Four Alternatives to Drywall That Don't Turn to Mush

A wood-paneled room with two small beds, both with a netting canopy

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:


A wood-paneled dining room with a four-seat small table
Lloyd Alter

In 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

Man applying plaster to a wall
Brett and Sue Coulstock / Flickr /  CC BY 2.0

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.


An office setup with a desk and storage in a small cinder block walled room
Lloyd Alter 

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.

Beige block wall with a chair and low table in front

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 living room
Gabe Border / Olson Kundig

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.

Fiberglass mat gypsum panels

Sheets of Densglass
 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.