Post-Katrina Cladding Failures
No one knows better than us that the cladding market is complex, competitive and ever changing. Cladding is defined a covering or coating for a building or structure but it is much more than that. Claddings should be attractive and reasonable in cost but it is paramount that any cladding protect the structure and its inhabitants. Market share growth for a cladding can spike, remain steady or fall. Spikes occur when marketing campaigns work. Drops occur when the promises made turn to failure. Vinyl siding gained market share with clever ads to homeowners; today, they appear to be losing those gains. Most attribute this to the failure to live up to some promised expectations. We all have lessons to learn.
In 2007, the actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right charity made the noble effort to provide homes to those who lost them in Hurricane Katrina. These homes were touted to be cutting edge, LEED certified, environmentally friendly, sustainable and solar powered. The promise was good, maybe too good to even be true. These promised expectations have failed.
Today, Pitt is being sued for providing defective homes mostly dealing with mold and water intrusion. I believe he had altruistic intentions but then failed to ensure he had realists on his staff. After all, this is not television. He may have been led to believe that anyone can install exterior siding. Reality television perpetuates this myth; it ultimately demeans blue collar workers as simple guys with muddy boots.
Pitt probably believed what he was told and failed to vet the experts. How do people like him decide who is an expert? Because they told him so? It’s possible he fell for some clever marketing campaign as he was blinded to help the less fortunate. The lack of education, skills and craft training for our industry is a real problem and the Lower 9th Ward is a perfect example of that problem hitting the actor in the face.
An Instant Pro?
In 2007, the enthusiasm to save the earth through net zero energy houses was certainly on. Architects from around the world entered the contest to build sustainable homes. Even a well-known major fiber cement panel manufacturer jumped in to give away products and send in their trainers in to teach average people to install their lines. After all, television has engrained it in us—anyone can be a pro in a day. This, like every other time in history, resulted in a disaster. Katrina was unavoidable; the disaster was self-inflicted. We seem to never learn.
It is pretty clear that the cladding and components failed to protect the structures and their inhabitants in Katrina’s hardest hit areas. The concept of saving earth’s resources and having zero energy homes is a noble one. Pitt had nothing but noble intentions. But how do you save the earth when failures lead to removal and replacement within a decade? I would consider this the opposite of responsible earth stewardship. Making the mistake to ignore history, brush aside the trades, and fail to appreciate the skill of the craft worker will always end the same way. Clever, well funded and re-invented marketing plans seem to keep us on this path and push the concept the skilled worker is not really that important. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This man-made disaster should be a tipping point and strong message. I suspect blame will be assigned and unfortunately a valuable lesson will be again lost. We tell ourselves we are building sustainable homes and doing good things. Are we really? We tend to be lured by the latest in products and technology and promised that we got it right now. No need for trained workers. Why do we forget the experienced foreman who can spot potential problems, find solutions and make the cladding work? This can only come from decades of experience, and not a classroom. A day training class is nice but even with a certificate it is only that. Others believe the fix to our issues is to add more layers and/or complexity to the wall. More complexity blended with less skill seems like a recipe for another disaster.
It saddens me that these owners did not get a functional, long-lasting cladding like stucco or EIFS installed by skilled and experience craft workers. There are varying forms of education—it is not just college where we can learn. Blue collar workers need real time training on their craft; good mentors who have lots of experience. Ironically, it is the blue collar American worker that could have made the Lower 9th Ward buildings work as they should have. Components and claddings are tricky—they would have been better off leaving it to the pros.