If a building material fails on one house, does the entire building industry hear about it? Not necessarily. But what if a material fails on a number of high-performance homes that are designed as a best-in-class showcase and anchor of a community's rebirth, complete with celebrity and starchitect names attached? Well, now people are talking.
In late December, The New Orleans Advocate reported that 30 homes in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward constructed by the Make It Right Foundation—perhaps most well-known as Brad Pitt's rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—need to have wood replaced to the tune of $150,000 over six months, as some of the homes are rotting on their outdoor steps and front porches. The product in question, TimberSIL, was specified as a chemical-free alternative to conventional treated lumber, and it came with a 40-year performance guarantee. According to TimberSIL's website, the treated wood is a fusion of southern yellow pine and sodium silicate that is a "Class A Fire Retardant, insulator, unaffected by seawater, unaffected by heat, [and] barrier to rot, decay or insects."
The problem at hand is that just three to five years after installation in homes constructed between 2008 and 2010, the TimberSIL is showing signs of rot, Make It Right spokesperson Taylor Royle told The New Orleans Advocate. "It was unable to withstand moisture, which obviously is a big problem in New Orleans," Royle said. In an email to The New Orleans Advocate, TimberSIL executive vice president Joel Embry noted that the manufacturer will gather information on the concerns and that evaluating the performance questions requires more information on "matters of storage, installation and finishing."
Whether TimberSIL as a product is at fault or installation issues are the culprit, the damage could have been more widespread. While MIR has built more than 100 homes to date, The New Orleans Advocate reports that the foundation stopped using the product in 2010, choosing to work with yellow pine instead. The foundation is, however, evaluating its legal rights in relation to the TimberSIL warranty, Royle told the news outlet. In addition, this is not the first set of problems to arise with TimberSIL. In 2009, Fine Homebuilding reported similar-sounding mold patches (but not rot) in a test installation. And in 2013, The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that a historic building in Hadley, Mass., would need to replace a porch constructed of TimberSIL because it would not hold paint.
This MIR experience also raises a larger topic for debate regarding high-performance green building and its associated materials. Building with new materials with proprietary formulations that vary from traditional industry standards is both an opportunity and challenge for green builders. On one hand, it fosters innovation for healthier and more efficient market solutions. On the other hand, working with new formulations may raise the risk of materials not being adequately tested or vetted before use. Those green building detractors who latch on to this as an argument against all green building materials, however, should bite their tongues: This isn't just a challenge with environmentally preferable products. It is a risk inherent in all new product development.
To its credit, since its inception in 2007, Make It Right has aimed to foster discourse on the practices it uses. It provides a free online library that shares what MIR participants have learned, as well as a "laboratory" that is a place for "homeowners, architects, contractors and developers to share great projects, debate ideas, and ask questions from leading professionals." And the current deck problem will not prevent the foundation from exploring new technologies in the future. "Make It Right is ambitious and tries new things all the time in order to make our homes better," Brad Pitt said in a statement released to The New Orleans Advocate. "Where we find innovative products that didn't perform, we move quickly to correct these things for our homeowners."