Forensic specialists help homeowners sort through construction crime scenes
Written by JOHN BUDRIS
Von salmi stands square and takes aim. a common
culprit is about to make his day. His weapon is not
Dirty Harry’s . 44 Magnum; it’s a high-tech laser pistol
with pinpoint accuracy. He shoots the ruby ray to the
eaves of a 19th-century house in Lexington, Massachusetts, and
reveals a dozen invisible leaks from which heat — and the homeowner’s money — is disappearing.
Salmi, whose building company, Von Salmi & Associates,
is in Westminster, Massachusetts, calls himself a forensic engineer, but for his clients, he’s the go-to guy when things fall apart.
“Those I help come from all aspects of construction — homeowners, architects, landscape engineers, commercial real estate
owners, you name it,” says Salmi, who opened the forensic branch
of his company in August 2008.
In residential construction, forensic engineers like Salmi
typically consults with clients to get to the heart of a vexing building or remodeling problem. In some cases, however, their role is
as expert witness during litigation and arbitration. “Some days I
wear overalls and a hard hat,” says Salmi. “Other days I put on a
suit and tie, but both outfits are part of my work clothes.” In the
last year, he has participated in a half dozen cases, and his expert
testimony helped win all six.
“Home building grew so rapidly in the last decade, especially
in the high-end market,” says Salmi, who has more than 40 years
building experience, “that it was inevitable that time pressure
and inexperience came together, and the result is very expensive
and complicated problems for the homeowner. Then the courts
figure out who’s responsible.”
Another ally for homeowners searching for answers is Robson
Forensic Inc., a national company with offices in Massachusetts
and Connecticut. Its staff of engineers, scientists, and other
experts investigate a wide range of liability cases, including
those in the building industry. David C. Cowen, an architect
with Robson, says that a bump in litigation in the construction
industry often correlates to a tough economy. “Projects run out of
money, developers and buyers can both get cold feet, and often
someone is looking for a way out,” he says.
Gillian Overholser turned to Salmi for solutions. Last
winter, water penetrated into the wall cavities and window
casings around her three-story, 1888 Colonial Revival house
in Lexington, leaving ruined walls, ceilings, and floors. She
spent thousands of dollars this summer repairing the interior problems, but Salmi told her that unless the cause of the
leaks is addressed, the same deluge would arrive in the coming months. “And since the house will likely be sold in a few
years,” says Overholser, “whatever steps we take to fix the problem need to be done on a tight budget.”
Salmi discovered that an insidious cycle of heat escaping
from inside the house at the roof eaves and melting snow on
the outside is causing ice dams — a quandary common with
vintage homes where moisture is drawn into the wall cavities
by constant melting and freezing behind the gutters.
“That can be one of the unintended consequences when
you ‘improve’ a home to contemporary standards of comfort
when that structure was built 200 years ago,” says Salmi.
A complete and permanent fix would require extensive
renovations and long dollars, so he also offered an alternative.
For about $5,000, heating wire can be installed to a width of a
few feet along the bottom of the roofline, a mitigation that he
told Overholser won’t compromise matters when it’s time to
sell the house. “You always have to look ahead to what a future
home inspector will see on behalf of a prospective buyer, and
not just cover up a symptom,” he says.
Salmi consults on all aspects of construction — from
green energy strategies such as geothermal and solar to lead,
mold, and other environmental contaminants, but he notes
the most common and costly problems concern water. One
example is a newly built 6,000-square-foot
house in a suburb west of Boston where the
basement, designed and outfitted as a high-end
home theater, was plagued by ruinous water
infiltration. Salmi determined that several small
errors during construction caused catastrophic failure of the
entire water handling system. A costly excavation of the site
to allow the installation of a few inexpensive materials corrected the problem. “This was one of those instances where
doing it right in the beginning would have cost only negligibly
more,” says Salmi, “but in the end, the ordeal was nightmarish both in stress and money.”
The veteran builder isn’t good just with houses; he’s good
with people. He sees part of his job as helping clients avoid
legal action, and he encourages mediation to resolve disputes
between homeowners and contractors.
“House problems can be so overwhelming,“ he says.
“Beyond the technical advice, my job is to let my clients know
they aren’t alone.”
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2009 • DESIGN NEW ENGLAND