Green alternative to treated lumber reported to be rotting unexpectedly
Mark Atwater posted on January 11, 2014 |

New technologies incorporating environmental sustainability comprise a growing field of research and manufacture. New methods of meeting old demands using less energy and earth-friendly ingredients require new engineering practices. Sometimes, as with any new technology, there are unexpected downsides and erroneous performance.

Such is the case with TimberSIL, an environmentally-friendly alternative to pressure-treated wood. As reported by the Tuscaloosa News, the Make it Right Foundation used the TimberSIL lumber to build decks and stairs for about 30 post-Katrina homes from 2008 to 2010. The wood has started rotting well before the 40 year guarantee.

The Make it Right Foundation, backed by star, Brad Pitt, builds homes known for  attention-grabbing architecture and “green” design incorporating features such as solar panels and rainwater collectors.

As part of this philosophy, Make it Right wanted an alternative to chemically-laden, pressure-treated lumber normally used for exterior construction where resistance to rot and insect attack is needed. That led them to TimberSIL, which uses glass infiltration instead of chemicals such as toxic, copper-based compounds which have been employed for decades.

The performance metrics of TimberSIL are impressive. As described on TimberSIL’s website, the claimed benefits include:

  • Non-toxic, environmentally-friendly composition
  •  Increased strength over untreated wood
  • Resistance to corrosion and insect attack
  • No special fasteners needed
  • Class A fire retardant
  • Aesthetics of untreated wood
  • No additional safety requirements during manufacture than the wood alone

While it can be expected the manufacturer will emphasize the benefits, they also note a number of awards, accolades and endorsements from well-known sources. So what’s the deal?

The subpar performance of the product is likely tied to the demanding, sub-tropical conditions in New Orleans. That aside, traditional offerings perform well in the climate.

Joel Embry, executive vice president of TimberSIL, is confident in the product. He stated 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."

Those factors, such as finishing, are stated to be in line with untreated lumber. Despite this, problems arose during renovations at a 19th-century inn in western Massachusetts after contractors who had used TimberSIL realized the product would not hold a coat of paint or withstand the region's climate.

That is the difficulty. New products don’t have the long history of refinement and best-practice standards that current choices may offer. The advancement of many industries is reliant on the creation and adoption of new technologies, so there is an inherent necessity to the risk. That risk, of course, should be minimized by all means before public offering.

TimberSIL utilizes some clever concepts and processing, and the poor performance may not be from any fundamental defects in design. The manufacturing control and intended use may need to be subject to more detailed restriction.

Make it Right is replacing the TimberSIL on all 30 of the houses that used it, even though not all are showing signs of rot. Make it Right is seeking to recoup the $150,000 price tag from TimberSIL under the warranty, but no agreement has been reached.

Photos courtesy of TimberSIL and Make it Right

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