Summit House project woes linked to wood choice



Last modified: Monday, August 19, 2013

HADLEY — Three years into its renovation of the Summit House, the state faces the need to rip out much of the historic former hotel’s porch because the wood it used — believed to be environmentally friendly — won’t hold paint.

After concluding with a consultant’s help that the TimberSIL product is unsuitable, that material will be replaced with a different pressure-treated wood. The problem, which has kept the popular destination off-limits, is expected to add more than $100,000 to the cost of the renovation and push it past $1 million.

The state says it will seek to recover the added costs from the manufacturer. But officials complain they have not been able to communicate with Timber Treatment Technologies of South Carolina, which makes TimberSIL.

In response to questions from the Gazette, the company said it will work with the Department of Conservation and Recreation to finish the renovation.

“It’s our intention to continue to follow this through and continue to understand exactly what the problem is and intervene and assist to find a solution to have the Summit House open,” Joel Embry, a newly hired executive vice president of Timber Treatment Technologies, told the Gazette this week. “We want a happy customer. We want to fix this somehow as best we can.”

As of this week, the state DCR and its contractor, Westfield Construction Co. of New Hampshire, reported getting no response from the company after struggling for months with questions about the company’s wood. That included twice hiring a wood science specialist who found that the paint does not stick to the product.

The last known communication from the company was an Oct. 19, 2012, letter from Karen M. Slimak, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, to Westfield Construction. In it, she states that a review by her company’s TimberSIL Products unit “not only showed dry boards, but substantially under the moisture content you claim per your inspections.”

The company said it has no record of further contact from the state and was unaware of a continuing problem at the Summit House until a Gazette report appeared in July.

The state said excessively high moisture in the wood leaves it unable to find a paint that will adhere to the glass-infused wood. In light of the paint issue, the state are now hoping the structural TimberSIL wood that remains lives up to its billing in the harsh, exterior conditions on the mountain. The former hotel in J.A. Skinner State Park is a popular destination for hikers and tourists and is one of the state’s showpiece recreational venues.

News that the company plans to intervene on the Summit House project was welcomed by state officials, who earlier reported being “dumbfounded” by their inability to break through to the company.

“I’m glad they’re being responsive to somebody,” said Joseph R. Orfant, chief of DCR’s Bureau of Planning and Resource Protection this week. “Nobody’s called us.”

Going green

When the state DCR took on the task of renovating the Summit House three years ago, it sought a more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional pressure-treated wood for the historic property.

The choice for rebuilding much of the expansive porch structure was the glass-infused wood known as TimberSIL, a nontoxic product that had received rave reviews and endorsements in the green building industry when it hit the market nearly a decade ago.

The product, manufactured in Greenville, S.C., and created by Slimak, a environmental toxicologist and entrepreneur, did not have a long track record, but it is marketed as being rot-, bug- and weather-resistant, long lasting, designed for exterior use and “fully stainable and paintable,” according to the company’s materials. The state said it followed the company’s recommendations and specifications for the product.

“One of the key features for us is that it could be painted,” Orfant said.

Years later, and with the Summit House project back on hold, the state is now planning to take out its TimberSIL railings and balusters that it recently installed because of the high moisture and paint adhesion problems.

The state is now experimenting with paints to figure out what might work on the TimberSIL framing timbers that buttress the porch, which will remain in place.

In an company email this week to its investors, Slimak, the company’s CEO mentions the Summit House project.

The thrust of the email, a copy of which was obtained by the Gazette, addresses concerns raised by the company’s former chief financial officer, who was fired three weeks ago by Slimak after he raised objections to the language the company was using in future share offerings, company correspondence shows.

The July 29 email states the company is focused on producing a premium product and “working to ensure customer satisfaction.”

“Some of you may have heard about problems in the installation of TimberSIL at Summit House,” the email states. “It appears that these problems originate not with any failure on the part of our product, but with misunderstandings on the optimal painting procedures. We are engaged with the parties and our target is to create a fully satisfied customer.”

The company said it has privately provided its reasons for terminating the CFO to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce “and they are unrelated to share offerings.”

State officials expressed surprise when alerted to the content of the email.

“It begs the imagination to what ‘optimal painting procedures’ means,” Orfant said.

According to Steve McAlister, a senior architect at Clark & Green in Great Barrington, TimberSIL had recommended a particular Keim painting product to be used for the wood, but the paint manufacturer would not warranty the paint because it had never tested its product on TimberSIL and approved it for use, he said. The state then chose a high-quality Sherwin Williams paint that failed on the wood, according to DCR.

“What TimberSIL was not clear about is that it appears possibly only one paint product works on it,” McAlister said. “They really did not tell us you can’t really use anything else. Adhesion is a real problem with the TimberSIL product. The representation is that this is a paintable product. You don’t have to wait three years to paint it.”

In a statement to the Gazette, the company said Keim has worked successfully with TimberSIL for four years and that “millions of board feet of product indicates that many paints are compatible when boards are kept dry, sanded as directed and pretested.”

The company added that “no high moisture products have been factory shipped,” and suggested that improperly stored TimberSIL has occassionally resulted in higher moisture.

Other troubles

The commonwealth is not the only customer that’s encountered problems with TimberSIL, which has been used on projects from coast to coast, internationally and in places as notable as Yosemite National Park.

One Northampton couple who bought TimberSIL four years ago to build a raised garden bed find themselves in a similar predicament as the state.

Sherry and Jay Pasternack drove to a lumber retailer near Burlington, Vt., and spent $500 on TimberSIL for their backyard project on Calvin Terrace. They have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get their money back from the company through its stated warranty because the wood, which a Gazette reporter examined, is warped and rotting.

The couple were seeking the nontoxic, rot-resistant and long-lasting qualities TimberSIL claimed, including its recommended use for raised garden beds.

“It cost us a lot of money to do that,” Sherry Pasternack said. “It’s totally rotted out within four years. I’m talking rot. Total rot.”

Pasternack said that when she did reach a TimberSIL representative last year, she was informed that she and her husband should not have cut the wood, which left the pair perplexed.

The lumber retailer, Planet Hardwood in St. George, Vt., was one of the only retailers of TimberSIL for a time in the Northeast. Its owners said stopped selling the product several years ago because of mounting customer complaints and logistical problems dealing with Timber Treatment Technologies, the manufacturer.

“We had a good run, but it became problematic,” said Diane Nazarenko, a co-owner of Planet Hardwood. “We were selling it like crazy and we were starting to hear complaints that it was splitting in the field.”

“It was a nightmare dealing with them (Timber Treatment Technologies) and we ended up losing tons of money,” she added.

In a statement this week, Timber Treatment Technologies said it works with distributors when customer complaints occur and “makes every effort to respond to all inquiries. The company noted that “cut boards in direct contact with soil is not recommended.”

One Pennsylvania homeowner has spent the past six years in the company’s warranty claim process for a TimberSIL deck that was installed in 2006 and is rotting, but still hasn’t gotten a resolution as of July 2013, company records show.

In New Orleans, the Make It Right Foundation, founded by movie star Brad Pitt, is building 150 LEED Platinum certified homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina in that city’s Lower Ninth Ward. The nonprofit group set out using TimberSIL wood for the decks of those homes in 2008 but abandoned the product in 2010 after it failed to perform, according to the foundation. About 95 of the 150 homes have been built thus far.

Ocean City, Md., tested TimberSIL on a 300-foot block of its 1.5-mile boardwalk, but ripped out the product after a year primarily because the lumber warped too much, according to the city’s engineering department.

“We had so much trouble with it,” said Russell Jones, the city’s engineering manager. “Cupping and warping, and it didn’t shrink any.”

One study conducted in 2009 by the Oregon State University’s Department of Wood Science Engineering concluded that TimberSIL was “only slightly resistant to decay and would not be suitable for exterior exposures.”

One of the authors of the report said the university was threatened with legal action. After questioned about the report by the Gazette, the company said the Oregon study was flawed and referenced a later study that showed TimberSIL is highly resistant to rot and decay.

While the TimberSIL product has run into problems on some projects large and small, it has also found success, according to Timber Treatment Technologies.

“We have very few of these kinds of problems on record,” said Embry, a former consultant at the company and now its executive vice president. “We have many customers who have used the product for nine years and have had no problems. It’s a good product that has been used in millions of board feet.”

Among those satisfied customers is Al Renner, a gardener in Los Angeles who oversaw construction of two rustic, hillside raised garden beds using TimberSIL in that city in recent years.

“It’s doing quite well for me,” said Renner, former executive director of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council. “It does warp a little but not badly. It deteriorates like wood would, but at a much slower rate. At this point, I’m relatively pleased.”

‘Learning’ experience’

Embry said Timber Treatment Technologies is using the Summit House project as a learning experience. He said the company wants to understand whether there are any chemical or bonding problems with the wood used in the project, or if there were any product handling or communication problems that the company may need to address.

“It’s a negative situation for everybody,” he said. “For the state of Massachusetts and the enjoyment of a lot of people who like to go to the Summit House.”

As for the communication lapses with the state, Embry said his first order of business was to contact the company’s employees. He said he has already talked with the distributor of the wood, Hood Distribution, to try to figure out what went wrong.

“I’m now at a point where I need to talk to the state and I need to talk to Westfield (Construction) but I wanted to understand the facts,” he said. After consulting for the company since last September, Embry said he was brought on board full time 10 days ago in part to help the company improve its response to the needs of customers who may run into problems like those encountered at the Summit House and in the Pasternacks’ backyard.

“These questions come up at a time when there are significant negotiations on how to advance the company,” he said. “If the company has not met the needs of the customer in the past, that is obviously something the company needs to correct.”

Asked whether the state should have any concerns about the structural integrity of the TimberSIL at the Summit House, Embry said the company is proud of its structural integrity. He said product has evolved in many ways over the years and is being continuously improved. The company plans to fully investigate the wood used at the Summit House, he said.

“If there is a product failure, that is a very big deal to TimberSIL,” he said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


 


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