- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

While masonry is not plastic, steel, glass, wood, titanium or any other fancy metal on the market, it is just about everything else that has been used as building materials through the centuries. Think stone, brick, marble, tile, terrazzo and concrete block.

In short, masonry traditionally is any element worked on with a trowel, the basic tool of the trade.

“You cannot go one block in this town without seeing masonry,” says Hazel Bradford, of the Bethesda-based International Masonry Institute (IMI), pointing out such prominent structures as the National Museum of the American Indian, with its sandstone and granite exterior, and the National World War II Memorial, both under construction on the Mall.

As a new exhibit in Washington’s National Building Museum makes clear, masonry exists in nearly every culture in the world. Its very ubiquity challenges architects and craft workers looking to stretch the boundaries of their profession. “Masonry Variations,” the show organized in conjunction with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers as well as IMI, illustrates in vivid 3-D form the possibility of new applications for these familiar materials.

Stone is probably the oldest and most available masonry material, concrete blocks one of the most common. In its most basic form, concrete is an artificial stonelike material made of cement and various substances such as sand, gravel and pebbles mixed with water. Used in walls and foundations, concrete is cheap and easily accessible. Its drawback is that its weight limits design factors and drives up transportation costs.

A new, lighter kind of concrete block called autoclaved aerated concrete, or AAC, weighs one-third less than regular concrete while still offering the same protective properties. Developed in Europe 80 years ago, AAC until recently has not been manufactured widely in this country. A factory in Vineland, N.J., that will serve the East Coast is expected to begin production shortly.

AAC basically is a concrete block made under heat and infused with air — hence the word aerated. The extra ingredient that makes the difference in AAC’s weight is aluminum flakes put into the mix during the heating process.

Architect Maria Viteri, IMI’s director of program development, says AAC is moldable and can therefore be seen to resemble the sculptural forms on display in the Building Museum exhibit.

“Seen raw, the final surface is smoother than concrete. While you usually put a finish on concrete block, you can leave [AAC] unfinished and not have the porous openings,” she says. “It looks almost like putty, so it could be great used in walls, cornices and other decorative work.”

Saber Helal, 64, owner of Gray Graphics Corp. in Capital Heights, first heard about AAC when researching materials to use in the dream home he plans to build upon retirement. He first encountered AAC when a friend urged him to look up environmentally sound products on a U.S. Energy Department Web site. He initially had had his eye on concrete because of its durability and the protection it offers in a fire.

“[The Web] said [AAC] was lighter in weight but gives the same strength and is proven in Europe,” he recalls.

When Mr. Helal begins building in the spring, he plans to use a basement of poured concrete, but wants the second and third floors constructed of AAC. In line with traditional construction procedures, the exterior will be covered with stone and the interior will have a layer of drywall.

The property he bought is in Indian Head, Md., on an open, windy stretch along the Potomac River. “If you put a regular house on it, you will waste a lot of energy because of air that seeps through,” he says.

The fact that AAC at present is slightly more expensive than ordinary concrete blocks doesn’t deter him, because he estimates he will save on energy costs in the long run. “We all need to save,” he says.

Many craftsmen argue similarly that old-fashioned masonry materials such as tile and terrazzo may be more expensive to buy, but are cheaper in the long run because they are easier to maintain. Likewise, advocates say AAC will be a good choice to use in firewalls, being stronger and more heat resistant than drywall. Drywall has a fire rating, but disintegrates under pressure from a water hose.

AAC is just one new building material that along with some sophisticated tools and building techniques inspires creative minds to envision new arrangements and forms — pushing the limits of their craft. Because of this, celebrity architects such as Frank Gehry, noted for their use of more flashy and unconventional materials such as steel and titanium, aren’t opposed to working in familiar masonry materials. He recently designed a science building in brick for Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland that is described as looking as though it were about to explode.

“Maybe the economy is pushing us to take a better look at what we are investing in our homes,” says Ms. Viteri. “People are spending more and looking for better, longer-lasting materials. Even within my own professional circle, I was surprised to hear how many people are choosing natural stone such as marble and granite instead of Corian or Formica in their kitchens.”

The Building Museum exhibit shows how marble tiles can be made lighter and used without a backing, suggesting an almost fluid state resembling a curtain in a houndstooth pattern lit from behind. “That kind of application could be used in a kitchen counter or a wall,” Ms. Viteri says. “It could be great as an outdoor element as well.”

And instead of the usual solid formation of bricks stacked together with mortar, the exhibit extends their form by suspending them in long spans. Rods put through bores in the brick almost give them the illusion of movement.

“Maybe we are starting to realize how brick can move for some reason not yet known,” says Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, a “Masonry Variations” guest curator. Technology is opening people’s eyes in new ways, he believes. And as conjecture, he adds: “Maybe you want a brick house that can move around physically, so you get the morning sun and in the afternoon shift it around to get afternoon sun. It’s all about approaches to give more options and alternatives. Because the human spirit always wants something new.”

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