What is a breeze block wall? Maybe you know it as a screen block, screen brick, pattern block, decorative block, vented block, screen wall block, solar screen block, or architectural screen block. No matter the name, what are they, why do they exist, and why are they making a comeback?
Breeze block walls are mostly found in warmer climates like Florida and California so there is a pretty good chance you may not be familiar if you live up north.
Breeze blocks come from a long history of man seeking to stay cool. This sun-shade technique, or brise-soleil, has been used globally for thousands of years.
In Japan, sudare have been used since the 7th or 8th century for shade from the sun and crafted with a mostly solid, slatted surface by weaving horizontal strips of bamboo or decorative wood together into large, flexible sheets.
In 11th century India, the pierced wall technique can be found in Hoysala architecture such as the perforated windows of the Chennakesava Temple in Somanathapura. Later in the 16th century, the jali or jaali, found in both hindu and islamic architecture, use geometric shapes, either carved in stone or made into wooden panels.
The muxarabi, or mashrabiya, found throughout Arab countries, was a small room that projected out from buildings and was adorned with a beautiful latticework of wood panels, allowing shade and privacy streetside or in courtyards. Muxarabis date back to the 12th century and originate in Baghdad.
Today, a breeze block wall is made of patterned nonstructural hollow blocks used in both residential and commercial design. They can come in many different patterns, but the most common designs found from the mid-century, and still being manufactured today, go by the names Clover, Cloverleaf, Flower, Snowflake, and sometimes Floral. Also look out for other common patterns such as Square in Square, Rectangle in Rectangle, Double A, Double X, Double Y, Diamond, Circle in Square and Fans. You will mostly find them made with concrete, but globally, a variety of materials such as ceramic, glass, brick, terracotta and even foam have been used as well.
Homes in the US began using them in the 1930s. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is frequently associated with screen block design, however the design was actually made popular in the U.S. by architect Edward Durell Stone, with many of his buildings such as the American Embassy in New Delhi which opened in 1959.
In the hot climate of Recife, Brazil in the 1920s, during the Art Deco period, is where breeze block manufacturing began. It was in Recife that a group of engineers first introduced what was called the “Cobogó” and which was made from concrete, bricks, and later, other materials.
During the time between the 1920s and 1970s, and emerging again today, you’ll see the blocks used as an entry screen or wall to create privacy on a patio or porch. They line walkways to create breezy hallways. They replaced the balustrade on balconies and stairwells. Breeze block curtain walls were installed to protect large exterior windows from the sun, and used in carports, gardens and around pool areas. Many coastal areas used them for fencing as they stood up against storms as well.
In the 1950s and 1960s, during the mid-century modern period, breeze block walls peaked in popularity and diminished in use by the late 1970s. Out with the big and breezy exterior spaces of single-story ranch homes and in with the bigger interiors and narrow lot lines like we find with McMansions.
Breeze block walls took a break in home building for about 45 years, but are now being used in new homes and commercial buildings in both exterior and interior designs. The reason for the comeback is likely due to the reemergence and rise in popularity of mid-century modern design.
Regardless of whether you are in an original mid-century home looking to replace or restore the structure to its former breeze block glory, or building a new home, there are more and more block companies adding screen blocks into their inventories. You may find a supply of these blocks in one or two designs at your local home improvement store, but, also keep in mind that there are concrete block manufacturers that have an extensive variety of designs and will deliver nationwide.
Be advised that they should not be used for structural applications and you should seek engineering expertise before installing large areas that will be a part of a load bearing wall.
Will the breeze block wall be stylish for another 50 years? Some of us will have to wait and see I guess, but they are popular now. Maybe it’s time to get out the mud and trowel and start laying some breeze blocks!
Below you can find a list of just a few companies that are still manufacturing breeze blocks today.
Mark is a craftsman and product designer experienced in historic preservation, architectural precast, and residential construction.
He has lived in and restored turn of the century to midcentury homes for nearly 20 years.