Over at The Atlantic, Haniya Rae writes An exciting history of drywall, questioning the ubiquitous wall material’s environmental cost. As an architect, I have never liked the stuff; it disintegrates at the sight of water, I can always see the mud vs the gypsum board, and it is just not as smooth as plaster. I was also threatened with personal bankruptcy by the safety authorities when I was building a condo in Toronto and a drywaller fell and hurt himself while wearing illegal stilts. (They are legal in some states and provinces but not in others) We wrote about the stuff a few years ago in How did we end up with drywall? and quoted TreeHugger hero Steve Mouzon, who wrote:
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 article was not well received, although my editor ignored the comment that “This is truly one of the worst, most ignorant articles I have ever read!… This article is so bad, it should be removed. Ughhhh.”
In the Atlantic, Rae covers much the same material, without the same negative reaction. She also quotes Steve Mouzon, who describes how houses in New Orleans that were built out of plaster or wood panelling survived Katrina nicely, but that millions of square feet of housing built with drywall had to be bulldozed. Then the fun begins:
After gypsum is mined and manufactured into drywall, it’s shipped out to contractors and retailers to be used for new construction. According to the EPA, once that construction is finished, most scraps are sent directly to landfills. There, gypsum becomes wet, mixes with other organic materials, and turns into hydrogen sulfide, a rotten, egg-smelling gas lethal to humans in high doses. The compound can contaminate water and raise its acidity—a risk to marine and freshwater animals.
Perhaps the reaction to the Atlantic article was not as negative as it was to mine because things are changing, and people are demanding better quality alternatives, especially as drywall gets more expensive. Many architects concerned about health are turning to plaster, wood, or hybrids:
Mouzon, the architect who worked in New Orleans, has experimented with building wood-paneling systems that remove the gaps between wallboards altogether. “At the beginning, tradesmen don’t like it because they’re used to running their lines in the walls wherever,” says Mouzon. “But, once they see the system, there’s less thinking they have to do because it’s more organized. After a few jobs, it’s pretty much a wash in terms of cost.”
I suppose that in mass-production housing we will never see the end of quick and cheap drywall. In much of Europe, they won't touch the stuff, wanting plastered concrete blocks or clay tiles; It lasts forever and takes a great deal of abuse. In North America, people who care about resilience, health and longevity should start looking at alternatives too.