Wikipedia defines forensics as “the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to the legal system.” In popular culture, detective and police shows form our most common experience of the field. Forensic architecture often involves a legal case, and a forensic architect can be your best defense for your building’s alleged or real failings. But the deep knowledge of these specialized practitioners also can be tapped in a variety of ways to help keep you out of trouble before disaster strikes. ARCHITECT spent time with one practice—ELB Forensic, based in New York—to see what this hyper-specialized field is like from the inside.

  • Credit: PJ Loughran

ELB was founded in 2006 by three principals: Don Erwin, Sharon Lobo, and Ronald Bielinski. Bielinski is an engineer and an architect, with an environmental specialization dating back to his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Brooklyn’s Polytechnic Institute of New York. Lobo is an architect with a degree from The Cooper Union; Erwin is an architect educated at the University of Pennsylvania.

Erwin and Lobo met while working together at Fox & Fowle (now FXFowle). The duo became a trio when Erwin and Lobo met Bielinski while all three were practicing forensic architecture at the New York office of Thornton Tomasetti. “They were primarily a structural engineering firm with a few architects on staff,” Lobo says. ?LZA Technology—a division of Thornton Tomasetti—was one of the first firms to investigate the catastrophic failures of buildings and structures. That focus was a bit limiting for the future ELB partners, who were approached by many clients to deal with primarily architectural failures in buildings. Size matters, too. “We better serve our clients with a small firm structure,” says Lobo: The firm has 10 employees, including a bookkeeper, field technicians, junior architects, and a senior architect.

ELB Forensic often assesses the overall condition of an existing building’s envelope: the roof, exterior walls, and foundations. But just these “bones” of the building don’t tell the whole story. “There’s a strong connection between the performance of the outside of a building and the performance of the mechanical system,” says Lobo, noting that the structural engineering is a lesser consideration for the firm. The interrelated nature of the envelope and the HVAC is such that an obvious failure in one often traces back to the performance of the other. That’s why ELB’s partners are specialists in architecture and mechanical engineering, rather than sharing the structural focus of their previous employer.

The firm’s work is split equally among three kinds of work: building failure investigations, peer review consulting, and litigation.

Building Failures: Investigation

Bielinski characterizes ELB’s work as involving either very old or fairly new buildings with problems. The older cases are predictable—failing masonry and other symptoms due to weathering and deferred maintenance. Newer examples follow their own logic, fitting within certain categories—assembly failures due to moisture or humidity conditions; and problems due to incorrect design, detailing, or installation of various sealants. Bielinski notes, “Most of the new buildings have fire protection—fire separation—and sealing wasn’t done properly or was unconstructable, because they physically couldn’t put a finger in somewhere to seal something.”

One of the most common ways that building occupants come to notice these failings is via odor migration throughout a new or recently renovated building. “I bought this brand new apartment for $3 million, and I can’t stand this cigarette smoke,” is the refrain that Bielinski and his partners hear the most.

For architects as a profession, an oft-shallow knowledge of the building sciences is the source of many building failures. “We see the same 10 or 12 things going wrong all the time,” Lobo says. The top of the list includes control joints and allowing for the proper movement and breathing of the building envelope—“in a word, flashing,” Lobo says.

Consulting: Averting Failure by Design

While the sleuthing nature of forensic architecture may seem its sexy side, ELB markets its construction knowledge by working as consultants to firms during the design phases. These gigs generally fall into three categories: waterproofing, roofing, and mechanical. “We’ll look at an early building section,” Lobo says. “?‘Where should we put the vapor barrier in the outside wall?’?” This discussion can get into the pros and cons of various options: wood vs. aluminum windows, for example.

“It’s good for architects to be pushed into thinking about waterproofing early in the process,” Lobo says, who often finds designers talking about color or doorknobs long before considering what kind of roof the building should have. ELB positions itself outside the aesthetics of the building, aiding the architects in achieving whatever look they want with appropriate means.

“A lot of the time, architects don’t want joints anywhere in the building,” says Lobo—and this leads to a discussion on how a control joint–free building will inevitably crack. That’s part of the education process that ELB supplies through its consulting service. Context matters, too. “I had an architect who wanted to use a nice Japanese rice paper on the outside of a building,” says Lobo, who responded: “Are you going to put it in the desert? It will last there!”

Expert Witnesses: Litigation

The principals provide their knowledge as expert witnesses in a variety of situations, including mediation, arbitration, and trials. Lobo admits they’re aware of the ambulance-chasing suspicions. “It’s got a bad reputation,” she says, noting that 99 percent of their expert-witness work is for insurance companies defending architects and builders.

“We’re not eager to jump on every case as a billing opportunity,” Lobo says. ELB is frank with potential clients. “We sometimes tell them, ‘You don’t have a case,’?” she says. They’re equally honest when an architect is on the losing end of an argument. “Settle now,” they advise—and typically don’t charge for the single consultation, in hope that the good will engendered by this service will lead to future work.

Lobo has four points of advice for the architect facing a legal challenge on a project:

1. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

2. Call your attorney.

3. Document everything.

4. Don’t take it personally.

Putting It All Together

Asked whether she’s ever seen a building actually constructed to match the drawings, Lobo laughs and suggests, “We’ve found buildings that were constructed in the spirit of the drawings.” She notes that architects most often seem to get into trouble when they don’t factor in the location of a particular design. ELB’s partners recently put up a map of the country with a stickpin in each city where they’ve done work. The majority of the pins were on the Eastern seaboard. “People who design along shorefronts design as if they’re inland,” Lobo says. “They don’t go the extra mile to see that the building is waterproofed.”