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Spotlight Report   LUXURY BY DESIGN,

Wall sheathing creates headaches for builder, homeowners

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 5/1/01

ANTON -- David Dyson sold his Toll Brothers home a few months ago, prompted, he said, by Toll's poor workmanship and what he felt were lower quality building materials than he expected in a luxury home -including a cardboard-like wall sheathing Toll has used on more than 700 homes in Massachusetts.

    WBZ video still
Walter Blair Adams, using a wall section similar to a typical Toll Brothers wall, demonstrating the ease with which it can be cut with a razor knife. (WBZ-TV video image)


* Builder misrepresented product
* Sloppy brickwork results in false front
* Wall sheathing creates headaches for builder, homeowners

* Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 4


Behind a brick wall
Behind a brick wall
A brick front wall must be constructed properly to secure it to the building and to ensure that any moisture penetrating the brick can escape. An inspection of homes being built at Toll Brothers' Hopkinton Highlands subdivision revealed serious problems.
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Synthetic stucco
Synthetic stucco and its problems
Toll Brothers has run into problems over the use of synthetic stucco on some of its houses. Also known as EIFS, it has been blamed for serious moisture damage in thousands of homes.
* View the animation (requires Flash)


WBZ-TV reporter Ron Sanders and photographer Tom Rehkamp joined in the Globe investigation. Watch their reports on RealVideo.

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The Globe Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers willing to share their experiences -- or thoughts -- about new home construction. The Spotlight telephone number is (617) 929-3208. Confidential messages about new home construction and other issues can also be left at (617) 929-7483. You can email Spotlight at

"When you're living in a house with walls made of paper, you're not going to be staying there long," said Dyson, who moved to Milton after selling his home in Canton Woods.

The product is a cellulose fiberboard called Thermo-ply Super Strength, with a thickness of less than a quarter inch. Thermo-ply does not give building walls the strength against hurricane wind and earthquakes afforded by plywood. Yet luxury home builder Toll, almost alone among Massachusetts builders, has relied heavily on Thermo-ply. Other top builders here have long used either plywood or OSB, another wood product.

To be sure, Thermo-ply has the approval of national building code associations, which help set minimum standards. It is popular in the Southwest and in some southern states because it works well as a moisture barrier, helping to keep humidity out of homes. But Toll's use of the product in Massachusetts, and its improper installation, have become a headache for the home builder.

The Bedford building inspector did not allow Thermo-ply, and his Hopkinton counterpart convinced Toll not to use it. The Shrewsbury building inspector also opposed its use.

The state has said it meets the state code, but has left it up to local building officials to decide whether to use it in their jurisdictions.

Moreover, several of the building experts expressed concern over Thermo-ply's ability to withstand hurricane-strength winds, and whether Toll's sometimes sloppy subcontractors often made matters worse by installing it incorrectly. In earthquake-prone California, several jurisdictions have prohibited its use.

In Franklin, Toll's installation of the wall sheathing contributed to severely bowed walls in one house. A month ago, Toll repurchased the home from its owners. Walter Blair Adams, a building code expert retained by the homeowners -- and later by the Globe as a consultant in this series -- concluded that the house "could suffer catastrophic damage in the event of a hurricane. It could collapse."

Some builders, Toll among them, prefer Thermo-ply because it offers advantages over plywood or OSB. It is easy to handle, energy efficient, made from recycled material, and relatively inexpensive. In its sales literature, the company notes that "window and door openings are simply cut with a knife."

But some building officials are so disdainful of Thermo-ply that they say you can gain entry to a Toll Brothers home by literally cutting your way through the wall. To test that theory, the Globe constructed a wall section similar to a typical Toll wall -- vinyl siding, Thermo-ply, three inches of insulation and interior wallboard. With a razor knife, it took just six minutes to cut a hole in the wall, with most of that time needed to slice through the vinyl siding.

M. Brian Moroze, the corporate counsel for Thermo-ply's manufacturer, Ludlow Building Products Inc. of Virginia, took exception to any notion that the product represents a security issue for homeowners. Thermo-ply, he said in a letter to the Globe, "is not made to serve as a home safety device."

"You could just as easily report that the window in a house cannot withstand a hammer blow by a would-be intruder," wrote Moroze in a statement. He defended it "as a highly reliable product. ... We have not received a single complaint from any Massachusetts-based inspectors."

Toll, in response to questions from the Spotlight Team, insisted -- incorrectly -- that the product was approved in every town where Toll has built homes. The company said it has stopped using Thermo-ply in Massachusetts, but cited "market preference" as the reason.

Toll, which first began building homes in Massachusetts in 1988, used Thermo-ply from 1991 to 1997 in more than 700 of the 1,200 homes it has built in Massachusetts. The homes are in 10 subdivisions in six communities: Canton, Franklin, Marlborough, Sharon, Shrewsbury, and Westborough.

Thomas P. Armitage, who was a senior project manager for Toll until he left the company in 1999, said in an interview that Thermo-ply became a problem for Toll because of negative perceptions about it.

"No one else was using it, even though it met code.... So why beat our heads against the wall?" Armitage said.

Toll Brothers used Thermo-ply for exterior sheathing, the layer under the siding. But Toll has had problems installing Thermo-ply. The product is not supposed to have anything nailed directly to it, only to the studs underneath. But in Franklin and Canton, officials found hundreds of holes where fasteners missed the stud. In Westborough, the town scheduled extra inspections because workers missed studs so often.

Ludlow, in its letter to the Globe, noted that Thermo-ply "must be carefully installed." If there are installation problems, it added, "they are a matter for the installers."

Sheathing gives a house lateral support if a house is "racked," or twisted in either strong winds or in an earthquake. A product like plywood can withstand more racking pressure than Thermo-ply.

Also, a structural engineer for another national code organization, ICBO Evaluation Service, said Thermo-ply should not be covered with vinyl siding. The vast majority of Toll homes have vinyl siding.

Brian Gerber, a senior structural engineer for ICBO, which reviews business products and promulgates building codes, said that Thermo-ply is not stiff enough to properly support vinyl siding, and instead should be covered by a rigid material, such as wood siding, stucco, or brick. Vinyl, Gerber said, requires a rigid sheathing like plywood.

Bedford Building Commissioner Ronald W. Wetmore and Richard Bowker, his Hopkinton counterpart, both said Toll backed down when they said they did not want Thermo-ply used in their towns. "There is nothing to that stuff," said Bowker.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.