My journey through the inner sanctum of the USG Research & Technology Innovation center continued through one testing laboratory after another, each with its own specialty… With over 100 years of innovation and leadership in the walls and ceilings industry, there is no aspect of the business that has escaped the purview of the USG scientists.

“Plaster systems offer a number of practical and aesthetic advantages over gypsum panels and other interior finishes. Plaster permits a great deal of design flexibility, combined with fire performance, strength and durability. These factors improve lifecycle economy when compared to drywall. Because plaster systems are truly monolithic, they provide surfaces that minimize or eliminate irregularities associated with standard drywall construction.”

––USG Plaster Systems Manual

My journey through the inner sanctum of the USG Research & Technology Innovation center continued through one testing laboratory after another, each with its own specialty in either sheetrock, acoustic tile, joint compound, plaster, and even paint… How many of you knew that USG manufactured paint under a brand sold by Sears & Roebucks in the 1950s? Well don’t be surprised if you see USG’s name once again associated with the artistic medium of Michelangelo himself! With over 100 years of innovation and leadership in the walls and ceilings industry, there is no aspect of the business that has escaped the purview of the USG scientists.

The CSI of USG

We turn a corner and enter a department fondly referred to as the “CSI” of USG, where I meet a remarkable gentleman named Art Struss. As I take a look around it is clear that we have entered a very special section of the facility, and Art’s personal domain. The room is decorated with photographic images taken on the microscopic level. Art sits at the console in front of a bank of computers and monitors connecting him, and us, to an electron microscope.

On this day Art was troubleshooting why the paint on a customer’s wall is cracking over what appears to the naked eye as perfectly sound drywall. As he focuses deeper and deeper into the sample of drywall laid before the powerful electron microscope, Art explains to us that it is not only the ability to see material at the molecular level, but the microscope provides a depth of vision enabling us to see how various components of a subject sample interact with one another. The shape and disbursement of the fibers in the drywall can be seen as easily as looking at the branches of a tree through a windowpane. The whole experience reminded me of the 1966 Sci-Fi classic, Fantastic Voyage and the microscopic journey deep into the human body. I am told that such technology is essential not only for troubleshooting problems, but also in the development of new materials; the microscopic crystals that form gypsum can be blended with other materials, the reaction and structural integrity can be verified and tweaked at this microscopic level which will have a profound impact on the workability and durability of the final product out here in our life-sized world.

Did You Hear That?

If you have ever stayed in a cheap motel where you could hear everything said (and done…) in the next room, then you already have some first-hand appreciation for the important role of acoustics in the design of a well-constructed wall and ceiling system. Our next stop through the Research and Technology facility brings us to the “Sound Room” where testing of acoustic properties is performed. I am warned before hand that this might be an “eerie experience” for the uninitiated, and they were right.

As we entered the Sound Room I immediately sense something is different; we take for granted the routine noise that is generated all around us most of the time. The sound of your footsteps, your trousers brushing against each other, the opening and closing of a door, the conversation down the hall; these activities generate sound, but the difference in here is that the outside sound does not infiltrate, and the sounds you generate do not bounce back at you. When we ceased our conversation I learned the full meaning of the term “dead silent”. All I could hear was the sound of my own heartbeat and breathing.

Flame On

When Johnny Storm of Fantastic Four fame isn’t out fighting bad guys with his superhero pals, he might be able to find a little side work at the USG UL certified fire-testing laboratory, otherwise known as the “Burn Lab.” The facility is as tall and wide as a small airplane hangar and filled with enough gas burners to make any flammable superhero green with envy. Extreme temperatures are created to determine how long different wall systems can stand up to fire conditions. Some of the burning stations are upwards of 20 feet tall and look like a giant BBQ grill with gas jets situated horizontally. Temperatures and duration can be manipulated and monitored from the safety of a control room.

The USG Burn Lab was the first in the nation of this size and capability, and it is a certified Underwriters Laboratories approved testing facility used by many other manufacturers for the testing of fire resistant products.

In-House Plasterer

Talking about jobs, as a plasterer myself the trade has provided me with some great opportunities, apprenticeship instructor and union representative among them. But imagine being the in-house plasterer for USG… what a great gig!

Chris Borovka is a 20-year master mechanic of our trade who works side by side with the scientists and marketing guys at USG to make sure that what USG is developing and selling to us actually works the way it’s supposed to. Chris has a workshop at the Research and Technology facility where he mixes up and applies test batches with a hawk and a trowel. I felt right at home in Chris’ workshop, it resembles many of our apprenticeship training schools with its wall mock-ups, a small mixer off to the side, and plaster applied in various stages from scratch and brown to finish; he even had a set-up where he was doing some dotting and screeding-a sure sign of a very experienced plasterer.

If the white-coat you got from USG spreads like butter, know that it went through a lot of testing and refinement before it got that way, and Chris’ hand was well involved in that process.

Plaster - The Upper "Echelon" of Wall Systems

In Part I of this “Solid As A Rock” Trowel Talk column I suggested that USG was on the verge of beginning a major marketing campaign to promote the use of interior plaster. Well, the time has come to discuss this exciting opportunity to re-establish plaster as a financially viable alternative to drywall. On high-end residential development, homeowners are always offered a choice of cabinets, carpeting, kitchen counter-tops and even exterior wall treatments, i.e., stucco, EIFS, siding, brick, etc. But they are seldom offered a choice of interior wall systems… until now!

Think about it ... owners of these million-dollar-plus homes gladly throw big bucks around to have granite counter-tops or Berber carpeting. Why not pay a little more to have a wall system that will stand up to whatever abuse their families can dish out, virtually eliminate surface blemishes, create a unique acoustical environment, and will last hundreds of years? To this end, USG will market to owners through custom home builders. Literature and kiosks will demonstrate the “knock on the wall” and homeowners will discover the benefits of genuine lath and plaster! Homeowners will see first hand the difference between a hard, monolithic product like plaster and the softer paper and joint compound of drywall.

The campaign will include a new name branding for existing plaster systems called, “Echelon”.

“We believe there is a viable market for a wall system upgrade on high-end residential construction. Plaster is a value-driven product and USG intends to take the lead in introducing plaster back into the marketplace,” said Kevin Moyer, business manager of USG’s Superior Wall Finish Division.

Nothing will change with the existing line of veneer and conventional plaster products on the contractors end; Imperial, Diamond and Red Top plasters will all continue to be named and labeled as before, but USG will be adding “Echelon” labeling to provide marketing consistency to the product line and to ensure quality control.

Web Resources

United States Gypsum offers a wealth of resources for architects, contractors, plasterers and apprenticeship instructors directly from the USG Web Among the materials available are installation guides for all of the USG plaster systems.

I would like to extend my appreciation to Kevin Moyer and the entire USG crew for allowing an old plasterer the opportunity to take a tour through the “Holy Grail.”