Forensic Architecture

Architect David Douglass

“The focus of my practice and my company, Envelope Architecture and Consulting, is building science—how buildings perform in the hostile environment in which we live,” says architect David Douglass. Douglass has worked in the Portland area since 1997. “A colleague of mine has referred to me as a ‘forensic architect,’” says Douglass. “I feel that building performance is one of the most important aspects of architecture, since buildings keep us protected from the environment and allow us to live our lives daily in a safe and comfortable way.” MH+D asked him to tell us more.

Q: How does forensic architecture work? Do you collaborate with other architects?

A: I believe you can’t truly understand how building assemblies succeed or fail unless you design them. I wear a lot of hats as an architect. I help people fix buildings that have problems such as masonry failures, leaks, flashing leaks, and window leaks. This includes investigations that often require taking a wall or roof apart to determine where the failure is. I provide them with remedial details as well. I design exterior enclosure packages, roof walls, and foundations for other architects. They design the look of the building, and I provide the components and details to make it perform properly. I will do peer reviews of other architects’ details when asked. I also assist clients with historic restoration, window design or replacement, authentic period details, and material selections.

Q: You have been in this field for over 20 years. How have design problems changed?

A: In new construction, many problems come from two places in today’s building industry. The first is that building wall assemblies are getting more and more complicated. In the past we built very simple walls: mass masonry or wood structures. These buildings were inefficient and wasteful from an energy standpoint. They breathed and had big variables in what they could withstand from wet to dry or hot to cold. Today we have a need for energy efficiency and sustainability. The demand on an enclosure system to perform is very complex. Add to that all the holes we put in our buildings—windows, doors, vents, air exchange, makeup air—and you have hundreds of intersections that need to perform for decades. Then just for fun we have many different types of building materials with various makeups that must work together, but often don’t. It is my job to make sure that what’s there works, and if it is not working, find out how to make it work. Where we once had walls that acted as buffers to the environment, we now have control layers for moisture, vapor, air, sound, odor, thermal resistance, and light. It’s my responsibility to choreograph all of this.

Q: How is this all regulated?

A: This complex dance we have today has brought on the concept of building commissioning. Building commissioning is a structured quality-assurance process intended to ensure that a building, when delivered, meets the owner’s requirements. Simply put, commissioning means that all parts of a building, including all the systems, perform as designed and intended for the owner. I provide building enclosure commissioning as part of this process. I am currently the only certified Building Enclosure Commissioning Process (BECxP) provider in Maine. This role is unique, as I am responsible for properly verifying other architects’ design work and ensuring that what is installed by the contractor is per the design. If it is different, I give input on it if I feel it will meet the intent of the design. AIA is a huge advocate for building performance and education. Much of what I do relates directly to the health, safety, and welfare of people, and AIA has that at the forefront of their mission.

Share The Inspiration