Instead of a solid gypsum wall, Minneapolis-based DJR Architecture designed this light-filtering plane with 1-inch-by-6-inch pine panels. The spaces between each panel allow light to enter the stairwell.
Alex Steinberg Instead of a solid gypsum wall, Minneapolis-based DJR Architecture designed this light-filtering plane with 1-inch-by-6-inch pine panels. The spaces between each panel allow light to enter the stairwell.

The Washington, D.C.-based Gypsum Association estimates that at least 90 percent of all new and remodeled homes are constructed with gypsum interior walls. Considering the material's design versatility, easy installation, and relatively low cost, it's not hard to understand why contractors favor it. Some architects, on the other hand, consider drywall a bit banal. “The walls are the primary surfaces you see when you enter the house,” says Steven House, AIA, principal, House + House Architects, San Francisco. In his view, wall surfaces need more than drywall and paint. They're the place, he says, where you need to create “great impact.”

The low-budget way to generate that impact is with bold-colored paint, but there are more imaginative, high-design choices available. Wood and bamboo veneers, fiberboard, glass and ceramic tile, decorative laminates, plastic and polycarbonate sheets, leather, cork, and even wood paneling will certainly turn heads. Exterior materials such as corrugated metal, stainless steel, copper, zinc, masonry blocks, and brick are also worth a double take inside the house.

“Any opportunity beyond gypsum is always a nicer choice,” says Alexandria, Va.-based architect David Jameson, AIA.

planes talking Naturally, wall material isn't just about the wall, it's about the house, too. That's why Jameson always examines the overall project and considers how different materials might connect or contrast with each other. That evaluation process sometimes leads him to products such as plywood and plaster or even to decidedly unexpected materials like oriented strand board—a product not normally celebrated for its intrinsic beauty. In one recent project, Jameson used OSB for the master bedroom's walls, floor, and ceiling, creating what he calls “a material blanket.”

Randy Brown, AIA, principal, Randy Brown Architects, favors OSB for the same reasons most people disdain it. “We like its inexpensive cost,” the Omaha, Neb.-based architect explains, “and the pattern and texture camouflage dirt and scratches.” Typically a “rough” product, OSB takes on new life once it's cleaned up and finished with polyurethane, he adds.

Other architects take a less radical approach. “For us, it's not about using unusual materials,” House says. “We think of ways to use typical materials in innovative ways.” Just recently, House specified maple plywood walls for one of his houses, but he chose an extruded-aluminum channel system from Fry Reglet Corp. to bridge the spaces between the panels. The application resulted in a wall that's casual yet refined. House also uses polycarbonate sheets to filter light into his rooms, and he specs laminate and stucco for interior walls. “Many times we use stucco on the outside and bring it into the house to create a strong indoor/outdoor connection,” he says.

These form-pressed plywood panels, also known as POP panels, have a three-dimensional rounded surface that can add zest to an interior wall.
Hightower Group These form-pressed plywood panels, also known as POP panels, have a three-dimensional rounded surface that can add zest to an interior wall.

According to Todd Walker, AIA, principal, Archimania, the fusion of indoor and outdoor environments is an underutilized architectural device. “In a recent project, we used a stone wall exterior that goes into the volume of the house,” making the wall essentially a “sculptural piece,” the Memphis, Tenn.-based architect explains. “We could have used drywall, but it would have lost the effect.” Bringing the stone inside invites full expression of the material, something Walker and his clients enjoy. Such a detail comes at a premium, but its cost is somewhat mitigated in the long run. Drywall needs repainting or repairing, he says, but “there's no maintenance requirement for stone, corrugated metal, or masonry block.”

Solid woods and wood veneers also require little maintenance, but they are more vulnerable to impact damage. Walker, Jameson, and DJR Architecture in Minneapolis spec them plentifully as well. Walker favors plywood, Jameson opts for 1-inch-by-6-inch Doug fir, and DJR's architects prefer pine. Installed on 2x4 framing with a ½-inch-to-1-inch gap, the 6-inch solid boards filter light into adjacent rooms. The expression of the wood and the fasteners, meanwhile, can strike a bold statement in a loft or other open space.

Really, just about any material is fair game for wall cladding, as long as it's within your clients' comfort zone. Traditionalists might tolerate wood flooring on their walls or solid surfacing, carpet, or glass tiles. The more adventuresome might sign off on 18-inch-by-18-inch engineered wood tiles from Shawano, Wis.-based Weber Veneer and Plywood Corp., or even POP panels, three-dimensional pressed-plywood panels from Brainwood in Finland and the Hightower Group in North America. If your clients think intricate glass tile mosaics should stay in the bathroom, they might accept a bigger version made of 12-inch-by-12-inch or 12-inch-by-6-inch glass field tiles from Mirage Tile in Newport News, Va.

up the wall Although alternative materials are loaded with potential, they're not without peril. One factor to consider is how the material will be installed. In many cases, you're working with a product that's typically used in a different way or covered over by finish material. When the rough material is the finished product, installation is critical to the success of the application. “The joints and how [the product] is attached to the studs are where you end up spending a lot of design time,” says William Ruhl, AIA, principal, Ruhl Walker Architects, Boston.

Finding the right contractor takes on greater importance as well. All residential contractors are familiar with gypsum on the wall and plywood as sheathing, but will they know how to install cement board as a finished product? “Any time you use a material in a different way, contractors are going to ask why,” Jameson says. It's important to find the right people and to explain to them clearly what you're trying to do, he says.

Oh, and don't be seduced by an alternative material's low up-front costs. Price is misleading, Ruhl warns, because it's highly dependent on the design detailing and the labor required to install it. “Best case is, they're the same, but they often aren't cheaper,” he says. House suggests reining in costs by designing strategically. The material “doesn't have to be everywhere,” he says. “It could just be an accent”—for instance, the fireplace or entry wall.

Managing client expectations can also be tricky. Do your clients want a refined look? Will they be comfortable with expressive detailing? Do they fully understand and appreciate the material's attributes? When Ruhl Walker designed the entrance for its Boston office, the staff speced a Homasote fiberboard wall because the material “has a soft, attractive appearance that's just begging to be touched,” Ruhl says.

Apparently few can resist its siren call. And when someone with greasy fingers does touch that winsome wall, the imprint is there to stay. A lovely patina or a client callback? It's all in the eye of the beholder. Your best bet: Think, ask, and double-check before you spec.