At the root of Florida's Chinese drywall problem lies a simple cause: carelessness. Chinese drywall makers didn't bother with quality control. And U.S. builders bought and used an untried foreign-made product, without giving its quality a second thought.
Perhaps it's fitting that the task of fixing a problem created through carelessness should fall to a detail freak.
"I live and die by systems," says Eric Stockland. "I am a fanatical systems guy." Stockland is the owner of Charter Bay Homes in Tampa Bay, Florida. In recent years, with the local building industry in a near-shutdown condition, Stockland has made a full-time job out of remediating homes contaminated and damaged by the corrosive sulfurous fumes that emanate from defective Chinese-made drywall. It's demanding work that requires meticulous care and scrupulous attention to detail. For Stockland, it's a perfect fit.
Chinese drywall remediation is both a technical and a management challenge. The crew has to take out integral components of the house—drywall, wiring, plumbing—that were never intended to come out, all while protecting and preserving the rest of the house. And then they have to restore the house to a like-new condition.
Details count. "I have a full task list of everything that has to be photographed before we begin," Stockland says. "I have a full task list for everything that has to be measured, and how we measure it. I have photograph files to show my guys: 'This is how we protect swing doors, this is how we protect thresholds.' There are very specific ways that I do it. And then it makes it easy for me to train different people on it."
The systems evolve from job to job, says Stockton. "Every day I make voice notes into my phone: 'Do it this way next time.' I'm trying to do it better, and do it faster. I actually calculated this a little while ago: I note down about 8 improvements every day on the job. The improvements from the last job went into my templates for the job we're on today. And I'll be doing the same thing on this job, and those things will happen on the next job. It goes on forever."
The work starts with "salvage and protection"—removing items that can be saved and reinstalled, and protecting items that will stay in place throughout the demolition, cleaning, and reconstruction. "That takes about a week," says Stockland. An example: protecting staircases. As with other techniques, Stockland's methods have developed over time. In a video published online in 2011, Stockland shows how his crew applies protective foam board to treads and risers ("Chinese Drywall Stair Protection"). But he says he does it differently now: "I was putting half inch foam board on the treads, but I didn't like how that was actually surviving. So I changed from half-inch foam board to 7/16-inch OSB. But then the OSB wasn't surviving real well on the nosing, so I changed that to plywood."
Most of Stockland's current jobs are in houses built with Knauf drywall, which are covered by a recent settlement between Knauf and class-action plaintiffs in New Orleans Federal Court. The court award provides those homeowners enough money to pay for a thorough job, Stockland says: "They get to come out whole. We will come through and basically rebuild their house better than it was. The funds are there to be able to do it."
Customers whose Chinese drywall came from another manufacturer — Taishan, for example, or Shandong Taihe — aren't as lucky. Unlike Knauf, those companies don't have other U.S. business interests motivating them to settle the drywall cases. They've stonewalled the U.S. court system, and stiffed the customers whose homes are contaminated. Stockland can remediate those non-Knauf houses, but his clients are paying on their own dime.
"Most of the people I work for in that situation, own their houses outright," explains Stockland. "They're stuck. There is nothing they can do but remediate it, or leave it the way it is."
It's a tough choice. Says Stockland: "I always tell people, 'You have to talk to your legal advisers, your financial advisers. Before you move forward and do this, you need to make sure that it's the right thing for you.' But when you don't have a mortgage that you could walk away from—if you made that difficult decision to do it—well, they don't have many choices."
When the house isn't covered by the Knauf settlement, there's another wrinkle: saving the evidence. Federal Judge Eldon Fallon has issued a blanket order describing how evidence must be collected and preserved in houses that are worked on before a court judgment is entered (see "Pre-Trial Order No. 1b, Preservation of Physical Evidence"). Stockland explains: "The demolition has to be done in a very orderly way, because every single piece of drywall that comes out of that house, down to about 12 inches by 12 inches, has to be photographed and documented. You can't have guys off doing demo in a different part of the house. Your crew has specific assignments, and you work your way through the house from room to room, wall by wall, documenting the entire thing as you go." Stockland has posted a video description of his evidence preservation practices on YouTube.
Stockland ends up with a huge file of digital images of the work. But that's not all: "Judge Fallon also requires that you keep actual bagged samples of drywall that you remove from the home," he says. "As you can imagine, if you were in my situation, you wouldn't want to hang onto that stuff for any longer than you have to. So you turn the bagged samples and the image files over to the homeowners, with a copy of the evidence protection order, and you give a copy of the order to their attorneys, also."
When the house is protected, gutted, cleaned up, and rebuilt, Stockton says, it's as good as new. Would he buy one? "Absolutely," he says. "In a heartbeat. In fact, if the houses are remediated right, my argument is always that it will have more value than the house next door. It has a brand new air conditioner. It has a brand new electrical system. It's got new flooring. Everything has been brought up. People who have the Knauf settlement, they're not only made right, they actually have a better house than when they started."
But not every house is getting Stockland's treatment. And houses that aren't handled as carefully may suffer loss of value. "If you don't remediate right; if you don't document correctly; if you don't literally get every single fleck of drywall out of this house, and then document that that's the case? Then, yeah, I think there's a stigma," says Stockland.
"I get hired to do inspections for people," Stockland says. "I'll tell you about a classic example of a house that had been, quote-unquote, 'remediated'—and the minute I walked in the door I knew that it had not been done correctly."
"The standard is very simple," says Stockland. "There cannot be a single piece of Chinese drywall left in that house. There cannot be a fleck of dust. There cannot be a white smudge. And if it's done wrong, it's easy to see. When I walked into the house, there was a pile of Chinese drywall that had been taken out at some point in the remediation, still in the house, on the floor. So it was being tracked back into the house. They had left all the electrical wiring in, and they left all of the junction boxes in. The junction boxes were all full of dust. Up in the attic, they hadn't taken the HVAC out, and there was dust all over the HVAC ducting. It was all over the trusses. I told the people who were looking to buy that house: 'You need to consider that this house has never even been touched. It has never been remediated. Act as if it still has Chinese drywall in it.'"
So how much longer can Stockland make a living off of Chinese drywall? "Chinese drywall is a niche that is going to fade away," he says. "I give it a couple more years. We're small, and we can burn through a few jobs at a time and keep going. I've basically shut down most of our other remodeling work. But our market is turning on for new home construction now, which was my background for 18 years here. So we're going to be phasing back into that."
But Chinese drywall is the gift that keeps on giving, says Stockland. "The reality is, ten years from now there will be a house sitting out there that has Taishan drywall in it, that nobody ever touched."