Jun 1, 2021

Never Underestimate the Power of Compressed Gypsum

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Qualico Through the Decades: The 1950s

When looking through Qualico's history, there is mention of Dr. Friesen's "Winter Works" program. What this program allowed was extending the construction season past the spring, summer and fall, and into the winter. How did they do it? What Quality Construction introduced to the prairies was using drywall!

It’s hard to imagine the challenges builders faced constructing a new home before drywall was invented. Prior to 1955, new home construction was forced to halt during the winter months, partly due to the products used to finish interior walls. These products simply didn’t function in cold weather.

The ability to continue work over the winter months dramatically increased Quality Construction’s capacity to deliver homes to families and stay ahead of the competition. In an interview in 1990, Dr. Friesen referenced Qualico's track record of constantly improving their product: "We have always been big in introducing new technology to house building... our motto has been 'Excellence in the Process' and we're constantly improving our product to build the best houses we can."

GDI History Story Image

Western Construction and Building (June, 1969) & Qualico's "Winter Works" Program


The invention of drywall not only enabled building to continue throughout the year, but the product has been continuously evolving through the decades to meet modern and everchanging construction needs.

Gypsum Drywall Interiors LTD. Logo

One of Qualico’s drywall companies, Gypsum Drywall Interiors (GDI) in Winnipeg, has evolved along with the product for more than 20 years. We sat down with GDI Vice-Presidents Greg Davenport and Paul Perron to learn about the history of drywall – with the added challenge that we get people interested and excited about their industry.

“It won’t be riveting, but we can attempt ‘interesting’,” quipped Greg.

What was used to finish walls before drywall?

“Previously, walls were finished using wood lath and plaster, an incredibly labour-intensive and costly process. Narrow strips of wood were attached to wall studs horizontally then embedded with plaster, a base coat, then one or more finish coats,” explained Greg.

Imagine the labour required to finish walls this way! Not only would the plaster need to be applied evenly for a consistent thickness, but someone would need to trowel the entire wall to be perfectly smooth.

And then you’d need to allow it all to dry, which would take several days to completely cure.

The first drywall design was a step in the right direction

Drywall, when it was first created, was a panel consisting of several layers of plaster enclosed in paper. Panels were 16 in. wide, and one or two layers of plaster were still applied over the entire surface. While this system replaced the need for wood lath and excessive amounts of plaster, homes still had plaster-finished walls. This process was the first step in creating efficiencies for the construction of interior walls.

Today’s standard drywall is more than plaster and paper

While the first iteration of drywall design saved builders time in the application process, improvements in the product continued to be made over time. Sheets were being manufactured in larger sizes, allowing installers to finish panelling a home in much less time.

Stack of Drywall

In addition to changes in sheet sizes, the composition of drywall has changed to more than just plaster and paper. Today’s standard drywall consists of gypsum, fibreglass for sturdiness, and special adhesives. Because of this, sheets weigh approximately 30 per cent less, making it easier to carry and install. Another core safety feature of drywall is its fire rating. Building codes in both residential and commercial construction require the use of drywall for safety code due to the building material’s slower burn rate.

“You can have a commercial building with these huge steel beams that are then wrapped with drywall for the fire safety rating,” said Paul.

Drywall answers modern problems

Standard drywall has come a long way in terms of design for interior walls, and today’s products solve a plethora of common problems within new home construction. For example, drywall that is installed behind showers and bathtubs is exposed to increased volumes of moisture and is susceptible to mould and damage as a result. For this application, special glass-mat products are used that are moisture and mould-resistant.

GDI drywall interior arch wall

GDI also provides specialty drywall applications that are used to beautify new homes, including ceiling finishes, decorative arches, crown moulding, and even light fixture medallions.

As explained by Paul, drywall is now also used as an exterior home treatment.

“There is a special fire-rated glass-mat product that is applied to the exterior of the home prior to cladding installation. This type of product can be exposed to the weather for up to a year and is made using fibreglass instead of paper,” said Paul. One example where this product would be used is for Zero Lot Line homes, where they are situated closer together and require added fire protection.

The recyclability of drywall products

For many of us, the environmental impacts of new home construction are visible throughout the construction process. Building material waste management in our industry is cause for concern. 

“When assessed by weight volume, drywall is one of the most significant contributors to landfill waste from building sites. However, drywall products have unique properties to make them more recyclable than some other building materials,” explained Greg. “Gypsum is the primary component in most drywall, and since this mineral is mined from the earth, its return to the earth has no negative impact.”

Paul then jumped in to offer commentary on the contrary.

“Ideally, you’d be recycling and repurposing the gypsum out of the earth rather than harvesting more to create new products,” said Paul.

However, the recycling facilities and market for the by-products become susceptible to assessing the dollars and cents. The trick with recycling excess materials and cut-offs from a jobsite is the manual labour or specialized machinery needed to strip out foreign products such as metal, screws, glue, tape and other materials that interfere with the recycling process and specialized machinery. Depending on the market, the facilities available may differ.

Focus on the complete building envelope

External Dry wall

GDI has grown to become a leading drywall provider in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, supplying more than 8 million square feet of drywall per year to commercial and residential projects. As such, the need to create even more efficiencies and complete solutions has GDI expanding into spray foam and attic insulation. With a focus on providing complete solutions for the building envelope, GDI can provide more consistent service and a higher-quality finish to each project.

GDI currently has nearly 90 employees directly, and helps employ more than 300 skilled workers indirectly through sub-contractor relationships. The business has completed projects in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Qualico GDI Office

In the end…

Both GDI (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and Empire Drywall (Calgary and Edmonton) are business units within Qualico’s integrated real estate model. The volume of work combined across these business units places Qualico as the largest drywall applicator in Western Canada.

From the fire rating of skyscrapers to glass-infused exterior sheets – the innovation of drywall has been slow and steady, with its modern-day applications drastically different from the original needs of Quality Construction during the cold prairie winters of the 1950s.

While it may not be considered a riveting story, it’s most certainly an interesting one. And one that all employees at Qualico can take note of. Mission accomplished.




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