Building a ‘green’ and eco-friendly future
Magnesium oxide (MgO) is an incredibly sustainable building product and recently has started being used in the manufacture of MgO boards for use as cladding in the construction industry. It’s said that if all the gypsum plasterboard and plywood was replaced annually at today’s consumption rate, there is enough MgO in China’s White Mountains to last 800 years.

The Great Wall of China was largely mortared using magnesium oxide based cement– a testament to the product’s durability.

A Cape Town company called Magnastruct manufactures and distributes an MgO building board, called Magna Board ™, used for ceilings, partitioning, interior and exterior cladding, SIPS, Sub floor sheathing, acoustic barriers, eves and more. According to the company website, magnesium oxide is a technologically advanced material that offers excellent performance compared to the traditional wood, gypsum plasterboard and cement-based products.

The African Business Journal spoke with sales director Carl Schlettwein about the company, and the seemingly magical qualities of MgO Board as a building board that is growing in popularity with architects and contractors every year.

Roughly four to five years ago, the idea to use MgO Boards was born out of what Schlettwein says was a “desperate need for an alternative building product.” The other products – gypsum plasterboard, plywood, and fiber cement – had some serious shortcomings.

After extensive research, it was realised and confirmed that MgO was an exceptional product. There was only one downside – it had to be imported from Asia. In the case of Magnastruct, the import country was China. So the company founders flew to China, sought out the best suppliers, built relationships that evolved to partnerships and began to import MgO Boards – Magna Boards™ – back to South Africa. Thus started the company.

While the product was accepted into the market almost instantly – and grew popular among architects especially – Schlettwein says the building industry is so regulated that breaking a new product into the market caused considerable challenges. In fact, it was almost impossible to do. But that obstacle didn’t stop Magnastruct.

“I ‘got on my bicycle’ and literally contacted, canvassed architects and made appointments. I went knocking on doors with samples,” Schlettwein says. “Word of mouth has taken us from there.”

Advantages:

The main advantage over other products, Schlettwein says, is that Magna Board™ is incredibly eco-friendly. Its ingredients are natural and sustainable. MgO is the eighth most common element in the world; two per cent of the earth’s crust consists of magnesium oxide.

The boards also have longevity, Schlettwein explains. “Gypsum boards, once they come down you break them up and throw them away. Magna Boards are much harder; you can literally take them down and re-use them.”

In addition, the MgO board is homogeneous with no delamination. It is virtually impervious to water, insects, mold and mildew, which is a huge advantage over gypsum boards, he says. It is 100 per cent non-toxic, non-flammable – has an A1 fire rating worldwide – and is non-combustible. It even maintains its dimensional stability when wet.  “You’re basically getting all-in-one with this product,” Schlettwein enthuses.

Because Magna Boards are manufactured and cured at room temperature, little to no energy is required. Plus the ingredients are all natural. This is not the case with most other cladding products such as gypsum boards and fiber cement. Producing cement, Schlettwein explains, produces up to 12 per cent of greenhouse gases of any product out there. Gypsum boards also require extensive heat in the curing process, producing massive greenhouse gas emissions.
On top of all its benefits, Magnastruct discovered two extra bonuses when the product started to sell. The first was that Magna Boards had excellent acoustic qualities.

“Suddenly, the acoustic value of this board proved to be far better than the competing products. We’re into the likes of 650 million rand hospitals, where the acoustic engineers have specified the board as an acoustic barrier,” says Schlettwein.

Second, MgO boards are ‘breathable’ and once a building or room is built with it, the air inside is actually better than it is outside.

“It actually produces cleaner air, because it has been found to remove toxins and even radiation from the air,” explains Schlettwein, which is a documented fact.

Although competitors have surfaced, Magnastruct is the biggest distributor of MgO boards in South Africa and is at the forefront of testing the product.

“It’s an imported product so you have to make sure the quality and various ratings are up to standard,” he says, which is a process that costs a substantial amount of money. The company has tested extensively for strength, impact resistance, fire resistance, thermal quality, and “anything else you can think of,” he adds. “We manufacture and distribute a quality product.”

Notable projects:

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, magnesium oxide was elected as the official building material and over eight million square feet of MgO sheeting was used in the construction of the stadium and broadcasting areas.

In South Africa, the boards are used in every building type – hospitals, schools, resorts and shopping centers. The fastest growing industry buying up Magna Boards currently, is SIPS, which stands for ‘structurally insolated panels’, and it uses the boards in pre-fabricated panels in any type of buildings – up-market and low-cost housing and commercial and industrial developments. In addition, some of the major fire door producers and acoustic specialists in the country use Magna boards ™.

“Once someone uses this product, they don’t look back. It’s easy to use and the finished product is worth it,” he says. “Magna Boards are being used everywhere.”

The Future:

Business turnover, warehousing and staff are currently doubling every year at Magnastruct and the company is quickly expanding. Its management just signed a lease for a location in Johannesburg, Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth will boast depots as well in the very near future.

Besides distribution in South Africa, Magnastruct also supplies boards to other countries in the region like Ghana, Tanzania, Angola and Namibia, with inquiries out of Nigeria, Botswana, Mozambique and Mauritius also increasing.

With a measurable drive toward a more sustainable and ‘greener’ industry, Schlettwein says Magna Boards and MgO boards in general will grow in popularity into the future.

He adds: “The fact that the demand for such a product exists in the building industry because of the whole green drive now from architects, engineers, clients and the government as well, makes this is the product of the future.”