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Union pushes plaster as construction's 'Cadillac'.

When Robert Ledwith, business manager of the Local 46 Metal Lathers Union approaches young architects about using plaster in their projects, he knows he has a lot of explaining to do.

"A whole generation of architects has come up without knowing about plaster and the things it can do. They only know dry wall," said Ledwith. "I have to explain that while plaster can be a bit more expensive, it's better."

Then Ledwith dropped the line that cuts to the chase in the new public relations campaign the Lathers are embarking on.

"We realize that dry wall is cheaper, so if you can only afford the Pontiac, get the Pontiac," Ledwith said. "But if you want the Cadillac, you've got to go with plaster."

The push for plaster comes at a time when the demand for lath-and-plaster walls and ceilings is rather low. The Local 46 also represents the booming reinforced concrete trade, which uses techniques similar to lath and plastering, but with heavier materials. Over the years, Ledwith, a former lather, says, the ratio of concrete workers to lathers has skewed dramatically.

"Back thirty years ago or so, there was a huge demand for lathers here in New York. It accounted for at least half our work," he said. "Now, it's about 90-10 concrete business. We're doing well, but we want to reintroduce plaster to today's builders ... It's been so long they don't know what they're missing."

As part of the campaign to educate architects and contractors, and to train the lathers of tomorrow, the Local 46 has set up a museum/training workshop in Woodside, Queens, where examples of smoothly sloping custom plaster ceilings are on display in a variety of finishes.

"Because you're essentially twisting and tying metal to start with, you can do custom jobs you can't do with anything else," said Bill Hohlfeld, coordinator at the Woodside office. "There's nothing [architects] can design that we can't build."

A lath and plaster wall is constructed by first hanging metal lath--a sort of large screen--across studs and metal bars, the lath is affixed by hand, with workers tying metal to metal by twisting them together with bits of wire. Once a wall or ceiling's metal skeleton is erected, workers put on the first of three coats of plaster, known as the "scratch" coat. After a day of drying, the second, or "brown" coat is applied. The finish coat is applied on day three. While he admits this old method is more time consuming and labor intensive than simply popping up pre-cut sheets of drywall, Hohlfeld said the long-term benefits make plaster worth it.

"Three things [plaster has] got over dry wall: it's fire proof, it's mold proof and it's better at containing sound," said Hohlfeld. "And it can do that using far less space than drywall does."

According to Hohlfeld, to get the same fire rating and you can get from a two-inch plaster wall, you'd need 4 7/8" of drywall.

"We're going after high-end clients with this one. People who paid a lot for their space and are there to stay," explained Ledwith. "When you consider saving two inches on every wall in your house or apartment, that starts to add up."

According to their own figures, Local 76 members say using lath and plaster instead of construction would add one percent to the cost of new apartment construction in Manhattan.

Hohlfeld said he hopes state officials consider plaster when building or renovating public housing.

"Dry wall doesn't pay off in the long run in these buildings," he said.

"It gets holes in it, the holes get rodents in them or mold. Plaster doesn't mold because there's no cellulose for the mold to eat."

Training Workshop instructor Steve Cawley, who walked by as Hohlfeld spoke, attested to the lath and plaster walls' ability to withstand force.

"My father was a lather and the walls in our house were plaster," he said. "I remember playing hockey in the house with my brother as a kid. He went to hit me and I ducked. He broke his hand on the wall and the wall was fine ... Try doing that with drywall and see what happens."

All involved acknowledged that plaster walls are more expensive and more difficult to tear down, but say the craft of metal lathing has its place.

"You look at the ads from the real estate agents around town and it's 'Pre-War this,' and 'Pre-War that.'" said Herbert Margrill, whose firm is engineering the Local 76's lath and plaster campaign. "All Pre-War buildings are lath & plaster buildings. People want them because they were built to last ... They're made with plaster. They have class."
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Article Details
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Author:Moran, Tim
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 3, 2006
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