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Proposed Drywall Fixes Conflict, Confuse

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By Duane Marsteller

RISMEDIA, May 12, 2010—(MCT)—Competing, and sometimes conflicting, guidelines for fixing homes containing corrosive Chinese drywall have left homeowners, homebuilders and others confused and in limbo. Should they remove all drywall, regardless of whether it’s Chinese, as a federal judge in New Orleans ruled in a recent case? Or should they take out only drywall that has been determined to be “problematic” and leave the rest behind if practical, as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends?

What about electrical wiring? The federal judge and the federal agency say replace it all, while the National Association of Homebuilders advocates replacing all low-voltage wiring — such as in alarm systems and garage-door controls — and only the damaged ends of high-voltage wiring.

Those and other differences among the various remediation protocols — plus the proliferation of remedies offered by private companies — underscore the still-evolving nature of the Chinese drywall saga. It also signals that a conclusive standard remains elusive and possibly unattainable, experts say.

“There’s always going to be different protocols because there are different needs and intentions behind each one,” said Gary Rosen, a Davie, Fla., environmental/construction expert who has been studying Chinese drywall. “That’s why there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all protocol.”

The homebuilders’ group was first to try, releasing in mid-March what it calls “evolving solutions.” The consumer safety agency, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, followed with a set of interim guidelines on April 2. Exactly one week later, U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon issued his remediation ruling in a test case from Virginia.

All agree that corrosive Chinese drywall must be ripped out and replaced. They differ on what to do with non-Chinese wallboard.

The federal agencies said only “problematic” drywall must be taken out, leaving the possibility that non-corrosive drywall can remain. The homebuilders recommend removing all drywall unless it’s confined to a contained area and there are no signs of corrosion in air-conditioning coils.

“We all have the skills to remodel and deal with the removal of corrosive drywall,” Bruce Hallock of Marsh USA Inc., the risk-management firm that developed the homebuilders’ guidance, said in a statement.

Fallon’s ruling said it was more efficient and cost-effective to take out all drywall, saying “it is virtually impossible to detect with reasonable accuracy which is and which is not Chinese drywall” without cutting into it. He also said the drywall must be removed anyway to replace the electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning systems.

The protocols also differ on how much electrical wiring should be replaced as a result of damage caused by sulfuric gases emitted by corrosive drywall.

Marsh advises removing the damaged ends of high-voltage wiring at a minimum, while the federal agencies and Fallon recommend replacing the entire electrical system.

They also disagree on whether cabinets, tile flooring and hardwood floors should be replaced as part of the drywall fix, and the best method for removing drywall dust.

Private drywall experts also are divided on the protocols.

“I’m advising my clients to exceed whatever the judge’s ruling was,” said Mike Foreman of Foreman and Associates, a Sarasota, Fla., forensic construction consultant who has been studying the drywall issue since it first surfaced in Florida in 2008. He advocates a privately developed method called AbissoCleanse.

Rosen said the federal guidelines are best.

“They’re the science experts,” he said. “I’m not going to go and challenge their call on that. The CPSC recommendations are based on fundamental science. I’ve been impressed with their guidelines.”

The disagreement leaves builders and homeowners in a quandary.

If they do too little, they potentially risk unforeseen problems and liability issues in the future. Doing too much means spending more money than they need and/or have.

Lennar Corp. is one of the first builders to willingly fix homes that it built with corrosive drywall.

The Miami-based homebuilder did not replace all electrical wiring in its early remediations, including several residences in its Heritage Harbour development, according to court records and Bradenton Herald archives. That was based on a consultant’s initial findings that insulated portions were not susceptible to corrosion.

But Lennar later changed its process after discovering the damage extended beyond the exposed ends, records show.

That worries Dan Tibbets, one of the Heritage Harbour homeowners whose home was remediated before the change.

“They did a nice job in fixing up my house, but unfortunately they left all this dangerous wiring behind,” he said.

Taylor Morrison, another national homebuilder that also has been remediating local homes, typically replaces all electrical wiring, a homeowner’s attorney said.

“In general, they’ve been basically gutting the house down to the studs and looking at the fixtures independently to see if any can be salvaged,” said Darren Inverso, who represents Lakewood Ranch homeowner Kristin Culliton.

She was among the first Manatee residents to complain about and sue over the drywall, which ended in Taylor Morrison remediating her home as part of a confidential settlement.

The homebuilder did not reply to written questions submitted by the Herald to its public relations firm.

Local homebuilder Lee Wetherington said he’s glad legal wrangling delayed the start of his company fixing two Sarasota homes it built that contain Chinese drywall.

“It actually was a blessing in disguise,” said Wetherington, who is using a consultant-developed protocol largely based on the federal judge’s ruling. “There are quite a few builders who started earlier and didn’t have these protocols and now they may have to go back to those homes.”

Maybe not, if proposed legislation passes in Tallahassee.

The bills would limit the legal rights of property owners and condominium associations who sign drywall-remediation contracts with their builder, developer or a contractor before remediation standards are established.

If the work was done according to terms of the contract, the homeowner or association could not force the builder, developer or contractor to return and do more work to comply with the protocol, according to the bills. Both bills remain in committee and their chances of passage are uncertain, although the House version is closer to reaching a floor vote.

It’s unclear which of the three protocols — or possibly a new, not-yet-unveiled one — will ultimately win out and become the de facto standard.

Of the three protocols, Fallon’s is the most comprehensive — and potentially the most costly.

His ruling estimated it would cost $86 per square foot to do all the work he recommended, while Rosen estimates the homebuilders’ protocol at around $40 and the federal guidelines at less than $20 per square foot. Thus, the cost could range from $40,000 to $172,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house, depending on which method is used.

That’s the primary reason why there has been, and likely will be, little agreement on which is the best method, Rosen said.

“If you ask the guy who’s going to have to pay, he’ll want one protocol,” he said. “If you ask the guy who’s suing his builder, he’ll essentially want a new house for free.”

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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