All things, such as trends, industries and relations, have a tipping point. The tipping point is when things reach a breaking point and change occurs. Sometimes it is a planned or calculated change, other times it just happens due to odd circumstances and unique timing. Tipping points can be small or monumental. One tipping point we are all aware of is the pricing tipping point. Contractors, suppliers and manufacturers all live and die by the tipping point of the price. On a larger scale, we can price ourselves out of market. This occurs when we all become too expensive and that tipping point shifts the momentum in the other direction.
We have a great case study in the plastering and drywall industry. In the early 1950s, the preeminent interior finish was gypsum lath with a 3/8-inch sanded gypsum plaster basecoat covered with a finish (or “putty” coat). It is safe to say that by the middle of the last century, 80-90 percent of our buildings had lath and plaster interiors. A mere 25 years later, drywall had supplanted gypsum plaster and the market share for real “lath and plaster” dropped to less than 10 percent.
I can remember the last major homebuilder in southern California to use interior plaster. They put up billboards with the “Knock on the Wall” slogan and heavily promoted “Genuine Lath and Plaster.” All the other tract homebuilders used drywall. The story seems rather obvious: lath and plaster takes more time and costs more money so the end will always result in a switch to drywall. But is that really true?
Interior Plaster: Still King?
In Europe, the use of gypsum plaster on interiors is strong and dominates the market to this day. Drywall has been slower to have the success and transformation that occurred in America. It baffles both plaster manufacturers in Europe and drywall manufacturers in America. One strong reason is that in Europe, most construction was masonry and gypsum plaster directly over masonry was always competive in price and time to furring the panels with joint treatment. Today, Europe is seeing a shift from solid masonry walls toward framed walls and while one would suspect that is the end of plaster, it is not. Plaster is still the predominant finish over joint treatment on drywall.
To discover why, we need to look back at the American tipping point and compare it to modern Europe.
The U.S. manufacturers of gypsum lath and plaster saw the trend starting to move to drywall. They responded quickly by developing a “skim coat” plaster that could be applied over the larger gypsum panels. The result was a wall finish better in abuse resistance, faster to install and looked much better than the popcorn ceilings and heavy textures required to hide those early days of drywall finishing. Even the price was competitive with drywall. How could this not have knocked drywall out of the running before they even got started, and certainly before they took the market away?
Turning the Tipping Points Back
The answer is the plastering community treated the skim coat plaster as inferior to real plaster. While real lath and plaster is certainly superior, it comes at a cost. The 1950 American plaster communities choose to stick to their guns rather than adapt to the “veneer” plaster systems. The tipping point quickly approached. As drywall applications got better, real plaster suffered until the tipping point hit. In contrast, the European market has been moving towards more wood framing, the plaster community has accepted the veneer plaster and the transition was, pardon the pun, pretty seamless. While tipping points can occur in all different kinds of scenarios, it seems a universal truth that once they occur it is impossible to turn back. Our plaster story also illustrates this. Veneer plaster is still available and has great benefits, why wouldn’t we switch now?
The answer is we could, but the major difference is what the U.S. had and Europe still has is an abundant supply of trained workers that are adept with a finishing trowel. We have skilled plasterers for sure but in 1955 they were everywhere and the production was mind boggling compared to today’s market. While the loss of production is due to many other factors besides just trowel skills, it is just hard to turn tipping points back.
The lesson we should garner from this is to be mindful of tipping points. Look to the future. Most contractors work on a percentage based on total installed cost. I suspect those 1950 plastering contractors looked at the lower cost of veneer plaster systems as cutting into their profit margins. If they would have understood that drywall finishing would get better and looked little more to the future, could they have saved the industry? When that tipping point creeps up and we lose the control of our industry, we are probably, again pardon the pun, finished.