Actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is suing the maker of a supposedly glass-infused wood that the nonprofit group used to build decks and stairs at dozens of homes in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward. The group says the innovative product began rotting prematurely despite a 40-year guarantee.
The 12-page lawsuit, filed Monday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, alleges that South Carolina-based Timber Treatment Technologies LLC intentionally sold a defective product. The lawsuit calls the episode “an egregious example of a manufacturer’s repeated misrepresentations, breaches of warranty and knowing deceptions.”
Make It Right used the glass-infused wood, called TimberSIL, from 2008 to 2010. By 2013, the nonprofit was “being notified by residents that the decks and other exterior elements in almost all of the homes in which TimberSIL wood had been utilized were exhibiting signs of rot and decay” and taking on a dark gray tinge, according to the lawsuit.
Timber Treatment founder and CEO Karen Slimak did not return a message seeking comment Monday.
Pitt’s foundation has built 104 energy-efficient homes in the Lower 9th Ward, according to the lawsuit.
TimberSIL is described in promotional materials provided by the company as offering “an effective barrier in lumber to rot, decay and common wood problems” without using toxic ingredients.
That’s what appealed to Make It Right, which has gained renown for its eye-catching home designs and “green” building features such as solar panels and rainwater collectors. TimberSIL’s lack of chemicals meant that it could later be mulched, unlike conventional treated lumber, Taylor Royle, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, told The New Orleans Advocate in 2013.
After Make It Right first disclosed its issues with the wood in 2013, some local homebuilders and other nonprofit executives said they saw the episode as a cautionary example of the problems facing many in their industry in trying to balance new, cutting-edge technology with time-tested construction techniques.
Although its repercussions were far less widespread and devastating, the situation reminded some of what happened after groups like Habitat for Humanity installed toxic Chinese drywall in hundreds of homes in the New Orleans area after Katrina and were later forced to gut and rebuild them.
Make It Right’s lawsuit says the nonprofit was contacted in March 2013 by a TimberSIL investor who claimed the company was “taking shortcuts with the TimberSIL infusion process, which resulted in a defective product.”
The nonprofit contends that Timber Treatment “falsely advertised and misrepresented a product that was actually defective and not fit for use, and subsequently failed to honor its product warranty or to take corrective action.”
It is seeking more than $500,000 in compensatory damages, a figure that ballooned from the cost of buying the wood to trying to remediate it before ultimately having to replace it.
Make It Right bought nearly $360,000 worth of TimberSIL beginning in mid-2008, mostly using it to build decks, railings, stairs and other outdoor features at 39 homes. In doing so, the lawsuit contends, the nonprofit “complied with all manufacturer specifications and instructions for handling, storage, fabrication and installation” of the product.
By 2010, Make It Right found that some of the wood being stored outside was showing signs of mildew. Timber Treatment dispatched a representative to inspect it but could not immediately identify the cause, the lawsuit states.
After some time, Timber Treatment told Make It Right that storing the wood outside “was improper and could cause mold or mildew,” a contention that the nonprofit says was being raised then for the first time.
“Contrary to its prior specific instructions and its finished product literature, (Timber Treatment) now asserted that outdoor storage was improper and could cause mold and mildew,” the lawsuit alleges.
Make It Right was forced to replace the wood “at significant cost,” according to the lawsuit.
Before filing suit, the nonprofit tried negotiating a settlement with the company, but those talks went nowhere, the suit says.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.