The Atlantic’s Hinya Rae writes on the environmental costs and history of a staple in American homes: drywall.

Drywall, which was invented in 1916, was created to help prevent homes from burning in urban fires. It is made from two paperboards that sandwich gypsum, a powdery white or gray sulfate mineral. Gypsum boards are much lighter and cheaper than wood or plaster, making it a popular choice for home builders. Now, more than 20 billion square feet of drywall is manufactured each year in North America. But when it was first introduced 100 years ago, it was marketed it as the poor man’s answer to plaster walls. It didn't really catch on until the 1940s, but rapidly grew during the baby boom when housing demand was high.

But as New Orleans showed in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, convenience comes with a cost. Rae writes:

As Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans in 2005, neighborhood after neighborhood collapsed from flooding. Of the houses that stood, many still had to be bulldozed due to mold within the walls. But one building, a plantation-home-turned-museum on Moss Street built two centuries before the disaster, was left almost entirely unscathed.

“The Pitot house was built the old way, with plaster walls,” says Steve Mouzon, an architect who helped rebuild the city after the hurricane. “When the flood came, the museum moved the furniture upstairs. Afterwards, they simply hosed the walls—no harm done…” In his recent projects, Mouzon says house builders are starting to pay attention to alternative methods and suggestions, possibly because being eco-friendly is a current trend, but possibly also because the cost of drywall has increased dramatically. In December 2012, drywall purchasers began to file class action lawsuits against USG and the seven other major North American manufacturers for price-fixing. The purchasers alleged that a 35 percent price hike for gypsum wallboard that year was the largest within a decade and that drywall manufacturers had stopped giving them job quotes, which meant prices could change at any time during a project. A settlement fairness hearing was held in July of last year, and USG had to cough up $55 million to reimburse the purchasers' expenses.

Read more >