Construction Pathology

@ A. Sebastian Engineering and Investigation Services

building pathology definition

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Construction Pathology
Choices: When You Have To Part With Your Money...
Construction Consultants
Construction Pathology: Wood Failures: Dry Rot, Preservatives:This file is temporarily lost. There is something to be said about backing up one's files...
Construction Pathology/Forensic Science: Bits and Pieces. This file is also lost for now (it went down with the server).
Stainless steels
Who Are We? A Summary Presentation
Contacting Us:
Some Favorite Links
Things To Ponder At...: Local Disasters, Validation for manufactured materials and equipment, Affirmative action, etc.
Construction Durability Glossary
Building Pathology Glossary
Bits and pieces
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Construction Pathology

Construction (or building) pathology is a specialized area of the applied sciences. It is concerned with determining the causes of project's problems (or "disease"), and with the structural and functional changes occurring under difficult or special conditions. Like in medicine, the base of knowledge for the study of pathology may be based on "autopsies" of defunct construction (such as collapses like the ones mentioned in the Disasters Chapter), or on the analysis of malfunctioning ones. The resulting technological information is the synergy of many areas of architecture, engineering design and execution, materials science, physics, chemistry, biology. The result may locate the construction diseases within individual building systems, thus isolating and pinpointing the problem to one or a group of (sub) systems, such as the building envelope (roof, cladding, curtain walls, etc.), or structural concrete prestressing for example. Again like in medicine, we are attempting to find a clear correlation between clinical symptoms observed and pathological changes.

The term pathology was applied to building problems for a only a few decades, yet the reasoning behind it is pretty obvious: like medically treated bodies, construction moves, breathes, gets sick, ages, and dies. And while nothing lasts forever, buildings can stay in great shape in their old age. As a kid, I went once to a camp located in a monastery in Sibiu (or Hermanstadt), once a predominantly German area of Romania. The building was over 500 years old at the time. I saw it again years later as an adult. It showed no major sign of distress, very few (and quite small) cracks and watermarks, and had a perfectly dry basement which we delighted in exploring even after finding out that it was the resting place of the brothers of centuries past. Was it a matter of Divine intervention? Luck? Sound design and construction? Good maintenance and sound building management? Well, perhaps a little of each! Surely enough, no corners were ever cut, no stupid economies were made, no grueling and unrealistic schedules imposed, no low bidders, and no set asides (see below). It was just a labor of pride, belief, know-how, hard work, clear minds, carrying and love.

This is about all it takes...

And while humans aspire to have long lived, healthy buildings, this is not always the case. I work most of the time in the Pacific North West, primarily in the Seattle-Tacoma, Washington to Vancouver, BC corridor. Here it seems that at least one contemporary building in three runs into major problems in its first 20 to 30 years of operation. This is probably a worse average than for human beings.

Choices: When You Have To Part With Your Money...

A tongue-in-cheek approach

Building Pathologists perform something that most people cannot even comprehend. In return for your money, cooperation, patience, and perhaps a very interesting problem (to them at least), they will attempt to identify and eliminate (or control as the case may be) a building defect. So, the question is, should one complicate his or her life with a Construction Pathologist? Well, it all depends. Let us draw a few parallels with medicine, while searching for the answer:

Let's say you've got a problem. For starters, you can do nothing! If it is about your cold, it will go away, unless you get complications, end up with pneumonia, and perhaps lose a lung function in the process. If it is about your building the tenants may move away or worse: they may stay and sue you.

If you are the type of person who visits his GP for a cold or flu, then you should talk with an Engineer or Architect (generalists) when your building sneezes.

On the other hand, let us say that you broke your arm. How do you handle it should tell a lot about you:

Coming back to the serious stuff: difficult problems require specialists. Most moisture and movement issues are simple only on the surface. Pay now or pay (much more) later seems to be the heart of the matter when it comes to construction problems. Most generalists do not comprehend their own limitations (may I remind yoy that F.L. Wright, arguably the greatest Architect of the century, failed to design any building envelope imprevious to the elements, his balconies and cantilevers sag, and his wonderfully designed buildings always required much more care than acceptable).

Many specialists on the other hand, do not really want to be bothered with small or routine projects. Owners of low or medium priced properties tend to make annoying clients, because they rarely can see the big picture. They also try to get freebies, and while a specialist may be inclined to throw in a few free hours on a large assignment, that desire is absent when the total charges amount to only two or three hundred dollars.
On the other hand, most specialists will accept to provide a second opinion. This may be the logical step to what a generalist, an owner or even another specialist recommended as a solution. The cost can be minimal if the hiring party does some homework first: a summary opinion based on an office review of the pertinent, clearly drafted and well organized construction documents may take as little as a couple of hours and may weed out some costly errors before they are cast in stone (or concrete as the case may be). If all that's needed is just reassurance to some bothersome issues, a conference with a specialist could take even less.

Conclusion: treat your building like any other warm (or cold as the case may be) body! On the long run price is not the issue! Limiting some and eliminating other future problems is! Same goes for reducing the need for future maintenance. And most of all perhaps (although not as obvious to an owner who has to pay now) is the making of the interior environment livable and keeping the air clean a manageable task. You need to have the same type of relationship with your Construction Pathologist, like you (should) have with your MD (I am talking about trust, respect, and personal connection).

Unfortunately the alternative tends to end up in litigation (and ulcers).

Construction Consultants

A bona fide consultant is a professional, usually an engineer or architect by education (this means at the least graduation from an accredited 4-5 year university program), followed by practical training with one or more experienced practitioners, plus extensive experience in the field. Ex-roofers, carpenters, graduates from your local community college or "concoctions" (personal opinion based on meeting and interviewing a number of their graduates) such as ITE Technical Institute usually do not even begin to qualify as consultant, much less as professionals!

"The 'Lectric Law Library's Reference Room" does not have a definition for "Professional", but they have one for Professional employee is "any employee engaged in work predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical, or physical work; involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment in its performance; of such a character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardized in relation to a given period of time; requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning or a hospital, as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes. 29 USC"

According to "Black's Law Dictionary", 6th edition, the term "Professional" means "one engaged in one of the learned professions or in an occupation requiring a high level of training and proficiency. Reich v. City of Reading, 3Pa.Cmwlth.511, 284 A2.d 315, 319". No ifs, no buts: according to the courts, it is an occupation that requires advanced education! Generally speaking, when it comes to using the word professional, know-how is a vital addition, not a replacement for academic studies.

Furthermore, a real consultant operates totally independent of manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors, and sells nothing other than his or her expertise! In my engineering ethics classes of long ago, this used to be defined as "being at arm's length". Did we change that much?

Again, "The 'Lectric Law Library's Reference Room" defines "Consultant" as "someone who gives expert or professional advice". Not much room for maneuvering here either, although in over 25 years of practice I met two individuals (Olof Ness and Cy Corp) who were lacking the credentials, and yet were as good as any good consultant I know.

Reaching us

ASEIS, POB 17901, Seattle, WA 98107
Phone: 206.789.8353

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