By Karen D. Hickey
Bricks Incorporated got its start in the late 1960s as a demolition and salvage company in Chicago. When an old factory or home was scheduled for demolition, the company salvaged any desirable materials, including brick, steel, terra cotta and copper, then packaged and sold it for reuse. In the 1970s, the company scrapped the demolition business while continuing to salvage materials, and diversified into the manufacture of new brick and stone.
Bricks Incorporated was founded in Little Village, a Chicago neighborhood more formally known as South Lawndale. More than 40 years later, Bricks Incorporated is still in Little Village, and has stayed true to its mission of serving the architecture and design community by providing masonry products, reclaimed materials, and window and door systems. The company continues to salvage and repurpose valuable materials from the deteriorating properties of Chicago.
From Reclaimed to Reused
Brent Schmitt, architectural sales manager for Bricks Incorporated, says, “There are hundreds of demolition contractors in the city, but not many people who do what we do. From start to finish, the most important part is the relationships we have with demolition contractors who sell us reclaimed products, and the architects and designers who want those products.”
Demo contractors who work with Bricks Incorporated know they have an upper hand in the bidding process, because they know the value of the reclaimed brick. This allows them to beat the competition, whether it’s a union or non-union job.
Following demolition of a building, the brick is ready to be salvaged. “If it’s a union job,” says Schmitt, “the dump trucks will come with loads of brick to our yard in Little Village. Our staff will sort the brick, knock off the old mortar, and palletize the brick for resale. If it’s a non-union job, we send our stacking crews to the jobsite.”
Before a construction project begins, Bricks Incorporated works with the mason contractor to establish the quantity of brick and the style specified by the architect or designer. A 4- to 5-square-foot mockup panel is put together prior to bricklaying, giving all parties involved a baseline for material color, mortar color, jointing techniques, etc.
Achieving the Vintage Look
After the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871, there came the Great Rebuilding. The fire had destroyed downtown and the business district and had left 90,000 people homeless. Local manufacturers began producing brick from the clay that had been deposited in the region during the last ice age. These brick comprised the structural walls and alley exteriors of buildings all over the city, and most of the exposed brick interiors. Many of those buildings still stand.
Not only is this brick still holding up existing buildings, it’s also a popular and prized material. The clay material is blue in its natural form, but it turns to a salmon pink when fired. The resulting brick, called Chicago common, is often irregularly shaped and varied in coloration. Such variety did not appeal to a lot of designers at the start of the industrial age. Today, however, many are drawn to the “vintage” look achieved by the irregular shapes and coloration of the brick. People use these brick for everything from garden walkways to new construction. The problem is that the last manufacturer of these bricks shut its doors in 1981.1
Bricks Incorporated takes special care to salvage and sort Chicago common brick, pavers and other materials into such color categories as Clay Buff, Milwaukee Cream, Medium Pink, Dark Pink and Silver Fox. Architects and designers who like the look of a certain color will contact Bricks Incorporated for these reclaimed products. “By and large, architects and interior designers are our main source for upcoming projects,” says Schmitt. “Builders and homeowners also know that we carry Chicago common in a variety of colors. But we are at the mercy of what buildings are being demolished in the city. If we are out of the reclaimed material, well, there is a waiting list. With new brick, you can always make more.”
Thin Brick and Deep-Dish Pizza
In 2016, Bricks Incorporated produced 40,000 sq. ft. of thin brick cut from reclaimed materials — not only saving the energy of producing new brick, but also keeping materials out of landfills. These thin bricks have recently been used to make over three restaurant chains in Chicago — two popular pizzerias and an Italian eatery.
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
Mark Malnati, son of founder Lou, was intimately involved in the remodel of Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria Gold Coast location. Though the restaurant has 49 Chicagoland locations as well as two in Arizona, this particular spot had some significance for Malnati. “He wanted reclaimed brick from the blood of Chicago, as Chicago as possible,” says Schmitt. Mark Knauer, of Knauer Inc., the architect on the project, was encouraged to find locally sourced materials. The faces of Chicago common brick were sawed into thin brick to give the exterior of the building a face-lift. The masons were instructed to lay the brick however it came off the pallet, giving a distinct, mixed look to the building. Malnati also salvaged a glazed brick from another old building in Chicago, and that was used around the restaurant’s redesigned entrance.
Giordano’s is another popular pizzeria in Chicago, with additional locations around the country. Most rework on the restaurants has focused on the interior walls, but the Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., location needed both exterior refurbishing and updated branding. The Aria Group, which specializes in hospitality architecture, stripped off the old façade and replaced it with a new thin brick facing. The result was an exterior with a clean, modern look and a welcoming new patio. For many years, Aria Group has been using the same specifications for Giordano’s restaurants, so the same color palette of reclaimed brick is used no matter the location. They work closely with Bricks Incorporated to achieve this.
Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano
Biaggi’s is an Italian restaurant with roots in Bloomington, Ill. There are currently 20 locations operating in 10 states nationwide, with three locations in the Chicago area. Biaggi’s has its own interior designer, Pam Valenta, who has a long-time relationship with Schmitt and Bricks Incorporated. She selected Chicago common Medium Pink, in a mixture of thin brick and full-face brick, for about 10 of the locations so far. “The reclaimed brick brings an old Chicago feel to the project,” says Schmitt. “Valenta liked the fact that the Italian brick and the old buildings have rustic-looking materials. It looks like a ‘near miss,’ but it’s very appealing.”
Bricks Incorporated does more than reface pizzerias with reclaimed brick. Their newly overhauled website, www.bricksinc.net, displays projects ranging from fireplaces and single-family residences to healthcare facilities and schools. While newly manufactured brick, windows and doors are a large part of their business, Bricks Incorporated has made its mark by reclaiming and recycling Chicago common brick, while preserving energy and saving materials from the landfill.