Construction has been called a “dynamically conservative industry”—it works hard to stay in the same place. Nowhere is this more evident than in the basic module of both residential and commercial building: the stud wall.

Contemporary 2×4 wood construction barely improves on its sources, 19th century balloon and platform frames. Drywall may have been an innovative alternative to plaster and lath when it appeared in 1916, but that was nearly a century ago. Today, partition assembly still suffers from gross inefficiencies, as much of the metal, wood, and drywall is discarded during production and installation. The results can be imprecise, flimsy, and nearly impossible to disassemble and recycle. Stud wall construction is a mess.

Recent efforts to “green” walls are noble but uninspired. Recycled steel or sustainably harvested wood, synthetic gypsum, and less-toxic paint advance the content of partitions but not their form. In commercial office space, churn— modifications driven by personnel changes—averages around 40 percent per year and can be as high as 200 percent. Avoiding significant alterations to infrastructure can result in huge savings (up to $500 per person per move, by some estimates). One way to adapt to churn is through modular wall systems. In recent years, products such as Haworth's LifeSPACE have become more affordable, attractive, and environmentally intelligent and are giving stud walls a run for their money.

Demountable walls can be reused again and again, a strategic advantage for interior construction. The bread and butter of commercial interior design is tenant lease space, and lease lengths can average as low as a handful of years. No matter how efficiently we use materials, how responsible have we been if they end up in a landfill half a decade later? Even if a wrecking crew is careful enough to decompose the walls for “downcycling” (through, say, pulverized drywall), the return rate is low. Reusing a product is smarter than recycling its materials.

Another option is to rethink conventional framing altogether, and many young designers are experimenting with digital fabrication technology to produce more intelligent alternatives. Sean Dorsy, a recent architecture graduate of The Catholic University of America, developed an expandable wall system inspired by both Japanese paper cutting and cardboard pizza boxes (see sidebar). Such ingenuity demonstrates that the demise of the demising wall is long overdue.

Independent columnist Lance Hosey is a director with William McDonough + Partners.

Prototype: Plywood Expandable Wall System

Sean Dorsy, a recent architecture graduate of The Catholic University of America, has developed a prototype wall system that is efficient in its material sourcing, design, and application.

Two Approaches to an 8-Foot Wall Section A wall built with 2×4 or 2×6 lumber (below) will cost and weigh more than a wall that uses Dorsy's plywood system—and because plywood is rotary sawn, it wastes less wood than dimensioned lumber.