by Joe Shea
May 20, 2014
MgO, THE 'NEW DRYWALL,' IS A MIRACLE IN STONE
BRADENTON, Fla., May 20, 2014 -- At 61, Milwaukee native Maggie Steck has seen it all. A good-looking, energetic redhead who was the youngest of eight girls, she's been married and divorced, was a wedding photographer and successful real estate agent, and is now at the leading edge of a major advance in a well-tested material that more of us may soon use in place of drywall, Tyvek and Hardie Board to build non-toxic American homes.
They call it MgO, for magnesium oxide, a substance long known to the building industry and which once competed with - and lost to - the Portland Cement Co. at the turn of the last century. Back then, Portland Cement gained the major market share in the build-and-bust cycles that have characterized the American real estate economy.
The inventors of Portland Cement - a major advance for its time - knew they had a substantial foe in the makers of magnesium oxide. The MgO product is just as impervious as theirs wants to be to bugs, and as resistant to fire, but Portland Cement often suffers from bad weather, poor mixing and framing that causes cracks.
Cracked cement lets moisture in, and the cracks widen when it freezes in winter, and then cracks some more when it heats and expands in Summer. Because MgO board "breathes," it helps cool homes on hot summer days and hold on to heat in cold weather, providing significant energy savings and the cool, sturdy, cozy comfort of a stone home.
MgO, unlike Portland cement, is virtually unbreakable. I held a 4x4" square of it, about 3/8th" thick, and had it been adobe or cement or clay or brick, it would have broken in my hands. MgO treated me like an unwanted flea. It didn't bend or give way at all to my mighty, straining efforts.
It also won't burn. An Australian MgO board manufacturer has a video on YouTube that shows a typical board being addressed with a powerrful blowtorch. After minutes of trying, there is no effect whatever on the board except discoloration.
With certain laminate-like coatings, it resembles marble or wood so closely you can't tell it's not, and with a premium paint called Roma Bio, it is not only highly protective but beautiful. Maggie Steck is crazy about it, and she's been barnstorming around the country lately trying to get new home builders and developers to see things her way.
"There's no longer a need for house-wrapping, like Tyvek, with modular homes [built] off-site," Maggie says.
"There's a significant cost savings," she added, when the homes are delivered to a home site and "stitched" together.
"It is a cement board," says Dan Armstrong, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Magnum Building Products, which plans to use imported magnesium oxide to manufacture its own boards next year.
For now, the company imports MgO (also known as magnesium oxychloride) board from China, where Armstrong ran three businesses over a 10-year period.
When the Miami-Dade County Commission outlawed the use of drywall by homebuilders after Hurricane Andrew left 250,000 people homeless in 1992, Armstrong noted, they quickly moved to approve magnesium oxide for use in homes there.
A Manatee County Building Dept. aide, Joanne Haas, said she now sees mentions of the MgO board come across her desk occasionally. Most builders and developers, however, have never even heard of it.
"Our modular homes are constructed in a factory under climate-controlled conditions and built in just half the time. They consist of multiple sections, called modules, that are far stronger than conventional construction," she said.
And even if they pay a little more for MgO board instead of the potentially deadly drywall and plywood, they save enormous amounts of time - and don't need skilled labor to install it, Maggie Steck says.
Architects and builders have to allow a 10mm cushion when constructing adjacent walls or panels of MgO, so the material can expand and contract with cold and heat.
For Florida developers, the fact that MgO board can be immersed in salt water for two years or more without noticeable discoloration ought to be a significant selling point in coastal areas, especially those pounded by hurricanes. Its strength would have saved thousands of homes and building in New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy struck.
Pat Neal of Neal Communities, who has built 8,000 homes in Manatee County and became ensnared in the Chinese drywall scandal when some of his new homes proved to have used it, was invited to comment on the use of MgO but did not reply to repeated queries. Only after we called did we learn from the media that Neal had to remove bad Chinese drywall from a large number of Manatee County homes he built in 2005 through 2007.
That came to light as a new study by the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control, called for by Florida's Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, was released and widely reported. It showed high levels of toxic substances in a relatively small sample of the Chinese drywall, which emitte4d about 80% more noxious gasses than North American samples..
"In Manatee County," the McClatchy-owned Bradenton Herald reported, "builders and county officials have reported that Chinese drywall used in homes has been replaced. Both Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities and national homebuilder Lennar removed and replaced some drywall identified as toxic several years ago. John Barnott, the Manatee County's director of building and development services, said any complaints about the material were handled by builders."
During the pre-recesion building boom, the Sarasota-Bradenton area - rated Florida's top place to live in 2014 - was one of the two or three busiest real estate and construction markets in the United States, and is now enjoying yet another sharp rise in housing prices, now greater than before the recession.
We did speak to Dan Armstrong, who with his son runs Magnum Building Materials in Tampa, about 50 miles north of Bradenton. He tried to gently temper our enthusiasm.
"It does have fiber in it," Armstrong reminded us, "so it is cement. It is a board." And, he said, "It is considered 'green'."
Magnesium oxide cement was used in the construuction of the Great Wall of China. Built thousands of years ago, it is still a major tourist attraction in China. It has weathered wars invasions, attacks and earhtquakes - and lots of bad weather - over the centuries.
Through the Ali Baba website, The American Reporter sought quotations from half-a-dozen MgO board suppliers in China. A typical half-inch thick 4'x8' board of magnesium oxide (MgO board) runs as low as $25 each, plus shipping. Maggie Steck said she has been quoted as low as $8a board, and China's Eco Board (on a minimum of 720 pieces, FOB Nantong) offered 4'x8' boards (9mm, or about 3/8" thick) for $7.33 each. Each piece weighs a little over 53 lbs.
While typical 4'x8' gypsum-based drywall weighs about 55 lbs., a Magnum Board Products MgO board weighs about 80 lbs., Armstrong says. A Hardie Board of Portland Cement of the same size weighs about 135 lbs, he said.
Most of these materials are shipped from China, where Armstrong started in business about 10 years ago. Today, he says, a Swiss banking consortium is planning to take magnesium oxide worldwide. Maggie adds that there are substantial magnesium oxide deposits scattered around the United States.
Soon, someone may also see the potential in the Record Ridge magnesium oxide mine owned by Frank Marasco of West High Yield Resources near Rossland, B.C., Canada, which Maggie says may require $20 million or more to bring online. The owners say it is one of the purest and largest deposits of magnesium anywhere in the world, with more than 7.1-million tons recoverable from the site.
Currently, her First Nation Solutions is working with George Swanson, one of the world's premier experts in MgO board. Swanson has built about 1,000 homes with MgO board on several continents over the past 28 years and is a bio-consultant to First Nation.
First Nation Solutions, with its handsome but affordable modular homes that will be constructed with MgO board, has its sights set on areas like the Williston Basin of North Dakota, where tens of thousands of oilfield workers have created a "boom town" that has no housing for them.
Overnight, First Nation Solutions MgO-based modular housing can change that. Key to their success, of course, is an enlightened and green-friendly bureaucracy.
In the meantime, though, something called OSB, for Oriented Strand Board - closer to plywood than to drywall - is crumbling in homes and buildings across the country.
As I mentioned earlier, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners banned OSB - conventional drywall - for roof sheathing in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew tore countless homes apart.
Yet OSB has moved from a small part of the building materials market back to about 60 percent of it today - from 750 million square feet in 1980 to 80 billion square feet in 2005, according to statistics Maggie offers.
After Kaufman & Broad condominium owners in the ritzy Sarasota, Fla., area found their entire units becoming contaminated by foul-smelling, gaseous Chinese drywall, the product has been the subject of hundreds of lawsuits and a source of potential ruin for one of the biggest builders in the country.
For companies like Kaufman & Broad, Maggie's product comes just in time. It is impervious to termites, resistant to fire, and can actually be soaked for years in sea water without the slightest discoloration [see photo].
Depending on a wide variety of factors, MgO comes at about twice the cost of drywall - and will last for a century - but Maggie warns that there are some inferior grades of it shipped from China that should be avoided.
But unlike the current sheathing of choice, good old-fashioned plywood and Tyvek, high-quality MgO board manufactured by Magnum Building Products of Tampa, Fla. They have asked her to become a distributor for them. Woodbridge, N.J.-based Dragon Board, and Jet Board, which some observers say is in decline, are the major manufacturers or distributors of MgO products.
Recently, Magnum Board is distributed from Tampa, Fla., a state more prone to hurricane and water damage than most. MgO Board from Magnum Board Buliding POroducts seems like an ideal solution to those issues..
The First Nation modular homes Maggie wants to build are not the boxy, unattractive, double-wide, trailer lookalike structures that run up and down so much of Washington State's wet and beautiful west coast, but strong, handsome designs that come shipped to a site in sections and erected - and even moved into - in a matter of days.
Plywood and drywall, on the other hand, often get shipped to a site with other materials and is stored outside, frequently on the ground, soaking up the rain, snow, mud and hot sun for weeks - and acquiring any number of microscopic pests, termites and worms in the process. When Magnum Board arrives at a home site, it usually goes right up.
Unlike plywood and drywall, Armstrong says, "MgO doesn't 'off-gas,'" i.e., emit deadly and sometimes highly explosive gasses. On April 27, for instance, a Georgia-Pacific plywood factory exploded in Corrigan, Tex., leaving seven workers hurt - some with "very bad" injuries, according to Corrigan's fire chief.
The kids can't punch holes in it - nor would a boxer's fist - but nails and screws go right through. When it's in wall-sized panels, an insulating polymer is pumped into the interstitial space to provide both insulation and safety.
The material looks and feels like the ancient Roman material known as terra cotta, a fired clay, and it is just as hard and durable as stuff that has survived for two millennia or more. Unlike particle board, it has the heft and feel of stone, not the uncertainty of wood fiber and particle board.
New building materials like MgO come along not just because they're handsome and cheap, Maggie says, but because they have an all-important quality Americans like: they are "healthy."
She often mentions the "Healthy Homes" project of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency, which aims to help builders make decisions that will lead to healthier and happier households.
Many of the building materials - even excluding the infamous Chinese drywall of Sarasota - can make you sick.
Some of those materials foster asthma and possibly cancer, and are very vulnerable to fungi and mold. MgO, on the other hand, is impervious to water, rot, insects and mold, and is completely impermeable.
MgO also contains and inhibits structure fires and shortens construction cycles, can be erected using semi-skilled labor and is less costly - partly because it is less vulnerable to heat and cold.
"The market is in the billions," says Dan Armstrong, who's unconcerned by the current market share owned by gypsum drywall and Hardie Board. "We can replace them all," he says, if for no other reason to cut the $25 billion a year that is lost to damage from mildew and mold.
MgO board can also absorb the radiant electromagnetic energy of cell phones - and even hinder spying by the NSA, because the MgO walls make excellent sound barriers.
Correction: Earler versions of this story mischaracterized OSB in such a way as to suggest that it was the same as drywall. The two are different, and are usually used for different purposes. The author regrets the error.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article can be reprinted in a magazine or newspaper, and republished on a Website, for just $36.90.