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I am preparing to improve a building in a cold climate zone. Since it does not seem to be properly insulated, I am reading a book about insulating and weatherizing. That teaches me that I should create an airtight thermal boundary. I have many questions about that, but this one is about the airtight aspect in particular.

Although the exterior of the building has largely been neglected, the interior has new drywall installed almost everywhere. Can that drywall act as an air barrier? I have found an article about the airtight drywall approach, but it is not clear to me whether this will be a feasible approach for a situation like mine, where the drywall has already been installed. Somewhere else, I read that "air does not move through most solid objects (concrete blocks and masonry in general are notable exceptions)", so since drywall is not mentioned as exception, that seems to confirm that it should work fine.

In order for a drywall to act as the air barrier, does it need to be a special kind of drywall? Or does it need to be treated with special paint at all? Does anybody have experience with the airtight drywall approach?

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3 Answers 3

You can turn drywall into an air barrier. But it takes work. You need to caulk the floor and ceiling. You need to use enclosed electrical boxes. You need to seal all electrical boxes around all the holes. And then you have to remember to never put a hole in a wall to hang a picture ;)

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Short answer: Drywall is an air barrier, but on its own it is not sufficient to stop air leakage.

Drywall is a decent air barrier but not a moisture barrier. In cold climates, vapor barriers (such as polyethylene) should be installed between the drywall and the insulation because the interior tends to be more humid than the outdoors. Plywood/OSB sheathing under the siding forms a decent air barrier, too. Housewrap over the sheathing should prevent moisture from entering the wall from the outside while allowing moisture to escape from the wall cavity.

Is the home balloon or platform framed? This will not affect your drywall question, but it will affect the home's air sealing needs. This DOE graphic shows trouble spots on a platform framed home. In a balloon framed home, the wall, floor, and ceiling cavities are interconnected and allow air to flow between the attic, basement/crawl space, and the interior walls.

You might also find the following links helpful:

http://www.buildingscience.com/search?SearchableText=air+barrier http://www.buildingscience.com/resources/vapor_barrier_code_changes

These are just a couple results from a quick Google search--there's a lot of information out there.

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Drywall is mostly composed of compressed gypsum and a paper for structural integrity. For all intents and purposes air will not flow through it if installed correctly, however the importance of being air tight is to control moisture and condensation from forming inside of your walls. This is where the vapor barrier comes into play.

A vapor barrier to be most effective should be airtight from the outside. This can be done using appropriate tape and materials that you can get from your local hardware store. User decker has a great explanation on this here.

http://diy.stackexchange.com/a/25277/6086

Being in a cold climate your inside of the house will be a lot warmer than the outside for most of the year, so condensation will form on the insulation facing the outside. This moisture can result in mold.

If you are certain that there is not correctly installed vapor barrier behind your insulation, then one option is to tear down the drywall to where you can do this.

A better option might be to look at possibly rewrapping the outside of the house in a new wrap and seaming it to help create the air tight situation that you want. You mentioned that the outside looks in rough shape so perhaps tearing off the siding was in the plans anyway?

ADDITIONAL NOTE

You may see that there exists a special moisture resistant drywall product typically called "green board". This will not help you with moisture inside the wall because the moisture resistant properties of the drywall have to do with the green paper on the front face of the drywall. The board itself is still composed of gypsum and doesn't have any special moisture resistance by itself without the front paper. It is intended for installation in bathrooms where it will withstand high moisture environments inside the home.

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Wrapping the exterior does not in any way address the issue of moisture migrating from the interior and condensing in the insulation. It does stop external air infiltration from removing heat from the insulation quickly. –  bcworkz Apr 4 '13 at 20:29
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