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Brick Arches

The arches above belong to a Georgian mill that has been stunningly transformed into a modern home. Click here to read more about this project.

Brick arches are one of those fine details that will bring the windows to life on your new self-build. It is easy to get them all wrong, however. They can be a time consuming feature and quite expensive, so it might be wise to use a designer and builder who have experience with arches and whose work you like.

You have got to feel your way very carefully with brick arches, particularly in new houses, where you often have wide windows, said Essex based designer Stephen Mattick, whose traditional designs have won numerous awards including a 1997 Daily Telegraph H&R Award. If the windows are very wide it may be necessary to build a relieving arch above to spread the load so that you can then build an arch with a shallow segment beneath.

With larger windows generally the norm nowadays very few brick arches in new builds are actually doing much work in terms of supporting the structure above. Arches are generally bought in as a complete unit and fixed in some way against a steel or concrete lintel that does the structural work.

Architects like Stephen prefer curved arches to flat ones but many self-builders choose the latter for reasons of economy. They are also considered just as traditional as curved arches in some parts of the country. If you are building a flat window head with a soldier course, however, you should again be wary.

A soldier course comprises bricks on end which march across the window opening and are structurally supported by a steel angle bar or back up concrete lintel. This is a cost effective way to reprocate the look of a traditional, self-supporting, rubbed brick arch made from voussoirs (wedge shaped bricks). However, if the soldier course is not taken across the jambs as often the case on new buildings it will have the unnerving appearance of being totally unsupported at the ends and spoil the traditional effect. The solution is to take the soldier course along the full length of the lintel. Even this will not look right to the trained eye, however, as a flat soldier course could not defy gravity without the support of a concealed lintel. The best option is to use voussoirs for an authentic looking flat arch, or to create a curved arch, with its edges resting on brick abutments, using uncut bricks with wedge shaped joints.

In the highest quality work, arches are gauged by using rubbed bricks to create very fine joints that fit together perfectly without even the lime putty that is used as a mortar. These bricks are cut individually from specially produced blocks of brick then finished by rubbing them on a lump of wet millstone grit. A leading producer of brick rubbers is Bulmer Brick of Sudbury, Suffolk.

Nowadays the use of on site brick cutting and rubbing is rare and brick rubbing is a skill that has largely disappeared. Ninety five per cent of the this sort of work is no longer carried out on site, which is a great shame, as the result is usually a pale shadow of the quality you get when the work has been carried out in a traditional fashion, claimed masonry consultant Bob Bennett of The Lime Centre, near Winchester.

Mike Lawton of Dorchester, Dorset is a self-builder who actually carried out the process of cutting his own brick arches. He also laid most of the inner leaf of block and quite a lot of the outer brick skin in his octagonal brick house built in classical style on a tiny site on the edge of the town.

Mike, one of those intrepid self-builders who will have a go at anything, discovered that it would cost him about £200 an arch for every one of the 20 sliding sash windows in the house. By asking around he was able to obtain a job lot of Imperial sized, soft red bricks from nearby Swanage brickworks. Because they were oversized they were ideal for cutting into voussoirs.

Using a diamond cutter Mike cut the bricks for every arch separately using a template. He managed to get the joints quite fine so there was sufficient compression to avoid using a concealed lintel. "I was very pleased to have achieved this and it saved a lot of money but it was the job I came to hate the most during my self-build," he said.

A company that concentrates on specials is York Handmade Brick. For a kit of ready shaped voussoirs, complete with central keystones and suitable for flat arches over most window sizes, they charge £60, regardless of the width of the opening. The company will also produce specials for curved and semi-elliptical arches. You can obtain the names of other suppliers of brick rubbers and special arch sets for self-builders through the Brick Development Association. Generally the message for those building in brick is that windows often described as the eyes that play a vital role in the look of a house give the building life. The detailing above them should be regarded as the eyebrows equally important in the overall composition.