For this week’s Guest Post Friday Post here at Construction Law Musings, we welcome Brian L. Hill. Brian is a construction defect investigator and business development consultant. While not related to Christopher Hill, he does share the same passion for all things related to the built environment. Brian is the editor-in-chief and publisher of AEC Forensics, a curated blog of news and information pertaining to construction consulting, construction law and building science. Always on the search for quality content, if you are a lawyer or expert in the A/E/C industry, please contact Mr. Hill at email@example.com to inquire about guest posting. For more information about Brian, visit BLHill.info.
One of my earliest memories as a child is visiting my father at a house he was remodeling and riding on his lap in a skip loader. I also spent many hours at my grandparent’s real estate brokerage and tagging along for property showings and open houses. I wasn’t always interested in construction and real estate – throughout junior high and high school, I managed a successful professional music business. I realized however, that the life of a professional jazz musician can be very difficult. Construction, real estate, business management and marketing are in my DNA. And I found my niche in the world of architectural, engineering and construction forensics.
In middle school, while the other kids at the science fair were examining whether white or wheat bread were more likely to create mold, or constructing telescopes out of Pringles© cans, I conducted an experiment analyzing lumber. Despite some flaws to the experiment, I was able to successfully demonstrate the relative strength of air-dried, kiln-dried and green lumber using a torque wrench connected to a lever. While it was mildly interesting to understand how the moisture content of lumber might affect structural integrity, I think the biggest impact for me was understanding how important testing materials and components to the point of failure is to the design and construction of the built environment.
What is Forensic Science
Although most commonly associated with criminal matters, due to the popularity of shows like CSI, forensic science is applied to many disciplines, including architecture, engineering and construction (A/E/C). According to Wikipedia, forensic science “is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to a legal system.”
One of the core concepts in A/E/C forensics is failure analysis. If something is broken, we want to know why. In practical terms, this means thoroughly inspecting and documenting the condition of a property. In some situations it is also necessary to perform experiments that can provide insight into the causes of various failures. This is a process that is known as intrusive or destructive testing. The data collected from the investigation is then analyzed and interpreted by qualified experts. The expert presents their findings in the form of a written report or in some cases, as testimony in a deposition or trial.
What is the Role of Forensic Science in the A/E/C Industry?
In the most simple terms, forensic science shows us what not to do. More importantly, it tells us why certain materials and methods work better than others. Take reinforced concrete, for example. Concrete by itself resists compression very well when pressure is applied. But concrete does not stretch much before failing. Steel has excellent tensile strength and can resist pulling and stretching much better than concrete. Therefore, using steel as reinforcement for concrete creates an assembly that resists both pushing and pulling. Many of the great architectural designs of our modern era would not be possible without reinforced concrete.
Testing components and assemblies to the point of failure provides understanding regarding the limitations of those materials. As a native Californian, growing up near the San Andreas fault, I’ve been through a number of earthquakes. Analysis of structural failures following seismic events has led to the development of new materials and methods. Applying this knowledge to the built environment has saved many lives. The earthquake in Haiti demonstrated the tragedy that can occur when forensic science is ignored.
One example of how forensic science directly applies to design and construction is in the realm of fire resistance. Events such as the MGM Grand fire highlight the importance of designing buildings to protect life in the event of a fire. To do so, wall assemblies are constructed and weight is applied. This simulates the effect of a load-bearing wall that is supporting the weight of roofing or other floors. A fire is then set and researchers measure the amount of time that the wall will continue to support the weight before collapsing. Knowing how long a particular wall assembly will perform in a fire is very important for saving lives.
Another example of the application of forensic science in the built environment has to do with common causes of water intrusion. The typical house is constructed with a weather barrier that is simply meant to keep the weather outside. This material wraps the entire house, except of course at openings such as windows and doors. The weather barrier is protected by the exterior cladding such as siding or stucco. According to a 2007 study, researchers at the University of Florida determined that 69% of construction defect claims in a sample of 17,000 claims were related to water intrusion. What is the cause of these defects typically? Many times, the culprit is a small $.02 fastener used to attach other materials, causing a tear in the weather barrier. The cost to repair such a defect? Anywhere from $750 to $2,500 – per location.
Although the A/E/C industry as a whole is suffering in the current economic environment, that hasn’t stopped innovation. The green building movement is seen by many as the future for construction and design. Forensic science provides validation of new materials and methods necessary for adoption by owners, design professionals, contractors, code enforcement agencies, insurance carriers and financiers. Additionally, failures of the building envelope not only impact energy efficiency, but can also contribute to problems with indoor air quality among others. Not to mention all the wasted materials that get carted off to the landfill when widespread repairs to failed components occur.
In order to push the limits of architecture, engineering and construction, one must know what the limits are. Through careful analysis and testing of materials, forensic science accomplishes this goal. The result is safer, more energy efficient and more comfortable buildings for humans to live, work, learn and play in.