Made in NC: State’s clay makes great bricks

akenney@newsobserver.comAugust 7, 2013 

Editor's note: This article incorrectly stated that the North Carolina brick industry's revenues fell from roughly $5 billion to $2 billion annually during the recession. In fact, the number of bricks sold from the nine-state Southeast region fell from about 5 billion to 2 billion per year.

MONCURE - Half a mile off U.S. 1 in the southeast corner of Chatham County, a mammoth treaded bulldozer scratched at an earthen pit, dragging tumbles of soil toward the muddy bottom. The open mine contrasted with the verdant shrubs and forest above – it was the deep red color of brick.

“We’re in the dirt business,” said Ricky Merritt, director of engineering for the Triangle Brick Company.

Down below, a six-wheeled dump truck hauled another load from the mine. Crews have been working this site for years , setting huge stones aside and digging up 2,000 tons of soil per day.

This dirt is the main ingredient for bricks, an industry as natural to North Carolina as tobacco.

Before the Civil War, each town might have had its own beehive brick kiln, looking much like the clay-baking ovens of millennia past. The business has narrowed since then to a handful of modern, increasingly robotic plants scattered outside the state’s metropolitan areas.

In recent years, shocks to the housing market and changing consumer preferences have presented new threats to the industry, but the state and the Southeast remain top manufacturers. Few if any builders import brick from abroad, and local brick makers sell predominately within the South.

Through it all, their recipe has remained the same: earth, water and heat.

A ‘conducive’ region

From the pit, it’s a short, rutted ride to the warehouses of the Merry Oaks brick plants. Here, each day’s load is ground in a “jaw crusher,” then dumped onto a dusty mountain beneath a huge roof, where it awaits a parade of conveyor belts and mechanized arms.

After decades on the job, Merritt has memorized the genealogy of the raw materials. “This was a valley,” he said, pointing out the sand, silt and mudstone unearthed from the 400-acre site.

There might be enough Triassic shale beneath the Merry Oaks land, he said, to run the plant for centuries. Such abundance has kept brick manufacturing in the region – but North Carolina clay also has made the state a longtime champion of the industry.

“Every brick plant has a unique raw material with a unique mineralogy,” said John Sanders, director of the industry-funded National Brick Research Center at Clemson University. “The materials in North Carolina are exceptionally conducive to brick making – you don’t see that as much as you go out West.”

A decadeslong housing boom also has powered the brick plants. While some of North Carolina’s brick makers are centuryold family affairs, Triangle Brick Company jumped in just as Research Triangle Park got its start in 1959.

That first plant opened along N.C. 55 in 1960, and a second followed in Carpenter 14 years later. German brick manufacturer Wilhelm Roeben purchased Triangle Brick in 1979, and the company has since expanded into Merry Oaks and Wadesboro.

Along the way it has provided brick for Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, the chancellor’s house at N.C. State University and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The building blocks

The hammer mill at Merry Oaks pounded away one recent morning at a stream of raw dirt, spilling dust and coating the warehouse walls.

“We bring it down to almost like flour,” Merritt explained.

In fact, the entire process resembles baking. The thick powder runs into a machine studded with the complex instruments and glowing buttons of an old sci-fi movie. Down the line emerges a dense ribbon of wet clay, pushed to produce 36,000 bricks per hour by 700-horsepower engines.

Robotic blades work steadily, cutting the river into long slugs and slicing them again into 41 bricks each. Then another set of yellow arms carefully rearranges the lines of wet-but-firm bricks into short piles, preparing them for pick-up by an eight-headed machine that flies in from above.

Decades ago, it may have taken 15 workers to prepare loads of wet brick for the kiln. Today only a few patrol the warehouse floor.

“In Durham, it was a lot of hand-working, setting and loading,” Merritt said. “Now we’re robotics.”

An automated process

Beth Green, a company spokeswoman, notes that the eliminated jobs were backbreaking work. Harvis Judd agreed. He has worked 59 years for Triangle Brick, first carrying bricks and now serving as yard supervisor.

“Oh, yeah – a whole lot harder then,” said Judd, 70, standing among brick piles. “It wasn’t too hard getting started – it’s after you get started” that the trouble starts.

At the Merry Oaks plant, many of the 59 remaining jobs are in supervising roles. Workers closely watch the machines, stepping in when a piece falls out of place or debris jams the process. The entire kiln – a natural-gas-powered oven with a network of chains, fans and burners – is controlled by one man.

“The kiln is the heartbeat of the plant,” said Ryan Roth, 28, who works from an office above the plant floor.

Roth came to Triangle Brick expecting an obtuse system of dials and cranks, but he does most of his job on screens that display digital maps of the 700-foot long oven. He even can access the kiln from his home laptop, making minute adjustments to airflow and temperature, which can reach 2,100 degrees.

‘Back on the wall’

The bricks that emerge from the kiln’s maw aren’t much different than their ancestors. They’re stronger and more uniform today, but they’re physically similar to centuries old bricks, according to Sanders, the brick scientist.

To the industry, this is a curse and a blessing.

“There’s not a lot of ways in an industry like brick to be innovative,” Green said.

Within the industry, companies compete with new colors, packaging and marketing. As a whole, the brick makers still are fighting to recover the “wall space” they lost to cheaper materials during the housing collapse, which cut the number of bricks sold in the nine-state Southeast region from about 5 billion to 2 billion, according to the Brick Industry Association.

“Instead of using brick, they may have used vinyl,” Green said. “Now the job for us is to get ... brick back on the wall.”

In the short-term, companies will try to persuade home builders to include more brick fronts and interior touches. To some, though, the future of the industry is a return to the past: brick as a primary building material instead of a veneer.

Advances in brick design and shape already have lowered heating and cooling bills, Sanders said.

“What you end up with is a building material that nothing else can touch,” he said. “You can get very high insulating values out of the brick. You have, basically, a structure that will resist impact like no other building material. And you have something that we know lasts for hundreds of years.”

If he’s right, then the fodder for a “green” building boom may wait beneath the pines, in North Carolina’s rusty red clay.

Next week: NASCAR

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

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