The school has decided to pay for the removal and replacement of the odor-emitting cork boards that have kept the new middle-school office unoccupied for five months.
Removal will begin on June 8 and last about two weeks.
Sandy Lyon, head of middle school, who will be working in the new office, describes the odor, which is given off by the linseed oil in the cork boards, as “pungent” and “headache-inducing.”
The boards will be replaced with drywall and a 4-foot-tall tackable surface that will extend across most of the wall at eye level.
The exact cost of the remodel isn’t definite, but the final figure will be “several thousand,” according to headmaster Stephen Repsher.
This money will come from the original budget for the construction of the Middle School Center for Science and Technology, he said.
“We have contingencies in the budget for these kinds of things,” Repsher said. “We were already $150,000 under budget, so this little amount won’t cause any problems.”
But why is the school responsible for paying?
“There’s not really anyone to blame,” Repsher said. “There are sometimes issues like this that nobody could predict.”
When it became clear that the Forbo-brand cork boards were giving off the gasoline-like odor, they were inspected by the manufacturer. That inspection determined that the boards were in fine condition.
“(The boards were) installed according to the design and installation criteria, and there’s nothing wrong with the material,” Repsher said. “The manufacturer who came out said (that the smell is) just the way the product is.”
Robert O’Connor, an attorney at Hanson Bridgett LLP who specializes in construction law, said that construction disputes are “notoriously fact-specific,” meaning that liability in a case such as the school’s could be hard to pinpoint.
“If (the problem with the cork boards is a product defect), then the owner may have legal recourse against the general contractor, supplier or manufacturer of the product,” he said.
“However, if the product is not defective, and the problem arises more from the manner in which the entire assembly was designed or constructed, liability could be difficult to determine.”
Forbo cork boards are treated with linseed oil, a water-resistant oil extracted from flax seeds and used in paints, varnishes and linoleum. Pine rosin, cork, pigments and jute fiber backing are also used in the cork board, said Scott Day, division sales manager at Forbo.
“The odor is as harmless as walking through a field of pine trees,” Day said.
Laura Rambin, principal at Studio Bondy Architecture and head architect on the middle-school building project, said linseed oil contains no volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), which are gases emitted from certain solids or liquids. (VOC’s can cause short- and long-term health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)
“(Linseed oil) meets the indoor air quality standards of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) as well as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for recycled content, rapidly renewable materials and low-emitting materials (both the material itself and the adhesive with which it is applied),” Rambin said in an email.
“There certainly is no blame for the contractor who installed it or the architect who designed it or the manufacturer who made it,” Repsher said. “The material is used all over in churches, schools, hospitals, and businesses – it’s a common material.”
In fact, the same cork boards are located in the lower-school library, but no odor has been detected there, he said.
Repsher attributes this difference to the sizes of the two rooms.
“What’s different about (the office) is that it’s an unusually large surface of cork in a relatively confined space,” he said.
Day said the size of the room and its ventilation could affect how long it takes the odor to dissipate.
Rambin said the odor might have been affected by how long the boards were allowed to air out.
“The color (of the cork boards) is the company’s most popular color, and therefore the material may not have been warehoused for very long,” she said.
Nonetheless, Rambin said the long-lasting odor from the boards could not have been predicted.
“We have never had any issues with Forbo cork boards,” she said.
No matter what the reason behind the odor, Repsher said the school will be paying for the removal and replacement process because the cork board is “within specifications.”
“At some point you simply have to say, ‘Let’s take care of this and move forward,’” Repsher said.
“We wouldn’t go to war with the manufacturer over this – that’s not going to solve any problem. Let’s just recognize that this was all an unintended glitch.”
In a case such as this, though, O’Connor said the contracts involved – such as those between the owner and architect, the owner and contractor and the general contractor and specialty subcontractors and suppliers – are often just as important as the “specific factual details.”
Nonetheless, O’Connor said three general principles apply in most cases such as this one.
“The general contractor’s basic obligation is to construct the project in accordance with the plans and specifications provided by the owner,” he said. “Normally, the general contractor also warrants to the owner that the work will be free from defects in workmanship and materials.
“The (general contractor) in turn passes these obligations down the chain to the specific subcontractors or suppliers who are responsible for each specific component of the work.”
Additionally, the owner usually warrants that the plans are “free from design defects,” O’Connor said.
Finally, the architect is liable for any such design defects that are the result of “negligent error or omission” on his or her part.
The financial obligation will be fulfilled by the school, though. And the only causes for delay are the 50th anniversary celebrations and graduation ceremonies, Repsher said.
Lyon and her assistant Barbara Johnson should be able to move into their new office by June 17, according to Repsher. Their office will become the Breakthrough headquarters, and the technology department will move to the old Breakthrough room.
“I (will) be ecstatic once we get in (the office),” Lyon said.
Meanwhile, the soon-to-be removed cork board will be recycled as green waste or go back to the manufacturer for reprocessing, Repsher said.
Previously published in the print edition on May 26, 2015.