We’ve seen the “take me somewhere expensive” meme of a couple sitting in a hardware store’s lumber aisle and giggled to ourselves. Anyone who is planning renovations recently has balked at the price of lumber. Build a deck in 2021? Forget it. Unless you “wood” pay an average of 118 plus per cent for softwood lumber (depends on your location, but sometimes more), why not wait until the pandemic prices go back in 2022 or 2023?
There are two main reasons why lumber prices skyrocketed in the last year: the first is a shortage of construction materials. Sawmills temporarily shut down during the first wave of the COVID- 19 pandemic, and the second reason was surge in residential construction. Because why not beautify and expand our spaces while we are stuck at home and have to stare at our walls.
The pandemic has provided a major opportunity for reflection and reliance on how individual nations rely on global supply chains. The Suez Canal blockage, for instance, had us questioning why one canal funnels such a large portion of the world’s global trade (a whopping 12 per cent). Humanity relies strongly on nature; how we use our resources is intrinsically vital to a sustainable future. The logging industry in British Columbia has sparked deep concern for the future of nature, and distrust for government by mismanaging and logging old growth forests.
In a prairie province (recognizing the north of the province is heavily wooded) that is resource heavy, the lumber situation warrants the question of “Why aren’t we using resources we used to use all the time?” The question brought us to bricks as an alternative to lumber and wood. The lumber industry in Saskatchewan is similar to the brickmaking industry in that we have the resources, but not the ready market. Lumber mills in the north have also cut back or closed down.
A History of Brick in Saskatchewan
Western Canada started out with several hundred brick factories during a labour-intensive brickmaking era between 1760 to 1820. Factories’ production fizzled out quickly in the first half of the 20th century, down 50 or 60 plants just after WWI due to a lack of clay and manpower; many factory workers went overseas for the War and did not return. Women were not typically stepping in for brick factory jobs while men were overseas during either WWI or II. Plants would simply hire more men to produce firebrick needed for the war effort (as was the case at Claybank) or cut back or shut down if they were only producing face brick for housing needs.
Funny things would happen with brick, occasionally, too, that can be chalked up to poor planning. The Wolseley Town Hall Opera House, for instance, used the plans of J.H.G. Russell, a prominent Winnipeg architect, known for his Romanesque style, which used brick and rough stone for the structure. Local brick from the Wolseley Brick Yard was used in the building’s initial construction, but the brick yard shut down due to a lack of clay. A similar brick from Portage La Prairie, Man. was brought in to complete the construction, but created a two-toned appearance since the brick was not an exact match with the original.
Keeping Bricks in The Wall
Frank Korvemaker, archeologist, historian and archivist, is a 2018 recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal. His efforts have helped save and preserve several Saskatchewan landmarks, including the Addison Sod House, the Claybank Brick Plant and the Bell Barn, just to name a few. These structures still stand today, thanks to his efforts. I spoke with Korvemaker to learn about brick, the history of bricks, and why brick plants have shut down over the years. Ultimately, we do not use locally made brick anymore in the west because of supply and demand. The market and the economics are not there to support the prairie brick making industry.
Brick is almost maintenance-free; it just needs some repointing from time to time to replace deteriorated mortar. Modern brick plants are very efficient, as they use tunnel kilns, instead of the round down draft kilns seen at Claybank. New product lines can be introduced in two days at modern plants, while at Claybank, the process was so slow it took five weeks to make that change.
Modern plants now exist in Eastern Canada and in the United States, and so it is cheaper to import bricks into the prairies than to build new modern factories. The lower population in the West means there is insufficient market here to sustain a local brickmaking industry, and exporting brick is also not practical because of tariffs and taxes. As with so many products made in Canada, it is often cheaper to make a product in the East and ship it to the West than vice versa. As a result, Saskatchewan clay is sold to plants in other locations.
Korvemaker pointed out that builders and construction companies are deliberately constructing with shorter timelines in mind, as small as five to ten years. Brick is intended for long-standing structures that are intended to
stand for a century or more. The main consumers of brick homes and structures are, to no surprise, the affluent.
What About Stone
Like brick, stone is not uncommon in our historic buildings. Fieldstone was used as construction material in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the province, often by Scottish stonemasons who brought their craft to Canada.1 Indian Head’s Bell Barn and Lanark Place on the Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site near Abernethy are beautiful examples of fieldstone still standing today.2
While stone would seem like a logical alternative to brick, the commonality between brick and stone is the mortar: repointing or updating the mortar by scraping out loose bits and applying fresh mortar has to be done manually and meticulously. Finding a stonemason would also prove difficult, since it takes time, and time is a commodity that eludes the modern world in favour of convenience. And, of course, brick buildings require committed long-term relationships.
A New Twist on an Old Idea
Saskatoon’s Innovative Stonecraft is taking the idea of brick and stone and adding a sustainable twist. Company owner Parmjot Maan examined the opportunity in veneer building materials, and how recycling could be incorporated into it. He has partnered with Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Innovative Manufacturing research chair Dr. Satya Panigrahi to figure out how the company could reduce the clay content in composite and add plastics instead. The work has led to creating brick and stone veneer that is eco-friendly and durable using locally sourced non-recyclable ag plastics waste and crop residues. “We launched in Fall 2019 and we manufacture architectural stone veneer products from scratch here in Saskatoon,” says Maan. “With support from the National Research Council and Sask Polytech, we have developed a highly efficient, environmentally friendly mix design that utilizes locally sourced recycled materials. We can maintain an overall competitive supply chain advantage over distributors that only use companies that manufacture their products in the U.S., China, Turkey, Mexico and Korea. We are focused on research and development, process improvements and utilization of innovative techniques to continuously improve our product.” It is brand new brick and stone made in Saskatoon with Saskatchewan ingenuity.
We don’t make things like we used to, but maybe we should be—with an eye on sustainability, supply chain and longevity.
1,2Legacy of Stone by Dave Yanko, Virtual Saskatchewan online magazine, http://www.virtualsk.com/current_issue/legacy.html