It’s summer, ‘tis the season of renovations! I’ve gotten a lot of emails lately asking for tips on working with MgO board…here’s the latest:

Q: What should I use to fasten magnesium oxide boards to wood framing?

A: First, I will say to always contact the manufacturer to get their recommendations and best practices. But, here’s the general word on the street when working with MgO board: use screws. Technically you can use nails as well, but people report getting a better hold with screws. Self-embedding screws that ensure a flush finish are ideal.

One contractor even sent me a few pictures of this type of screw…it has “fins” that cut into the cement board so that the head of the screw is slightly recessed. Check out the pictures (thanks to reader Mike M. for sharing these!):

Embedded Fastener for Mgo Board

Embedded Fastener for Mgo Board

Screw with recessed head for MgO

Screw with Recessed Head Perfect for MgO Board!

I’ve heard that people love these Rock-On® Cement Board fasteners:

Some contractors have used staples for ¼” on the seam of MgO SIPS, but others have reported some breakage. Let me know what your “go to” fastener is when working with cement boards.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m really excited about the benefits of magnesium oxide board for the construction industry. It’s been almost two years since I first wrote about it and I’m still surprised it hasn’t gone mainstream. Only a handful of businesses are manufacturing MgO panels, and even fewer have discovered how to successfully bring it to the commercial and residential market. One of these companies is Tri-State Building Specialties. Read on for my interview with founder and owner David Card…

The Panel Man Asks:
How long have you been in business?
David Card Answers: I’m a third generation contractor so I grew up around roofing, home improvement – you name it. After college, I narrowed my focus to specialize in sunrooms and basements and in 1991, my brother and I founded Tri-State Building Specialties. I’ve always been intrigued by the latest building products, and how they can improve our everyday lives. For example, when it comes to basements, moisture is always an issue. That’s what led me to discover magnesium oxide board, as it’s naturally mold- and mildew-resistant. I also wanted a laminate that addressed three concerns: mold resistance, a great fire rating, and an easily paintable surface. I experimented with cement board but its weight made it cumbersome to work with, laminating it created an unsightly a double seem, and it didn’t have a paintable finish.

The Panel Man: Briefly describe your basement panel system.

David Card: Our panel has three elements: the MgO “skin,” the glue, and the polystyrene foam core (EPS) which comes in 3 5/8 or 4 1/2 thickness and 8, 9, and 10 foot heights. It delivers on the “big three” issues I just mentioned – mold/mildew resistance, fire rating, and finish. It’s amazing that a 1/4 skin on this panel has the same 0, Class A Fire Rating as 1/2 or 5/8 drywall! It’s also MUCH more durable than drywall; it can take high impacts and not crumble or crack. Like I said, cement board was so heavy to work with and it often cracks under its own weight when you start going beyond 5 or 6 foot long panels. And then when you join the panels, you have to use vinyl tape (the PVC in vinyl tape has dangerous off gasses) or divider strips. Not so with our panel. We’re able to keep the integrity of an entire wall without a seam!

The Panel Man: What are the primary benefits in residential applications?

David Card: Our mission was to make it easily adaptable to any type of installation and room configuration. We also wanted construction-savvy homeowners to be able to install the system themselves. We provide instruction manuals, and on-site guidance in some cases, but it’s largely a “do it yourself” basement panel system. Another benefit for homeowners is that installation requires just one inspection instead of three or four separate ones for insulation, electrical, and framing (it also saves on completion time). That’s because we built in wire chases for the electrical, both sides of the panel are finished, and no additional insulation is needed.

The Panel Man: What are some general comparisons to conventional building?

David Card: In my research, I’ve found that when a basement is done conventionally and to code, magnesium oxide panels for basements are about the same price. There is no need for dry lock and vapor barriers, insulation materials, and multiple inspections. An average system can be completed in a few days! We’ve even installed about 40 panels in ONE day. Homeowners will also see some significant energy savings and enjoy a more comfortable, even temperature in their basement.

The Panel Man:
What is the response from homeowners?
David Card: I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of contacts we get direct from homeowners. But I’d like to see more contractors getting into the game. Like you, I know that education is key: There really are so many benefits to magnesium oxide-based panels. I like to remind folks that everything in construction has evolved to where it is today. Even our basic tools – the hammer, the nail – they evolved over time. We can’t stop evolving, especially when it comes to building products. Our panels really are greener, safer, and healthier – it’s the next phase in construction…in my opinion!

House Built with MgO

A House Built with MagWall Panels.

Hello Panel Man readers, I hope you had a great Memorial Day Weekend! I just got back last week from a trip to Denver where I attended an open house for Rocky Mountain MagBoard. I’m more excited than ever about magnesium oxide SIPs’ potential in the U.S. market. My enthusiasm only increased after talking to Shane Vigil, of Phoenix Framing in Colorado, as he explained the advantages of MgO SIPs from a residential framer’s perspective….

The Panel Man Asks: Before discovering the benefits of MgO SIPs, what materials were you using in residential construction?

Shane Vigil: I’ve used SIPs in residential construction for years, usually an OSB exterior with a polyurethane interior. But six weeks ago, I just completed the foundation on a 2600 sq. ft. residence using MagWall SIPs from Rocky Mountain MagBoard. I can tell you, I am completely sold on the benefits, not just for framers but for the homeowner.

The Panel Man: Since this was your first time installing MagWall, did it prolong the foundation build out?

Shane Vigil: Not at all, in fact, it took less time! To construct a typical concrete foundation, it would take about a week. That 2,600 sq. ft. house? It took two days, and that was our first time doing it. I can see it taking a day and a half in the near future. As you can imagine, homeowners appreciate the time savings, too, as they’re anxious to get into their new house! Not to mention, it takes time off expensive construction loans!

The Panel Man: What are some of the key benefits of MagWall from a homeowner’s perspective?

Shane Vigil: Well, MagWall is a non-combustible material which would appeal to any homeowner. However, it’s especially important here in the Denver area as we’re prone to wild fires. MagWall is also water, mold, mildew, and insect resistant. It’s also really durable and the interior can be finished with virtually anything. You can cover it with sheet rock or treat the seams and finish it similar drywall. Or, on the exterior, you can do a direct stone veneer or stucco application. One of the primary benefits is the energy savings!

The Panel Man: What if the MagWall is just used in the foundation, will that still provide energy savings?

MagWall Panels in a Residential Basement Foundation

MagWall Panels Offer an Innovative Alternative to Cement in a Residential Basement.

Shane Vigil: In the residential foundation we just built out, we were happy to report to the homeowner that she could easily downsize her HVAC system by 30%! People forget, concrete isn’t like insulation. In fact, unfinished concrete basements steal heat from the home, which requires increased energy consumption. MagWall is a fully insulated system, with R Values ranging above 20 – it was actually R-36 for this foundation – so instead of sucking warm air, it contributes to even distribution of heat throughout the home.

The Panel Man: In comparison to working with other materials, how does MagWall measure up?

Shane Vigil: As I mentioned earlier, unlike OSB or stick frame sheathing, you can apply virtually any finish directly to the MagWall. For example, in a typical concrete foundation basement finish, you have to built out the wall about a total of 5 inches, then add in insulation, vapor barrier and cover with drywall which takes away interior space from the basement. With MagWall, you don’t lose any space. Or, let’s say a homeowner wants a stucco finish on the exterior of the home. With conventional framing, you’d need to apply tar paper, then lathe and then apply the stucco. In a MagWall frame, the lathing process is eliminated so you’re saving time, labor and an inspection, which means, you’re saving money. Also, with OSB, you need a house wrap and usually a vapor barrier depending on the climate. MagWall doesn’t require ether. Again, this results in saving time, labor, and money. By eradicating these extra layers, you’re also reducing opportunities for problems to occur. MagWall just makes it a streamlined, simplified process.

Rocky Mountain MagBoard On Site

Rocky Mountain MagBoard Provides On-Site Support.

The Panel Man:

How did the manufacturer, Rocky Mountain MagBoard, assist with your first MagWall installation?

Shane Vigil: The owners of Rocky Mountain MagBoard are builders themselves. Not only do they have a deep understanding of the MagWall product, but they have the expertise to ensure its proper application. In addition to the comprehensive installation manuals and instruction they provided, they were on site with me and my team the entire time. They wanted to ensure I was really educated on how to work with MagWall, explaining everything from installation of the trusses to connection details.


The Panel Man: Any final thoughts you want to share as a framer?

Shane Vigil: Just as you are, I’m excited about MagBoard and MagWall. It gives me a new product to offer customers and as you can tell from my experience using it for the first time, it really benefits both the framer and the homeowner.

Post 2 in a Series of 4: Ideas for Overcoming Challenges in Conventional Indian Building


Q&A Session with Anuj Dayama, who lives in Jaipur, India. Anuj works in the natural stone industry in India and is exploring advanced, “greener” building products and technology in hopes that he can introduce safer, cost-effective, and energy-efficient solutions to the Indian building community.


The Panelman Asks: What do you believe are some of the solutions to overcoming the challenges that conventional building methods present in India?

Anuj Answers: The green building movement is really gaining momentum here in India. (Check out the list of upcoming tradeshows below for an idea of just how much industry buzz is going on!). Many of us in the construction industry are exploring lightweight materials that can still hold strong in an earthquake, are resistant to corrosion and water damage, and that require less labor and energy to implement.

I attended the Metal  & Steel Building Systems Expo this past June here in India, and was amazed at all of the new building concepts coming to market that address our challenges. Magnesium Oxide (MgO) board in a SIPs application are most compatible with steel structures due to their low weight and very high fire resistance. A good approach for developing the market for MgO boards and  SIPs construction technology here can be through derivation of initial cost difference compared to other building systems, energy savings, and affordability in this highly cost-sensitive market. Good sourcing of raw materials, a cost effective marketing approach and maximum near site assembly of panels to save on transportation can result in lower labor and manufacturing costs. A huge potential still remains looking at the small number & variety of alternate building products currently available compared to India’s market size, growing needs and our great appetite for better, greener building products and technology.

Typical residential highrise in Mumbai, India

Pictured is a typical high-rise residential structure in Mumbai. High-rise building has fueled India's interest in greener, altnernative techniques like MgO SIPs.

Like Fred, I believe that MgO SIPs are an ideal solution to the challenges I have outlined. MgO SIPs could deliver the same load bearing and security that our standard 9” thick exterior brick/ concrete envelope walls provide for compatible roof systems – with much less material. In a modular application, MgO SIPs would reduce labor costs as pre-fabricated components could be assembled on site. The water damage issue would also be solved as magnesium oxide is naturally resistant to corrosion and mold/mildew growth. I believe that MgO boards could replace gypsum, fiber cement, calcium silicate, plywood, and other problem-prone building materials here in India. Just like in the U.S., we need to work together to promote these advantages to the public – and the entire building community.




Green Building Organizations and Websites to Reference   An organization established by USGBC in India  This organization also certifies green buildings, like IGBC  Bureau oF Energy Efficiency that rates buildings according to energy use

Fall 2010 Green Building Events in India

  • Green Building Congress 2010, October 6-9 2010 at Chennai Trade Centre, Chennai
  • ZAK: Innovative, Lightweight, Faster, & Sustainable Building Construction Technology Expo Sep 30.  Oct. 3, Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai
  • ET ACETECH Chennai Trade Centre, November 26-18

One of the benefits of blogging is connecting with a community of other folks interested in the latest innovations in structural panels. We’re engaging in conversation, sharing ideas, and creating new partnerships – and that engagement is happening on a global scale.

Through this blog, I’ve met Anuj Dayama in India, who’s just as excited about MgO panel applications as I am (good to know I’m not the only one in the world all worked up about magnesium oxide!). Through our conversations, Anuj has shed light on the current construction situation in India – and how the latest panel and building technology could solve some of their challenges. Over the next two weeks, I’ll share Anuj’s answers to questions I asked. He’s also taken some great photos, which I’ll post. So without further adieu, here’s question #1…

Post 1 in a Series of 4: Challenges in Indian Construction

The Panelman Man Asks: We have our fair share of new construction challenges here in America, what sorts of challenges does India face in new construction?

Anuj Answers: Most of our commercial and residential new construction utilizes full density concrete-rebar for structural work and concrete blocks or red clay brick masonry with Portland plaster for walls. These materials require a lot of curing at various stages. Now, one of the main problems we face in India is a steadily growing potable water shortage in a lot of areas. This makes the curing process very difficult, expensive, and not very energy efficient. Curing results in pollution and wastage of our precious potable water, which is at dangerously low levels or already depleted in some regions. The increasing salt levels in our decreasing underground water table deteriorate concrete and plaster mixes while accelerating rebar rust.

Another challenge we face in conventional new construction is that concrete and brick yield little or no insulation, so we are forced to increase energy use to stay cool in summer. We have rising annual temperatures, which makes this an urgent issue. It is a challenge to stay cool in un-electrified rural areas as well as urban centers, where frequent power cuts reduce access to air conditioning.

concrete rebar flat roofs in India, SIPs would work better

Pictured are flat rebar-concrete roofs in India. These roofs account for maximum solar gains and very hot top-floor temperatures. A 4" SIPs roof structure would work much better...

To make matters worse, conventional construction creates the “heat island effect” by absorbing heat all day and then releasing it at night. Remember, in India we have nearly six months of extreme heat, and three peak months with average peak temperatures between 105 and 120 Fahrenheit. New construction is also very time consuming. Unfortunately that time is often wasted when an earthquake occurs as most conventional structures are not very earthquake resistant. We can never forget the 2001 Gujarat earthquake that took thousands of lives of people who were living in such structures.

One of the greatest challenges is the weight of concrete building; it requires so much energy to work with Portland concrete – both in transportation and labor. Until a decade ago, the other challenge was getting the building community to open up to new materials, and invest in testing (I know that Fred faces this issue, too.) Lately, thanks to government encouragement of alternative building methods, this has changed considerably. New materials like aerated concrete blocks, steel framing with boards, SIPs panels, and PU sandwich metal skin structures are steadily gaining popularity. Tomorrow, I’ll answer Fred’s question about ways we might overcome our challenges…

Construction is messy. And I’m not just talking about your basic home improvement project (although, is there anything worse than cleaning up drywall dust?). I’m talking about big construction. Each year, the U.S. construction industry generates 164,000 million tons of material waste and debris. This accounts for 30 percent of landfill content (EPA, 2004). And you thought plastic water bottles were a problem?

Now, I’m not blasting the construction industry. It’s a vibrant, necessary institution here in the U.S. But there are “greener” options those of us in the construction industry could consider – like modular construction. Modular construction involves subdividing a structural system into smaller parts. These parts can then be combined to create a customized final structure. It’s sort of a “plug and play” type of construction that requires less of a learning curve, less waste because the modular components are prefabricated, more consistent end structures, and labor savings for contractors. Modular building also allows for simplified expansion as additional modules can be seamlessly integrated into the end design.

Cleanroom constructed of modular panels.

A cleanroom constructed of modular panels.

As a custom structural panel laminator, I’ve supplied builders with prefabricated panels for modular structures. And I can say that these builders demand high-quality cores, surfaces, and laminations. Currently, the big users of our prefabricated panels for modular structures include: utility enclosures, communications buildings, recreation buildings, hurricane/tornado shelters, security booths, hazardous chemical storage, deployable kitchens, and portable classrooms.

 The Panelman wonders, why hasn’t modular building really taken off? It seems like a perfect tie-in for the current “green” mindset, it reduces energy, saves on labor, and provides a structurally sound end building. I’d like to hear what others out there have to say…

Want to read up on how modular building could fit into the U.S. construction industry? Check out this document by the Committee on Advancing Competitiveness and Productivity in Construction.

One of the things I like most about my job is the opportunity to share the latest advances in panel and lamination products with my customers (and with followers of the Panelman blog!). An innovation that still amazes me is germ-fighting lamination for cleanroom applications: The antimicrobial coating actually penetrates the cells of germs, preventing them from spreading or reproducing. If you’re interested in how this actually works, read on…

Obviously cleanroom walls need to be microbe-free, but did you know that the inside of the walls should be equally resistant to growth? Typical modular cleanroom wall construction consists of a painted metal skin (aluminum) bonded to both sides of a core material which can be either aluminum honeycomb or fluted polypropylene.


Fluted Polypropylene Core.

In modular cleanrooms, the wall system often consists of two panels of the same thickness, say ¼” overall thickness, separated by extrusions to make the wall structure. In a modular “negative pressure” clean room, air flows through a HEPA filter, usually mounted into a ceiling plenum. Air then moves in a downwards direction, throughout the room. Air ends up moving through vents at the base of the wall into the wall interior and upwards into the center of the wall back into the HEPA filter, completing the cycle.

Laminators of panels for cleanrooms have access to special germ-fighting coatings applied on the aluminum sheet or coils. The antimicrobial protection is integrated at every step during the manufacturing process to fill the interstitial spaces present in the coating’s molecular structure. These coatings are “baked” onto the aluminum coils for a thorough and durable finish. Once installed in a cleanroom, the antimicrobial additives migrate to the surface of the coating where any germs encountered are destroyed. Compliance testing is done according to:

  • ASTM G-21-96 (fungal)
  • AATCC Method 100 (bacterial)
  • ASTM D-5589-97 (algae)

If anyone out there is interested in obtaining even more detailed information (yes, there’s plenty more to share on the subject) about cleanroom panels, let me know. And if you’re installing cleanroom panels, be sure you take the anti-microbial properties of the panels’ interior into consideration!

In this post, The Panel Man is traveling back in time to the basements of yesteryear…

First stop, the “groovy” wood paneling popular in the 1960s. I remember helping my father attach unsightly 4’x8’ panels to concrete blocks (no insulation); five years later the wood rotted thanks to moisture. Some can make peace with wood paneling, I can’t!

Fast forward to the 1980’s: Everyone wanted a slick, finished look and went for sheet rock or gypsum board. Even when sandwiched between water resistant laminates, the core rots with any water exposure. I learned this the hard way when putting a basement shower in using Green Board gypsum panels in the bathroom. (Note: gypsum [di-hydrous calcium sulfate] is actually 21% water by weight!)

In the nineties, contractors thought vinyl wallpaper or fabric over fiberglass was pretty “rad.” Downsides were mold growing in the fiberglass, tough-to-clean surfaces, and lack of durability (anyone with kids understands this).

Why the trip back in time? To compare these basement paneling solutions to today’s better option: MgO (magnesium oxide) sheathing. I wrote about MgO in my first post as a viable SIPs component in building. Now, I’m on my MgO soapbox again because I think it’s a great option for basement paneling. Here’s why:

  • MgO is naturally mold- and water-resistant (it’s used in hurricane-prone areas)
  • It’s exceptionally strong – it’s even used for commercial countertops! It’s impact resistant, too, which matters to anyone who’s poked a hole in drywall
  • MgO board is safe and “green” – it contains no organic solvents, heavy metals, asbestos, oils or other toxic ingredient
  • Magnesium oxide boards are fire proof (can’t say the same for wood panels, that’s for sure)
  • As for aesthetic concerns, you can hang pictures on MgO panel without having to find studs and it’s easy to paint

If I were a contractor looking for an innovative basement material, I’d consider an MgO SIPs panel bonded on both sides to 2” EPS foam. With 2” insulation, you do the numbers on the “R” value!


EPS Foam + MgO = Winning Combination


I like everything I have seen with magnesium oxide boards for basement application. So why hasn’t it taken off? Owens Corning has their own “Basement Finishing System” and Champion has one as well; but neither use MgO board. I pulled up some other companies, mostly regional that have similar systems: All use vinyl-covered panels. I could only find one laminator on the East Coast that is actually promoting MgO panels as part of their basement finishing system. I forgot to mention that there are also companies actually laminating concrete panels for the same application…heaaavy!  Also, it must be murder on the CNC sawing equipment in the plant.

Anyways, I think eventually you will see MgO board SIPs everywhere. In the meantime, is anyone out there on the same wavelength with me? If we can embrace new materials and change our thought process, we won’t stay stuck in a 1960s wood-paneled basement (oh, the horror!).

With today’s focus on sustainability and thinking “green,” I was shocked to hear this statistic: There are estimated to be over 17 million Intermodal shipping containers in the world, and 700 thousand of these are sitting empty and abandoned in the U.S.

The primary reason for these extra containers is that America is now a net importing country (more containers coming in than going out). It doesn’t make financial sense to return an empty container to Southeast Asia. I got this information from a Bob Villa video where he interviews TAW, a company that converts these hurricane-tough steel containers into homes in Florida, as an alternative to wood or concrete block construction. As you can see in Bob’s video, the homes are not simply a single box with a few windows and a door: The containers are integrated into more traditional, structurally sound – and roomier – home designs. It’s exciting to think of unconventional uses for the thousands of empty containers. For example, maybe Habitat for Humanity could explore building with containers, creating low-cost but durable homes for those in need.

While I ‘m really intrigued by the residential application of intermodal containers, I’m not involved in that industry. But I am doing my part and thinking “green” by helping container companies find new uses for intermodal containers in commercial and military applications. In a commercial capacity, we supplied a company with fire-resistant structural panels for walls and ceilings. The end use was a simple shipping yard office. We provided 3/8″ plywood/FRP panels for this job, complete with PVC extrusions to connect the panels. Other panel options would include FRP or aluminum sheet bonded to XPS (Dow Foam) or EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) for container inside wall systems. Once a shipping container is altered for building use, it becomes an ISBU (Intermodal Steel Building Unit).

In another situation, the military wanted to incorporate shelving into the containers. Since weight was an issue, we sourced a light weight composite product where heavier steel was previously used. The composite provided just enough sturdiness without adding extra weight (and cost). The customer was very pleased that we went above and beyond, looking for a product that not only met – but exceed their specifications.


Container converted into office space.

One of things I enjoy most about being in the panel and lamination industry is the opportunity to “think outside the box” for my customers by sourcing panel and lamination materials that they may not have considered. There are so many innovative panel and lamination materials out there, the challenge – and the opportunity – for me is finding customers who are willing to explore sometimes unconventional applications – like container conversion. However, I never budge on safety and coding requirements, no matter how “out there” a customer’s idea may be. I’m curious to know what your experience has been with an unconventional use for a material? And, the big question is, would you think outside the box and ever live inside a shipping container? :)