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A building boom and a renewed desire for brick structures have heated up demand for the product, causing difficult shortages.

Brick homes and buildings are back in vogue, but that's causing problems for builders and contractors because there aren't enough bricks to meet the demand.

There's an acute shortage of bricks throughout the East and Southeast. Just ask Phil Baker, project manager for Bovis Construction in St. Petersburg, who found out how difficult it was to get 270,000 bricks.

Baker needed the bricks to build a new pediatric research facility for the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, so in December he ordered a specific type of brick from a Northeast supplier.

He needed the bricks by March, but none were available. For months he searched for another supplier and ended up getting what he needed from a Mississippi company. But even that shipment arrived about a month late.

The brick work is being finished this week, on schedule, but it meant "jumping through a lot of hoops," Baker said.

Blame the shortage on the robust economy, the building boom it has spawned and the newfound popularity of brick.

With the economy humming, more people can afford pricier homes, which often use more expensive materials such as brick and marble, said Rodney Fischer, executive director for Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County.

Around the country, the building boom is also causing other shortages, too. Drywall and Sheetrock have also been hard to get because low interest rates and job growth are fueling demand for new homes.

Brick, among the most expensive building products when compared with vinyl or wood, is popping up everywhere: homes, gardens and driveways. And contractors are scrambling to find enough precious bricks to meet demand.

Factories throughout the Northeast and in some Southeastern states are rushing to alleviate the brick drought, which extends as far south as Florida, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

"We're getting bricks all the way from Texas," said Mark Mchayle, operations foreman for CSR Rinker Materials in Tampa, which supplies bricks for commercial and residential buildings. Typically, he said, his company gets bricks from the Carolinas because there are no local brickmakers.

Bricks have regained their popularity, and the industry can be credited for some of that. After a number of years of losing business to cheaper materials like siding and faux stucco, the brick industry fought back with an aggressive marketing campaign.

Radio and TV spots touted brick as the upscale, low-maintenance, energy-efficient siding of choice. At the same time, the economy took off and more homebuyers decided to spend the extra money for brick.

Now, many buyers of new homes aren't asking for a brickfront house _ they want the whole thing wrapped in brick. That can require as many as 40,000 bricks, or an entire rail car load.

According to the Brick Industry Association, sales of bricks were expected to top 8-billion last year, compared with 7.7-billion bricks sold in 1997, the most recent full year of data available.

The shortages started a year ago, said CSR's Mchayle. Even though the manufacturing of bricks is much more efficient than it once was, shipments that used to be filled in several weeks are now running several months late.

Despite the shortage, there has been relatively little change in prices because they are set at the beginning of the year, said Bob DiPietro, brick sales account manager for CSR. The average cost of 1,000 bricks, which is typically how the product is sold, runs about $275.

Customers should order early, at least several months in advance, if they want bricks to arrive on time for projects, DiPietro said. The brick crunch should ease this winter, he said, as construction in colder Northern states slows down.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Brick by brick

In 1997, 7.7-billion bricks were sold in the United States.

Of that, 77.3 percent were used for residences, 19.8 percent in commercial construction and 2.9 percent for non-building uses, such as landscaping.

A house wrapped in brick can require as many as 40,000 bricks.

The Southeast makes more brick (61 percent of the U.S. total) and uses more brick (55 percent) than any other region.

A modern kiln can produce 40-million to 80-million bricks a year, compared with older kilns that produced perhaps 2-million.

Sources: Brick Industry Association, Associated Press.