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Story of Origin & Natural Brick Co

Detail of hands holding a brick.

Welcome to our first ‘Story of Origin’. A behind the scenes chat with some of the people that have shaped the history and projects of our Practice. 

This isn’t your regular Q&A. We invite them to take a step back and reflect on how it all came to be. It’s about their evolution. It’s their story; their trials or tribulations, their transformations and even just the sheer surprise of how they arrived here at all.

Will Stewart of Natural Brick Co Portrait.
Will Stewart of Natural Brick Co. Photography by Anson Smart.

Our Principal Jeremy Bull [JB] sat down with Will Stewart [WS] of Natural Brick Co. A company dedicated to making waste into new building materials, or as they say ‘handcrafted sustainable masonry’.

We have had the pleasure of working with Will and his team since 2020 conjuring shapes and materials which before then we hadn’t even considered possible. 

Here we speak a little about Will’s origin story, from his time spent in Kenya and Uganda working with organisations building schools and housing, to now as a prefabricating powerhouse.

Bricks drying at the Natural Brick Co workshop.
The 10,000sqm factory and yard at Warragamba NSW
[JB] Tess and I were talking about this kind of concept of origin story, because one of the things that comes up for me is a lot of this is very accidental or appears accidental. And one of the misnomers is that it's also easy, and that you appear in these roles like a magnificent phoenix who rose out of ease and just appeared in a role and the reality is not really like that!

In my experience, I think that you end up through some collection of hero's journeys to be where you are. Some weird origin story that was very unpredictable and people tend to cut that bit out in their version of you. Where would you start your story of origin?
[WS] My story is a bit weird because I definitely fell into the Natural Brick studio. It wasn't a clear path moving into construction in any way other than doing construction in high school and ending up over in Kenya and Uganda for a while after I finished. And I think my passion was more being there. So everything I was doing in my life was just to get me there every single year. So I worked for nine month, left three months, worked for nine months, travelled there for a month and a half and tried to get back and forth.

At that time, the old business (Natural Brick Co) wanted a new Sales Manager. Well, they wanted a salesperson. They had no salespeople; they just had a product!
[WS] I turned down the original opportunity to join Natural Brick, I was then approached while in Kenya. This led to some deeper thought about the synergy of what I was doing in Kenya and the work I could be doing back home in Australia. In Kenya we were building structures from available materials, often recycled and accessible, whereas Natural Brick forwarded the possibility of working on good, sustainable design. There seemed to be an opportunity to pair my passion for construction with my passion for research and innovation. I thought that perhaps working with Natural Brick could bring these two together.

Part of the inspiration came from seeing how Kenyans and Ugandans treated waste materials. There was a continuous search for future material potential, whether it be turning old tyres into shoes, or using recycled bottles to create pavers.

So there was that sort of alignment with what this business wanted to achieve, and what I was currently doing. Coming back from Kenya five years ago, I decided to take the plunge and join Natural Brick Co. (And work more ahours than I'd ever worked in my life!)

Two years into Natural Brick Co, we bought out the business from the former owner and moved into the space of material research.
[JB] You are also now a part owner, but you weren’t when your started, certainly not when we met? Did things change for you when you became an owner?
[WS] I suppose there's a shift that happens when you work for someone and when you move to, “I want to be fully invested in what we're doing here and scale this to a point where we get creative control over the business”

There came an opportunity to invest in the business which gave my partners Troy McKay, Karl Bromley and I more creative control. With that ownership, we were given a little more freedom to take the business in the direction we all believed in and to run as fast as we could and see if it's going to work!

Part of the inspiration came from seeing how Kenyans and Ugandans treated waste materials. There was a continuous search for future material potential, whether it be turning old tyres into shoes, or using recycled bottles to create pavers.

Will Stewart
[JB] Bringing a little bit of curiosity to that theme of the ‘employee has a short-term vision’, and the ‘owner has a long-term vision’ - The common concept is that the owner is able to make painful short term sacrifice for long term upside and return, but the employee will not make a longer term decision if it creates short term pain. That's the kind of common theory.

Given that you're working in this ecological product and that you are were receiving an education in Uganda about building with a long term vision… did you ever think you wanted to be part of a business so that you could take a longer term view? Was there some turning point in that transition?
[WS] When you work in a field that you are passionate about, you pretty quickly come to terms with the need for 100% investment in order to create lasting change. I realised early on that Natural Brick would require a lot of financial and time sacrifice to achieve the goals of our company. With this pursuit, it has meant that I haven’t travelled back to Africa for 5 years, knowing that the next time I go, our business will hopefully be in a financial place where I won’t need to come back.
[JB] A lot has happened since then. Covid, the growth of your business, hundreds of new products.
[WS] It just kept on growing. And then obviously doing the project here at Alexander House. I think in the early conversations with you, looking at what materials we could use, we were so used to using wood chip or wood shavings, and that's what all of our products were based on.
[WS] We were also understanding how much more waste is coming off site and seeing it during the construction of Alexander House. I mean we were bringing bricks to that project and they were sustainable bricks because they're made of recycled materials. But seeing how many bricks were taken off the project was almost like, "Oh, we're taking away a product to replace it with something sustainable." But really, the most sustainable thing to do would be to somehow use those bricks again on that same project. Hence, the furniture sort of came around, we started experimenting with panels, and we've done a lot of things that we would never do again, but it's so good to find that out.
[JB] Innovation….?
[WS] It's about looking at new materials and how can we scale this and actually will it scale? Because some wood chip will not scale much further, because we've run out of virgin forestry. We understand that. Which means that in the next five years we will need to find substitutes for what we are currently using. We've already started contracting hemp growers to grow hemp for our products. But the other thing we are always thinking about is “What's the next product? What do we do? Do we create a product which is a Besa Block replacement like we spoke about years ago?"
[JB] You need to do that. You need to do that.
[WS] So that'll be moving from handmade to pressing out blocks, which would be the next systematized wave of doing that.

Two and a bit years ago we purchased a factory we’re now at. By becoming our own landlords, we were able to use the space to prototype on a larger scale, building walls, trialing concrete compositions, creating spaces for brickmaking, custom casting, material research and system prototyping. We moved from our small 1000m2 factory unit, which was an underground concrete bunker of sorts, that we called the Dungeon, into a 10,000m2 yard and factory. We now have a space that gives us so much more room for creative freedom. It's exciting. It's scary. But it's more exciting than it's scary.

Learn more about Natural Brick Co.

Further Reading Explore more from our journal of stories and reflections.

Travel Diary & New York City

Story of Origin & Concrete Bespoke