Actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which has built 100 energy-efficient new homes in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, is considering legal action against the manufacturer of an innovative glass-infused wood that was used in some of the homes’ outdoor steps and front porches.
The wood has begun rotting, despite being guaranteed for 40 years, a Make It Right spokeswoman said.
Construction crews used the wood product, called TimberSIL, to build decks and stairs for about 30 homes from 2008 to 2010, said Taylor Royle, the Make It Right spokeswoman.
TimberSIL is described in promotional materials provided by its South Carolina-based manufacturer as offering “an effective barrier in lumber to rot, decay and common wood problems without using toxic ingredients.”
Make It Right, known for its homes’ eye-catching designs and “green” building features such as solar panels and rainwater collectors, was interested in an alternative to conventional treated lumber, which “usually uses chemicals,” Royle said. “In trying to be sustainable and green, we didn’t want to use decking lumber that had chemicals in it,” she said.
The absence of chemicals in the TimberSIL wood meant it could be “mulched and composted at the end of its life cycle,” she said.
But now, decks and steps that were built as recently as three years ago are showing signs of rot, with the wood taking on a dark gray tinge. “It was unable to withstand moisture, which obviously is a big problem in New Orleans,” Royle said.
It’s unclear whether the material has gained widespread use in Louisiana or elsewhere across the country. Several local home builders and other local nonprofit executives said they hadn’t heard of it.
A top TimberSIL executive said the company will look into the complaints.
The situation is a cautionary tale for nonprofit home builders and others interested in using cutting-edge, sustainable construction techniques, several home building and environmental experts said. The risks inherent in using innovative products must be balanced against considerations such as energy costs, the experts said.
Although far less widespread and serious, the situation is reminiscent of what happened when groups like Habitat for Humanity installed toxic Chinese drywall in hundreds of buildings in the New Orleans area after Katrina and were later forced to gut and rebuild them.
Earlier this year, renovations at a 19th-century inn in western Massachusetts stalled after contractors who had used TimberSIL to build deck rails said they realized the product would not hold a coat of paint or withstand the region’s climate. Replacing the material was expected to add $100,000 to the project’s originally contracted price tag of $760,000, according to local news reports.
Royle said Make It Right officials vetted the wood product, putting their trust in the manufacturer’s 40-year guarantee. Since 2010, Make It Right has used traditional yellow pine wood instead.
“This usually doesn’t happen,” she said of the new product’s allegedly poor performance. “Most of them work, and they’re great, and we’re always testing new products to see if they can help make the homes more sustainable, more affordable or both.”
Billy Ward, president of the Louisiana Home Builders Association, said he hadn’t heard of the glass-infused wood product, but he noted that he’s seen “many products come and go” during his three decades in the industry.
“It’s incumbent upon us as professional builders to vet any new product, to research it, and we have the opportunity to do that,” he said.
Using new products carries an inherent risk of failure, said Loyola University professor Robert Thomas, director of the school’s Center for Environmental Communication.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that they will run into some blind alleys like this, where they have to go in and regroup,” Thomas said. “It’s to be expected, but I applaud them for looking at products that don’t have chemicals that may be dangerous.”
Pitt, Make It Right’s star backer, said as much in a statement provided by the foundation.
“Make It Right is ambitious and tries new things all the time in order to make our homes better,” he said. “Where we find innovative products that didn’t perform, we move quickly to correct these things for our homeowners.”
Still, sometimes the best option is just sticking with traditional products that have known results, one local nonprofit executive said.
“You’re building homes in a subtropical climate with lots of rain and termites, and you know, sometimes you have to make exceptions,” said Tom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief, which gutted thousands of storm-damaged homes and businesses after Katrina. “You have to build for your climate, and especially when you’re building wooden homes in a very damp climate, you have to go with what you know works, is my feeling.”
Robert Green, who moved into a Make It Right-built home in the 1800 block of Tennessee Street in 2009, said he hadn’t noticed his second-floor wood deck had started to rot until workers showed up to replace it. He said he was glad the nonprofit didn’t waste time trying to repair what could have become a safety hazard.
“It’s not something where porches are falling and houses are falling. That’s not what’s happening, but they are making corrective moves, and that’s a good thing,” said Green, 57.
Not all 30 homes have signs of rot, Royle said, but the nonprofit plans to replace all the wood over the next six months at a cost of about $150,000.
She said Make It Right has contacted the manufacturer “to put them on notice of the defects in the product and to seek to recoup our costs,” but the company has been “unresponsive.”
“We are evaluating our rights under the law and under the product warranty,” she said. “We hope to have a candid discussion with the company and have asked them to put their insurance carrier on notice. We prefer to resolve this short of litigation, but we are prepared to pursue all legal remedies if necessary.”
In an email, Joel Embry, executive vice president of TimberSIL, said the company would soon “begin the process of gathering the necessary information to evaluate the concerns and achieve a satisfactory outcome.”
“TimberSIL is well aware of the good work of Make It Right Foundation and regrets that these concerns have arisen,” he said.
Despite the concerns raised by the nonprofit, Embry expressed confidence in his product, adding that “with limited information regarding matters of storage, installation and finishing, it is difficult to determine the conditions and circumstances that underlie the performance questions that have been raised.”