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Follow the leaks



Last modified: Monday, March 07, 2011
Concord's Chris Carley wears several hats within the architecture business he founded 24 years ago.

One includes the plaid, double-billed cap made famous by the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.

That's because Carley does more than design buildings, documenting the plans before the contractor moves in to perform the dirty work.

Carley, head of C.N. Carley Associates, Architects and Planners in Concord, also investigates structural flaws, finding hidden mistakes and coordinating a solution by designing corrective measures, analyzing costs and contacting other professionals as needed.

He calls it forensic architecture consulting, a service he only recently labeled and began promoting on his website. The most common jobs he deals with are leaks, wood rot and heat loss.

"The first people to encounter this stuff are the maintenance people," Carley said. "They look at it and might not be able to figure out the why or where it's coming from."

Carley, 59, received a degree from the Syracuse School of Architecture. He's a licensed architect but notes that specialties like forensics consulting do not require any further education.

One of his clients was the New Hampshire State Library several years ago, after the Department of Public Works called him about a mysterious leak.

"They couldn't figure out where it was coming from," Carley said. "A lot of different people looked at it."

Carley used a hose to simulate a rainstorm, tracing the leak to a first-floor ceiling and then to the roof. He also uses more sophisticated means to find leaks, such as infrared light.

"A lot of this is common sense," Carley said, "but it's not common sense until you have some knowledge about buildings."

While Carley says he does not, as part of his professional routine, provide expert witness testimony in lawsuits, his role includes consultation with attorneys and their clients involved in disputes over building designs and structural quality.

"I'm very cautious," Carley said. "I don't want to be involved in trip-and-fall cases unless there's a really egregious example of bad design or code violation and the people responsible are refusing to take responsibility for what they did."

Can you put your role into perspective? An example is a forensic accountant. They go into a business and look at the way things are now and try to figure out how things got that way. It could be white-collar crime or just connected to a problem the company is having. In the case of buildings, there will be a problem that surfaces, and our job is to look at the problem and figure out what is going.

Do you collaborate with other professionals during your investigations? In some cases we bring in people with specialized knowledge or skills because we think there's something that needs more horsepower than we can provide in a certain area. So part of that is enlisting the support of engineers who specialize in their field, heating and ventilating and structural and so on.

Do you see a lot of corruption? A lot of snake oil in the marketplace

concerning energy efficiency because it's so fashionable at the moment to look at that problem and do something about it. There are a million people looking to make money by making claims they can't support.

How are you paid? In forensics, often you're following a trail and you don't know where it's going to lead when you start, so hourly is the fairest way to charge.

How often are you involved with lawsuits? In the vast majority, if you've got a good case and you're dealing with a professional who is on the up and up, it never gets to a lawyer, or if it does it never gets past conversation.

Any lawsuit stand out? Balconies at a condo association in Bedford were getting a lot of rot, and mushrooms were growing. We looked at the original drawings, and what had been drawn was not what was built. We came up with details that allowed water to drain away and then air dried and then they rebuilt the balconies.

Can you tell us about a lawsuit in which you would not testify? There was a single step in a restaurant dining room, and there was a warning about the step, which had been there for many years. Someone fell, and the attorney wanted me to act as an expert witness that the step was defective. That's the stuff lawyers do, but it's not forensic architecture.

How about one in which you did testify? A condo had second-story loft space and the contractor built it with no railings. He said the building code didn't require it or there was no building code, but whatever he said was complete nonsense as far as codes were concerned. Someone was using the loft as a guest bedroom and in the middle of the night got up and forgot where she was and fell over the side. Never mind codes, common sense says he should have put a railing up there.

Any advice on how to proceed if you sense defective construction? If the answer to your problem isn't obvious, if you've tried various solutions and they haven't worked, it's very helpful to get some independent advice from someone who's not in a position to profit.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)