, explains that until the middle of the last century masonry was heavily used. "Its decline resulted from the advent of cast iron, wrought iron, steel and reinforced concrete which offered much larger spans and lent themselves to a framework type of construction," he says.

Professor Phipps believes that masonry technology being developed at UMIST will help to introduce similar advantages to constructions that use masonry. But while engineers can now boast of a formidable understanding of the mechanical, physical and structural properties of "new" materials and how these properties vary with time, masonry has been neglected.

Highlighting the poor status of masonry, Professor Phipps says that when it is used, it is often as cladding for the load-bearing steel and concrete. But he says: "Often the cladding will do the job of the steel and concrete which is effectively redundant."

Before masonry can be used more creatively by civil engineers, however, a complete description of its structural behaviour is needed. In the laboratories of the civil and structural engineering department, which has been researching masonry for the past 17 years, an experiment is about to take place that will be a huge step forward in achieving this goal. The work aims to show that masonry walls and concrete floors behave in a similar way to steel and concrete frames.

The Pounds 170,000 project is being funded largely by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Other contributors include the Department of Environment, several building firms and bodies such as the Brick Development Association. Professor Phipps and collaborator Adrian Bell, a senior lecturer in the department, explain that many structures have masonry walls with concrete or timber floors. But little work has been done to determine the precise structural interaction between wall and floor.

The experiment will prompt full-scale tests on such structures under a range of loads that will mimic real conditions operating in multi-storey buildings. A major objective of the research is to ensure that the results are incorporated into British Standards and other international building regulations and recommendations.

Professor Phipps also points out the potentially huge benefits to British firms: "Masonry is the most widely available structural material in the world. The market for large scale civil-engineering projects is global and we hope that by doing this work we can provide British firms with an edge in securing major contracts worldwide."

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