Building with Molded Brick: Rich History, Modern Look

Words: Jason Raivel, Sales Manager, Potomac Valley Brick & Supply Co
Photos: Potomac Valley Brick, Chris Spielmann of Spielmann Studio

DC, Maryland, and Virginia have a long tradition of beautiful masonry. Driving through many of their cities you’ll spot rowhouses, hospitals, schools and other institutional buildings constructed with molded brick. Clay deposits and other raw materials (such as sand) are readily available throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, which is why local plants have been producing molded brick for more than 100 years.

Brick structures are incredibly durable and long-lasting – and molded brick buildings are no exception. However, that permanence can feed into a misconception among architects that building with this material has a “dated” or “old-fashioned” look. Molded brick is an extremely versatile material that can be used in countless ways to build impressive contemporary and modern structures, outside of the traditional colonial architectural style many have come to expect.

The Rich Local History of Molded Brick

Brick has been used as a building material around the world for millennia. The State of Maryland is extremely rich with buildings that showcase an array of brick varieties, boasting historical names such as Homewood and Calvert. This historic past and availability of raw materials up and down the east coast makes it a smart choice for architects who are looking to design buildings that not only modern and visually appealing but also sustainable.

Tom Sheridan, masonry specialist at Potomac Valley Brick said “there was a day when everybody made brick by hand. Now, there are only five or fewer companies making brick this way.” One of the most notable manufacturers is the Cushwa Brick Co. (now part of Redland Brick), founded in 1872 on the banks of the Potomac River and C&O Canal in Williamsport, MD. Cushwa bricks were typically sold under the name Calvert, referencing the famous family of the Barons of Baltimore. In the early years, Cushwa bricks would be transported by barge and wagon up and down the C&O canal, taking brick from Williamsport to Washington, D.C. and other surrounding areas. The Cushwa Basin, one of the few points on the Canal where a boat could turn around, is now owned by the National Park Service.

Cushwa bricks have been used for hundreds of years on homes, government buildings, and churches. Many notable families and organizations have wrapped their most valuable assets in Cushwa molded bricks. To anyone who’s ever wondered what Cushwa bricks look like, all you must do is look at Baltimore’s beautiful Camden Yards baseball stadium, which is constructed with Cushwa’s exclusive Camden Blend.

Today, the Cushwa plant remains one of the largest operating molded brickmaking facilities in the country.

Molded vs. Extruded Brick

Extrusion and molding are the main two methods that brick is manufactured. Molded brick is the more traditional way of brickmaking and uses a wooden mold box. Clay (or shale) is used to create a soft mud and is then forced (either by hand or machine) into the wood mold that’s dusted with sand to help the newly created brick release smoothly. Shapes can easily be made, and iron oxide can be added to the dusting of sand to create new, existing and versatile colors in the brick blend.

So, how can you tell the difference between the two? Most extruded brick has perforations, core holes, and crisp edges. Molded brick, on the other hand, has a much softer look with irregular edges that give it character and charm. It has limitless options for construction, both large and small—from designing a crisp new patio to building a grand symphony hall.

Molded bricks have slightly rounded corners, though designers and architects who want a more straight-lined geometry can also consider pressed brick. Machine-molded brick is more straight-edged, with edges and body of the brick having a tighter texture than the others. Antique texture brick is made on a machine but since it’s not pressed as hard, edges and body have more of a handmade look. Handmade brick is, as it states, placed into a mold box by hand. These bricks are more imperfect with a larger number of voids and folds present, giving it the most character of all the molded textures.

Using Molded Brick in Modern Architecture 

Brickmaking is a true art. The use of molded brick produces a softer, smoother look that’s dignified, timeless and regal, matching seamlessly with other architectural elements such as glass, stone, concrete and more. As architects look to design more distinctive commercial, residential and institutional structures, brickmakers are continuing to evolve and inspire state-of-the-art and enduring designs.

When looking to visualize how molded brick can be used in new and old architecture, professionals can look at the University of Maryland College Park. Two of its buildings—A. James Clark Hall and Brendan Iribe Center—use molded brick in more non-traditional ways. Examples of older molded brick can be seen in the academic buildings that flank the McKeldin Mall. Johns Hopkins University and The University of Virginia main campuses are also filled with examples of molded brick buildings.

As our society becomes more digital and wired, architects are increasing their demand for unique and artisanal materials, helping to revive the use of molded brick in modern architecture. There’s something prestigious yet authentic about a structure that’s built with molded brick. The texture and warmth it can convey make it seem inviting but there’s also a feeling of formality and statelessness.

For architects looking to make a bold statement when using molded brick, here are some ways to take designs from traditional to contemporary:

  • Alternate colors to create different depths and orientations

When using varying colors and layouts, designers can create complexity and showcase different types of architecture.

  • Use unique shapes to produce interesting curved or angled walls

Various shapes can be used to balance other elements and create eye-catching accents, arches, walls, pilasters and more.

  • Vary patterns to showcase visual interest and scale

Contrasting course patterns can help distinguish different sections of buildings and create decorative elements on exteriors and interiors alike.

  • Use lighter shades and tones to show off a more natural feel

More neutral shades (such as grays, whites and blueish tones) can give homes and buildings a cooler, brighter look.

  • Create balance for minimalistic interiors

Molded brick accents (such as walls, fireplaces and backsplashes) provide a good visual counterpoint for minimalistic interior designs.

  • Combine with different types of visual elements 

Molded brick pairs perfectly with diverse elements such as exposed pipes, reclaimed wood and more vintage-like details.

Molded brick gives architects and other professionals endless options for modern design. It makes a striking first impression and conveys a grandeur that no other building material can match. The clean lines and timeless look of molded brick can provide depth, variety and permanence, elevating architectural interest for projects both small and large.

About the Author

Jason Raivel, a masonry expert with Potomac Valley Brick, can provide insight into building with molded brick and how the material can be used in new ways to design contemporary structures. He can provide your readers with useful information about the rich history of molded brick in the Mid-Atlantic region, what options are available, and how it can be used to create buildings that stand out. Would you be interested in a bylined article or an interview with Jason?