Chinese Drywall Follow-Up: A Builder Guts His Own Condo

In the last issue of Coastal Connection, we mentioned Florida builder Frank Mackle, who recently gutted his own condo in Coral Gables, Fla., to remove contaminated Chinese drywall. On Monday we spoke with Mackle on the phone to learn more. A fourth-generation custom homebuilder — his company, Mackle Construction, has existed for more than a hundred years — Mackle bought the townhome a few years ago to live in while he built another home for himself. He and his family didn't notice any problem with the house while they were living there, he says, and earlier this year they moved into their newly completed house and put the townhome on the market for sale. "It's a community of 30 attached units," explains Mackle, "and after I moved out in March, one of my neighbors there was experiencing some of the telltale signs of Chinese drywall, and he asked me to come and investigate. Well, sure enough, I found the black coils, and the smell of the rotten eggs, in my neighbor's place. So I thought, 'You know what, let me go check out mine.' And we just went in and pulled a sheet of drywall off and found the label on the back side. Knauf Tianjin. And it was at that point that my wife reminded me that early on, we did have air conditioning issues and we had to have the coils cleaned or replaced. But it really hadn't stuck in my mind, because it was under warranty and the builder that we had bought it from took care of it then. But then we also started to remember that appliances kept going out — like the control panel on the microwave and the oven had to be replaced." Mackle had not noticed the sulfur smell while living in the house. But when he moved out, he had set the thermostat on the air conditioner up to 78°F to save electricity. "And now," he reports, "the place smelled bad. And so I think that what happens is, the temperature and the humidity accelerates the off-gassing." On detecting the drywall problem, says Mackle, he immediately took the townhome off the market. "I am a high-end custom homebuilder," he says. "I wouldn't want to try to pass this along to somebody. And anyway, who's going to want to come and buy this, or rent this, with this stigma, and the uncertainty of whether it is in fact causing health problems?" Mackle took steps to recover his loss. "I filed an insurance claim on it, and it was denied. The homeowners' association filed a claim for all of us on the insurance, because many of the units in the community had it; that was denied." With no prospect of being reimbursed any time soon, says Mackle, "I decided I just had to go ahead and get it done myself. I filed a lawsuit; but I just feel like it's going to be years, if we ever do see anything from the lawsuit." Mackle knows that some attorneys have criticized his choice to go ahead and abate the drywall problem — "they said I would jeopardize my case when it comes time to try to get some compensation, because I'm destroying the evidence. But it's kind of a ludicrous thought process. I've got a worthless asset — I've gotta do something about it. And I'm being very careful about how I'm proceeding. I've got an attorney who is guiding me on how to provide proper notice — I've put everybody on notice that is involved, certified mail, to let them know that they have the right to come inspect the process. They can come and help me if they want to." Mackle's own construction business, of course, has taken a serious dive in the overall collapse of the Florida real estate market (although he says that things have taken a turn for the better recently). Within the past year, Mackle has started a new enterprise, The Torre Mackle Group, to manage "distressed projects" — reviving or at least protecting canceled or foreclosed developments that are in bank receivership. The company has one multi-million-dollar project underway, and others in the pipeline, says Mackle: "We think this business plan has legs." Meanwhile, handling his own drywall remediation project is positioning Mackle well to manage more Chinese drywall abatement in the future. "In fact, one of the services that our new business was gearing up for was the Chinese drywall remediation," he says. "We added that to our list of services back in February when it started hitting the papers. We saw where it could lead to a lot of work down the pike, so we've been trying to stay up to speed and be on the cutting edge and be well educated on this whole developing issue. And ironically, in April I find out that I'm a victim as well."