Forensic Engineers and Consultants

Tag Archive: construction defect

  1. WARREN WEBINAR: “Issues with Breaching the Building Envelope”

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    10/5/21  @ 1 pm EST “Issues with Breaching the Building Envelope” | Presented by George Sanford, P.E., Senior Consulting Structural Engineer


    In this Webinar, we will discuss water entry through a variety of building envelope breaches. Water entry and subsequent wood decay, fungal growth and structural damages as a result from water intrusion can lead to serious property damage and major expenses for all types of property owners. We will discuss the definition of a building envelope, and look at various case studies involving breaches to the major components of the envelope. These major components include foundations, exterior walls, and roofs. The foundation case studies include issues with slabs-on-grade, crawlspaces, and basements. The exterior wall case studies involve improperly installed building wrap, leaking windows, and problems with stucco. The roof case studies look at issues with various roof coverings, vents, and penetrations. Participants will take away a thorough understanding of what defines the building envelope, how breaches to the envelope can occur, and how to identify root causes.


    This course is intended to educate and refresh attendees on definitions and key terms often used in construction defect and water intrusion type property claims. We will also be covering important materials that are used in construction of homes and building facilities and how they are helpful to resolving property claims.

    BIOGRAPHY: Senior Consulting Structural Engineer George Sanford is a Licensed Professional Engineer in multiple states. He has over 30 years of applied structural engineering experience specializing in building design, building components, and foundation design. George holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

    George has an extensive background in residential, commercial, and industrial structures and foundations. Throughout his career, George has designed and analyzed structures, supervised engineers, and prepared construction documents (drawings and specifications).

    George has an in-depth knowledge of many building codes, standards, rules, and regulations including the agencies that govern and provide guidance to building designers such as the International Code Council (ICC), and the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Concrete Institute (ACI), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute (CRSI), International Code Council (ICC), and the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI).


  2. Lack of HVAC System Design and Poor Installation Lead to Extreme Conditions

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    Construction defects can appear in many forms.  The building does not necessarily have to fall down. There are many types of construction defects, including roof leaks, water intrusion into walls, as well as Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) defects.

    One extreme example of this was an office complex I was called to for an investigation of the source of mold observed on the walls.  The occupants complained that they could not find a temperature setting on the thermostat where they could make the office comfortable. When I inspected the office, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  A band of black mold was growing on the walls of the office.   The band was approximately 12 inches wide and was situated 18 to 24 inches off of the floor.  The space was uncomfortably humid, even though the thermostat was indicating it was satisfied at 72 °F.

    The office space was a free-standing two-level structure built inside of a large warehouse space that was heated but not air conditioned.   As such, there was no heat gain from exposure to the sun.  The top level contained four offices with large windows at the front of each office to afford a view of the warehouse.  The ground level contained two work rooms, a small break room, and a mechanical room housing an air handler for a split system heat pump.  Each office was normally occupied by one person.  One of the work rooms housed two large printers which generated significant amounts of heat when in use.

    The building was rectangular in shape.  Each of the four offices were extremely shallow in depth, there was only room for a desk, the chair of the occupant of the desk and space for a person to stand in front of the desk.  The offices had a floor mounted supply register and a floor mounted return register almost directly across the room.  The temperature of the air being supplied to the space was measured in the mid to low 40’s °F by non-contact thermometer.   The temperatures were so low I doubted my non-contact thermometer’s accuracy and returned to my vehicle to get an analog thermometer.   The analog thermometer confirmed the readings of the non-contact thermometer.

    Floor mounted supply register

    Supply air temperatures this low are not desirable.   To dehumidify air and achieve a comfortable relative humidity in a conditioned space, we must cool the air down to the saturation temperature, approximately 55 °F.  At this point the moisture in the air will condense on the cooling coil, run into the drain pan, and hopefully exit the building through the condensate drain.  Sometimes this does not happen, but that is a blog for another time.

    With the moisture removed from the air, it can then be supplied to the conditioned space at a comfortable relative humidity and a temperature cool enough to reduce the temperature of space to the desired level.  Colder air is not necessarily better though.  First of all, if the temperatures fall too low, the coil can “freeze up” or start to form ice on the coils.  Freezing up can be a sign of low airflow over the coil, such as when the supply fan fails, although it can also be a sign of insufficient refrigerant charge.

    The other side of supply air temperatures in the 40’s is the issue of stratification.   Stratification occurs when a fluid, and air is indeed a fluid, separates into layers by temperature.  This is very noticeable to scuba divers when they encounter a thermocline, a very noticeable temperature change over a short distance in a body of water.   Air can do the same, and indeed this was happening in the office space.  The air at the floor level was measured to be cold, just like the 40 degree supply air, however the air in the occupied space was indicating temperatures in the low 70’s °F, just like the setting on the thermostat.  You could physically feel the difference on the skin of your bare hand between the floor and the actual area where the occupants breathed, commonly called the occupied zone.  The cooler denser air was staying at floor level and not mixing into the actual occupied zone.  This was exacerbated by the supplies being directly across from the returns in each office.  The cold, dense air would travel across the floor and be picked up by the return with little mixing with the air in the occupied zone.

    The band of mold was growing on the walls of office at the layer that separated the cold, dry air from the warmer, humid air in the occupied zone.  It made me wonder if a small thunderstorm might develop at this point!

    Compressed flexible ductwork

    A trip to the mechanical room revealed the reason for the low supply air temperatures.  The ductwork was composed almost entirely of flexible ductwork.  Flexible ductwork, when installed improperly, can create extremely high resistance to the flow of air, known as friction loss.  The ductwork was threaded through the walls up to the second floor, allowing the ductwork to be flattened to the width of the wall cavity, in this case a standard 4-inch stud.  In addition to being flattened by the walls, the ductwork had numerous kinks due to poor routing.  The friction loss in the system was enormous.

    Remember that air is compressible, air will hit an obstruction and can completely stall or stop, something known as a stagnation.  The extremely high friction in the ductwork caused the supply fan in the air handler to be unable to move the required amount of air.  This caused extremely low supply air temperatures.  A quick check of the system tonnage in regard to the area of the office space revealed that the split system was well over twice as big as needed, especially considering there was no solar load because the office was completely indoors. Bigger is not always better when sizing an air conditioning system.

    So, what were the construction defects?  For starters the system was not properly sized for the space.   The International Mechanical Code requires heating and cooling load calculations to be performed according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) methodology or per other approved computational procedures.  With the unit being twice the size it should reasonably be, it is questionable that load calculations were even performed.

    The flexible duct was installed in a manner that compressed the duct, reducing its effective area.  Reviewing the installation instructions for several manufacturers of flexible duct shows that the duct should not be installed in a compressed state.  One manufacturer even states that the compressed state will noticeably increase friction loss. The thermostat was also placed in the second-floor supervisor’s office.  The largest heat generator was the printer on the first floor.  Significant heat buildup was noted in the room with the printer, but the thermostat wouldn’t sense this as it was in a different room upstairs.  Thermostat placement is an important decision when installing an air conditioning system.

    Another defect in the design was the fact that the supplies were positioned directly across from the returns allowed short circuiting.  The cold air was blown across the floor and right back into the return for the system.   This helped cause the cold air to stay at floor level instead of mixing with the air in the area where most of your body is actually at.

    The construction defects in this building HVAC system were a mix of design and installation defects.  The system had not been sized properly.  The designer did not perform proper load calculations.  The thermostat was not located in the area of the most heat load.  The installation defects resulted from poor workmanship on the part of the HVAC contractor as well as a lack of oversight by the jobsite supervisor.

    Chad Jones, PE, CFEI, CMSE has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Clemson University. Chad has over 20 years of engineering experience including mechanical, process, and manufacturing engineering. This work has included equipment design, machine safeguarding, cost estimating and safety compliance. Chad also has over 10 years of commercial, industrial, and residential HVAC and plumbing design experience. Chad is a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator and IFSAC certified Firefighter II in Greenwood County, South Carolina.

  3. Moisture Intrusion into Concrete Slabs-on-Grade

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    Scenario:  A young couple is excited about buying their first home.  They pick it out from a catalog of house plans from the developer of a new neighborhood in town.  It will be a brand new construction starter type bungalow home on a slab-on-grade foundation.  For a cost adder, which is considerable to them, they decide to upgrade the finished flooring from carpeting to hardwood laminate.  Unfortunately, after only a few weeks of residency, the hardwood planks begin to buckle and separate from the slab throughout the house.  They do not know what is causing it, or what to do to remedy it, (more…)

  4. Improper Hearth Extension Leads to Structure Fire

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    The fire service affords you the opportunity to witness and observe things that a lot of engineers and even most people do not get the chance to see.  An example of this is the situation where extended elevated temperatures combined with poor construction techniques to result in a structure fire.

    I have personally observed several occasions where a structure fire was initiated due to improper construction of the fireplace hearth extension.  The most recent one followed a multi-day cold snap, at least by South Carolina standards.  The thermometer read 17 degrees F as I drove to the call of smoke in a residence (more…)

  5. Construction Techniques to Prevent Water Penetration at Windows

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    Windows, and their interface with the exterior walls, are an important part of a building’s envelope that resists the intrusion of water. Most builders take many precautions to protect a house from water damage. One of the most important factors in keeping the water out is the installation of window flashing, a thin material that prevents water from seeping in around a window. (more…)

  6. When the Walls Come Tumbling Down… Retaining Wall Basics

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    A wall is really boring until it fails. A retaining wall is supposed to hold back soil to either support a structure or keep a space clear. When it fails, both of those roles are compromised. A retaining wall does not have to collapse to fail. In fact, a failure is perhaps better defined as when the wall does not perform as expected. (more…)

  7. Installation can compromise PVC pipe

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    PVC pipe is a durable material used in many construction and renovation applications. Despite its widespread use, problems can arise when manufacturer installation guidelines are not followed. This is especially true in applications that involve gluing joints or, using the more technical term, solvent welding. (more…)

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