How Did We End Up With Drywall?

A room under construction with fresh drywall


Steven Puetzer / Getty Images

Gypsum board, or drywall as most people call it today, was invented in 1916, but nobody wanted the stuff. It was considered cheap. It took World War II, with its shortage of trades and the demand for cheap and fast buildings, to make it acceptable. But people still didn't really want it, and so many of the great images from the 50s and 60s have other materials, from wood panelling to brick.

In Steve Mouzon's Four Unexpected Green Game-Changers for Earth Day, he suggests that we go drywall free. He writes:

Dining room with cypress wood walls
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
They call that boring white stuff we put on our walls "drywall" because so long as you keep it dry, you have a wall. But just as soon as it gets wet, it turns to messy mush. And even if it doesn't fall apart, it loves to host mold and mildew and make your family sick.... . We need to learn how to build durable and resilient buildings like our great-grandparents did so that the summer shower is no reason to call the insurance adjustor; you simply wipe down the walls that got wet and never give it a second thought.

The Advantages of Drywall

There are some real advantages to drywall: It's cheap, it is non-combustible, it reduces sound transmission and can be engineered to really stop noise, it installs quickly, and did I say it's cheap? But there are downsides; the finish isn't plaster, it's paper, and it has a fuzzy finish that is a dust collector. The normal half inch residential stuff is susceptible to damage; as Steve writes in an earlier post:

Have a couple teenage kids that like to horse around? Chances are, they'll probably smash a hole in the drywall before too long. Bump the vacuum against it a bit too hard? You'll knock its paper face off. Try hanging a picture and can't find the strength of a wood stud behind the powdery drywall? You just may make a real mess of things.

Downsides of Drywall

Room with a white table and colorful chairs in the foreground
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is also the issue of the acoustic privacy that we have all come to expect. Steve doesn't think this is a big deal, but when I designed my drywall-free summer cottage I cheated in the master bedroom and put drywall behind the plywood in the wall separating us from the kid's room. Noise just went around it anyways.

Bookshelves with books on them
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Steve also makes the point that drywall often hides useful space.

You can actually build shelves within the wall as well, so that you're using ever cubic inch for storage instead of the hidden cavities of drywall-sheathed walls that breed mold and mildew when wet, and house roaches and mice.

There are so many options that can work better than drywall, last longer, are more durable and are in the long term, healthier. (OSB board might not be the best example).

Other Options

There are a lot of reasons to look at other materials than drywall for our walls. Cedar is often used because it is hypo-allergenic. Wood walls have a warmth that you just don't get from drywall. As Steve notes, "You can hang a picture, attach a peg, hang a cabinet or a shelf, and never have to worry about whether it's solidly attached."

Living room with floor to ceiling windows on one wall, a black fireplace, and a bookshelf
Martin Liefhebber

Toronto architect Martin Liefhebber never uses drywall. He doesn't think it is healthy or green; the little hairs of paper fibre make it impossible to get a smooth finish. When he is not using stone or wood, he uses real plaster on lath.

Between Steve's points about durability and Martin's about health, perhaps it is time to rethink drywall's place in green building.