Home & Garden Columns

About the House: A Few Things I Was Wrong About

By Matt Cantor
Friday November 02, 2007

This is for my wife. Actually, it’s for wives and girlfriends everywhere. Here it is. I was wrong. Wait, I’ll say it again. I was wrong. How are you feeling? Giddy? Lightheaded? Well, don’t lose control. It’s one of these construction things. Not anything important like bedspreads, hair-do’s or Angelina’s latest fling. 

There are two things in particular I’d like to confess having done 180ºs about over years. The first is plywood. When I first started studying houses, it was my impressing that plywood was garbage and shouldn’t be used. As you’ll see, and as applies to each of the things we’ll discuss, there are good arguments for and against this product but let’s start with what’s good about it and what I missed on the first go-around. 

The funny thing about my original dislike of plywood is that I had no idea how bad construction materials were going to get. I could only wish that plywood was the worst. 

What I’ve learned in the many years since I first questioned this inovative material was that plywood would turn out to be one of the premier structural advancements in construction over the course of more than a century. 

Without plywood, it would be much harder and costlier to achieve the “shear strength” that we so easily gain in constructing buildings though it’s use. Shear strength is the ability to resist tearing forces. The forces that collapse buildings or rip walls apart in earthquakes, hurricanes and even in houses that are settling severely. Plywood is made by cutting a tree in a spiral fashion, much like unpeeling a roll of paper towels. This creates very large, thin sheets of wood. Sheets of the “unrolled” tree are then glued to one another at 90 degree angles to one another.  

By turning the sheets at an angle, the grain (where tearing is easiest) is run in opposing directions and greater strength is gained. The best plywood for shear resistance is one that has many layers turned against one another, such as the popular Structural One grade used in many of the best seismic retrofitting jobs.  

But there is a downside to plywood and it’s the very thing that turned me off from early on. Aside from just being ugly (I’m the beholder in this case), plywood doesn’t handle moisture very well. Left in the rain, it tends to warp (or buckle when nailed to a wall as if struggling for its freedom) and fungi have a happy time of it munching on the many openings created through the amount of exposure all that sawing creates.  

The more you saw up a piece of wood, the more easily digested it becomes. Cornflakes are easier to digest than whole kernels of corn and the more we chew up a piece of wood the more easily digested it will be by those that eat wood. The closer we get to making houses out of cardboard, the lower the tolerance for even small amounts of moisture and the ensuing party thrown by the fungal kingdom (look, that one’s doing the lambada!) 

So, in short, plywood is a very useful material that makes the construction of buildings, easier, cheaper and quite strong but more vulnerable to moisture and fungi. Use it but be careful to keep it dry.  

Next is drywall, aka sheetrock. My early reactions to this material were pretty miserable and I’ll confess that I’m still not in love with it but I do now recognize a couple of ways in which this material is pretty incredible. The foremost of these is its extraordinary ability to retard the advance of fire. Gypsum plaster contains trapped water molecules which boil off leaving a powdery residue. This process keep the building cool and protects the areas not yet ablaze during the progress of a fire. Plaster does this too but at a much great cost and the methodologies of installation are nearly lost in our money driven construction culture. That’s the other thing I have relinquish to this former foe, drywall is cheap and that’s not a bad thing. It means that more people in the world can have clean dry enclosures in which to live. Low cost isn’t a bad thing although I think we have to look at this from both large scale and long-range perspectives too. How sustainable is a system that relies so much on centralized mechanized processes.  

While there are many benefits to industrialization and many can benefit, we all have to be wary of who benefits and from these manufacturing methods and what happens to those who have nothing. All dialectic aside, I’ve come to see drywall as a reasonable, if mundane choice. I’d certainly like to see more variation in its use and more use of plaster, whether installed over drywall or other lathings (backings). That’s the origin of my dislike for the material, the lack of imagination in its use and the superlative ability of sheetrock to make every interior in the world look exactly the same. Like laminate floorings (e.g. Pergo) and counters (e.g. Formica) as well as viny floorings and wall coverings, my true argument is with our aesthetic, not the actual material itself. 

Another thing I DO like about drywall is that homeowners and lesser-skilled workers can also install it, albeit imperfectly. Anything that’s more democratizing is alright by me. 

A similar material used on the exterior of building is stucco. Also a plastering process, although this is properly called Cement Plaster because it contains Portland Cement, the same compound used in concrete. In fact, stucco is essentially the same product as concrete allowing for smaller and more uniform aggregate (rocks or sand). 

While I initially experienced stucco, in my O’ So Bored, L.A. youth as the symbol of the Plastic People (thank you Mr. Zappa), I now see stucco in very much the same way that I see drywall. The material is relatively easy to install and has low cost and relatively low environmental impact. While Portland Cement requires large amount of heat energy to produce and contributes somewhat to global warming, it’s hard to think of alternatives that are much better in today’s world. The good news is that better energy sources, such as hydroelectric power can lower these effects and there are also plans to begin burning some nasty things as fuel that we want to get rid of anyway. These include car tires, waste solvents, slaughterhouse wastes and plastic. 

While I initially saw stucco as boring, my arrival in the Bay Area has changed all that. Stucco and concrete can live glorious lives when crafted with vision as the masters of Deco, Usonian and Brutalism have shown us.  

It’s important to note that stucco as it exists today is a material that is often the source of construction mayhem. Common misinstallation errors too often lead to leaks and law suits so if you are going to DO stucco, make sure the design professional and builders are prepared to be all they be. While the stuccos and lead paints of yore were capable of retarding water intrusion, today’s building need to employ a second “drainage plane” behind the stucco to prevent moisture entry. 

If there’s a hero in today’s story, it’s Bernard Maybeck. For those of you who don’t know Mr. Maybeck, we probably don’t get to have a Julia Morgan (at least the one we know) without him and, in a time when the Beaux Arts are dying fast, Maybeck not only brings them back to us but he does so with steel-sashed industiral windows, cast-concrete and asbestos shingles. If you’ve never seen the First Church of Christ Scientist, just off People’s Park here in Berkeley, you’ve missed what at least one critic has called the most beautiful building in North America (A. Temko). 

What we (read I) can learn from this great master is that the materials are secondary. Design is always first. While I’m often wrong, I think, on this one thing, I’m probably right.