Four Alternatives to Drywall That Don't Turn to Mush

CC BY 2.0. Rutland House, Sanibel Island, Florida/ Lloyd Alter

They are healthier, they last longer, and they look better, too.

After the recent flooding in the Carolinas I wrote that "the typical North American house is not designed to get wet." This is mostly a recent phenomenon since we replaced solid wood and plaster with particle boards and drywall. In fact, for centuries houses have been built of materials that held up a whole lot better than drywall does. Here are a few of them:


Rutland House living room

Rutland House, Sanibel Island, Florida/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0In Florida and other southern states, it was very common to use wood as an interior finish, often cypress, which was warm and attractive and dried out very nicely after a flood. The Rutland House on Sanibel Island was built in 1913 and has been through a few hurricanes but still looks good.

Lath and Plaster

plaster on straw bale

Drywall is really a cheap and fast replacement for plaster, which is why in the UK it is called plasterboard. A lot of healthy building designers prefer real plaster because the paper surface on drywall is an excellent food for mold. Plaster also has a smooth, consistent surface. Plaster can be installed on waterproof gypsum lath or cement board, or more traditional metal or wood lath.

plaster moulding

Plaster Moulding from Heintzman Mansion, Toronto/CC BY 2.0

This piece of plaster moulding fell off the wall of the Heintzman mansion in Toronto after a fire gutted it during a renovation (I was the architect); it survived that, the fire hoses, and me moving it around for the last 30 years. It is still solid as a rock.


my office

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If one insulates outside of the structure (or doesn't insulate at all in really temperate climates), then one can just leave the structural surface. When I renovated my house and rebuilt the rear, I left the concrete block basement walls exposed. In retrospect, I now think I should have used a more architectural block and perhaps struck the joints so that it was more obviously a finished wall.

watershed wall

For example, Watershed makes lovely rammed earth blocks that have a warm texture and look terrific as a finished wall, and use half the cement and have a third of the embodied energy of conventional blocks.

Sawmill interior

I may not have been crazy about the Sawmill House getting a COTE green building award but I did love the way the exposed concrete block worked along with Olson Kundig's other rough and ready finishes. Pick the right material and you don't have to cover it with anything.

Mahogany Bay

© Steve Mouzon/ Mahogany Bay, Belize

Steve Mouzon, working in Belize, built cabins out of local mahogany, which is too beautiful to cover up, so he just left all the walls exposed.

Fiberglass mat gypsum panels


© Georgia Pacific Densglass

If you really want that painted drywall look, there are products like Georgia-Pacific's DensArmor panels, "a highly mold-resistant, interior gypsum wallboard. By featuring fiberglass mats on both the front and the back, they offer the best in interior moisture protection currently available." They are also much tougher than regular drywall.

There are a number of alternatives to drywall, but none of them are as cheap and fast. Perhaps if people would trade a bit of square footage for higher quality materials we would have smaller but better buildings that were more flood and storm resistant. Certainly, if we are going to have hundred-year storms every three or four years, we are going to have to do something.