• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Back to Blog

A Forensic Architect Can Help Determine Liability after an Incident

In the aftermath of a devastating fire that engulfed an apartment building, everyone seemed to have already made up their minds about who was to blame: the insulation subcontractor.

Lawyers for the other parties in the claims and counterclaims argued that the insulation was installed incorrectly, with the paper side installed upside down, if in fact paper-faced insulation was permitted in that location by the building code. The finger-pointing resulted in a long legal battle to determine liability for the fire and its aftermath.

Attorneys for the insulation subcontractor retained forensic architect Lee Martin to evaluate whether the insulation contractor followed building codes and to determine what contributing factors led to the fire’s rapid spread. Although the cause of the fire was already known – a resident keeping chemicals from work in a patio storage closet with a space heater attached to an extension cord – Lee was concerned about what caused the fire to spread so quickly.

Lee pored over footage from three news helicopters that had shot sequential video at the scene, watching every detail as the fire moved through the building. The news footage was like time-lapse photography. Eventually, Lee determined that the fire went through the firewall and into the attic before burning through the insulation in the joist space between floors 1 and 2, indicating that the firewall had not been constructed properly. Further investigation revealed that there were not enough layers of drywall in the firewall, and the firewall had never been sealed properly. Additional photographic evidence showed defects in the fire blocking and draft stopping of the wood framing system of the building.

Furthermore, Lee also discovered that the installation subcontractor had installed the paper-faced insulation exactly as specified on the drawings. However, due to the design of the building, the insulation would never have performed as intended because there was no “substantial contact” with another building material as the system was designed and drawn by the architect.

“After that, the case did a complete 180,” Lee said. “The case was no longer about if the insulation should be installed paper facing up or down. It was a great outcome for the contractor because now there was a shifting of liability to the architect and general contractor”

Lee, who is a regional building envelope manager for CTL Engineering, has been a forensic architect since the early 2000s.

What is a forensic architect or forensic engineer in construction?

Forensic architects and engineers like Lee and other CTL professionals play a crucial role in examining the causes of construction-related accidents or failures and determining whether responsible parties followed building codes and regulations. Their investigations often help answer questions of liability and are frequently used in legal proceedings related to the incident, separate and apart from the roles of cause and origin (C&O) experts.

Forensic architects and engineers are often hired by construction companies, property owners, or insurance companies to investigate and analyze construction-related incidents such as fires, structural failures, water intrusion, or personal injury where the designers and/or builders are named as parties in lawsuits.

While the cause and origin investigators may be able to determine where a fire started, most come from a firefighting background and not an engineering background. As a licensed architect, Lee is able to determine if the decisions during construction made sense and, more importantly, if they followed local building codes.

Because CTL also has civil and geotechnical engineers, material scientists, and construction managers on staff, he is also able to coordinate with other departments with individualized expertise.

Often, his findings are the basis for expert testimony in legal proceedings related to the incident.

What is the construction forensic investigation process?

Each forensic architect/engineer investigation is like a puzzle. Although these steps vary based on the specific investigation, they usually entail a site investigation, reviewing building plans, interviews, analyzing materials and building systems, and laboratory testing. The goal is to identify the cause of the incident and the responsible parties.

Even when the cause of an incident is clear, a forensic architect or forensic engineer may also be called in to give context. For instance, Lee said he was recently called because someone had tripped on an ADA parking stall with a ramp projecting into the parking space. Projecting ramps have been disallowed since 2010 because they are regularly a trip hazard.

“Accessibility standards issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been the law for 20 years. It’s hard to defend someone who hasn’t done anything. It’s easier to defend if they tried something, even if it was wrong,” Lee said.

Forensic Architects and Engineers Help Determine Liability After a Construction Incident

Forensic architects and engineers can play a crucial role in determining liability after an incident. By examining the causes of accidents or failures, forensic investigators determine whether responsible parties followed building codes, regulations, contract documents, or generally accepted standards in the industry. They are often hired by construction companies, property owners, or insurance companies to analyze construction-related incidents such as fires, structural failures, water intrusion, or personal injury. The investigations involve a scientific approach, and the findings are often used in legal proceedings. Overall, forensic investigations in construction help provide a clear picture of what happened and who is responsible.

Ask an Expert

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.