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November 2011
Why Buildings Fail
By Casey Jacobus

     Water can have a devastating effect on buildings. Whether it is a minor roof leak or a violently destructive hurricane, water intrusion can cause a structure to deteriorate and, through the resulting growth of mold and bacteria, pose a significant health threat to people using the facility.

     Protecting the roofs, walls, windows and other components of the “building envelope” during construction is essential to reducing the much higher costs involved in repairing a building damaged by water intrusion. That’s why Stafford Consulting Engineers, experts in building envelope issues, would much rather be involved at the beginning of a construction project to head off potential problems.

     “We are very cheap insurance,” asserts Stafford President Stuart Sutton. “If a client brings our firm in at the front end of a project design, they’ll have far fewer problems down the road.”

     Unfortunately, that’s not the way it usually works. Sutton estimates that 80 percent of the company’s business is with existing buildings. They do a great deal of “forensic” work which involves investigating all the elements of the building’s outer design to determine why the system failed and water intrusion occurred.

     With 24 employees and over 240 years of combined experience, Stafford engineers not only understand the engineering principles involved, but have seen them in action again and again. This expertise helps them quickly determine why a system will work or why it has failed.

     “Good design can be accomplished only through detailed analysis,” says Sutton. “You don’t truly understand why something will work until you understand why it fails.”


Engineering From the Ground Up

     Stafford Consulting Engineers was founded in 1964 by Robert M. Stafford, a chemical engineer, with the mission of providing much-needed engineering guidance for roofing and waterproofing systems, where little or none existed before.

     Stafford was one of the first to specialize in roofing systems,” explains Sutton. “Mr. Stafford saw a need for an independent consultant to help clients use products to protect their construction investments.”

     After Stafford retired, Thomas Anderson led the firm from 1979 until 1996. Sutton joined the company in 1982. He grew up in Scotland Neck, N.C., and attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill until he dropped out and went into construction.

     He was first a laborer, then a carpenter and then foreman on projects that ranged from houses to bridges to nuclear power plants. Sutton developed an interest in the fundamental principles of design engineering and returned to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he earned a degree in civil engineering.

     “When I got my degree in 1982, the country was in the middle of the recession,” says Sutton. “I took the job at Stafford thinking it was just temporary until a real job came along.”

     Sutton was initially assigned field responsibility for quality control inspection. In that role, he became experienced in the scheduling, materials handling and procedures used by contractors to install roofing and waterproofing systems. He was appointed project engineer in 1984 and senior project engineer in 1988.

     In those jobs, he provided design review services to architects, general contractors, roofing contractors and owners in connection with roofing and waterproofing systems for new construction and the renovation of existing structures. He has worked on projects throughout the United States, ranging from paper mills to the U.S. Capitol.

     Sutton continued on up the ranks—he was appointed vice president-engineering in 1990 and assumed administrative responsibility for not only his own engineering assignments, but for all of the engineering and architectural services provided by the firm. And he became president of the firm in 1996.


Experience on the Job

     One of the problems Sutton has faced as the head of Stafford Consulting Engineers is finding qualified employees.

     “No one comes out of school knowing how to do this job,” explains Sutton. “You have to learn the business on the job.”

     When Sutton takes a chance on a young graduating engineer, it is because of their enthusiasm and interest. He knows it will take about two years for them to learn enough to work independently on a project, but he feels it is training well spent.

     “What sets us apart is our people, their experience and their ability to solve problems,” Sutton asserts. “We have a passion for this stuff. It’s who we are.”

     Stafford’s staff includes registered professional and graduate engineers, registered roof consultants, registered roof observers, roof system technicians, and non-destructive testing technicians.

     Sutton, who has been with Stafford for a total of 29 years, points out the staff’s longevity: Louis Hall, senior project manager, served as a captain with the United States Air Force and has been with Stafford since 1990; Dennis Mashburn, senior technician, has been with the firm since 1984; Vu Nguyen has been with Stafford since graduating from Clemson University in 1996. Christine Quigley, senior project manager, has 16 years with the company.

     “I was impressed with Stafford from the first; it is a highly respected firm,” says Quigley. “There will always be a need for this kind of business. It’s like the CSI of building construction as we analyze buildings and determine what went wrong.”

     Building forensics is the science of evaluating the source of building system or component failures. Statistically, roofs account for almost 70 percent of construction litigation costs and about 50 percent of building maintenance costs. Forensic investigations are typically requested by owners, insurance companies, or law firms.

     During a forensic investigation, the team will not only use visual inspection, but also may perform activities such as infrared thermography, pressurized window tests, moisture surveys, invasive inspections and related analytical services. In addition to determining the cause for the failure, the investigation focuses on determining the most cost effective means of remediation, including corrective design, or reconstruction.

     “Our clients are glad to see us come,” laughs Sutton, “and glad to see us go.”


Figuring Out Solutions

     Stafford Consulting Engineers began by focusing on roofing. Its first clients were primarily public school systems. As the company grew, it expanded from roofing to focus on all the elements in the “building envelope,” including walls, windows, doors, above and below grade waterproofing.

     The building envelope, as defined by the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code, is what separates the building from unconditioned space. The building envelope serves as a building’s “outer shell” to help maintain the indoor environment. Today Stafford is one of the limited number of consulting firms in the country devoted exclusively to providing solutions to building envelope issues, such as the control of moisture and air flow.

     Currently Stafford handles approximately 125 to 150 active products for 50 clients at any one time. While most of its clients are in North or South Carolina, Hurricane Charlie did so much damage to the schools in Florida that Stafford Consulting Engineers gained a strong base in that state and has an office in Jacksonville.

     After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans, Stafford Consulting Engineers provided expert testimony on the roof failure of the Super Dome. The company has written the guidelines and prepared the standard details that are used for U.S. Army Reserve Centers worldwide and also provides roof design services for Shriners Hospitals nationwide.

     When a new roof system at Orlando Airport showed widespread cracking, Stafford evaluated the roof system, using laboratory tests and micro-photographs to determine the cause and depth of the unusual cracking. The company designed the replacement roof system of the Old Charlotte City Hall to meet the requirements of the local historic landmarks commission, while providing a state of the art roof system.

     Stafford serves many school systems, universities and health care facilities, as well as industrial clients, government agencies, architectural and engineering firms, contractors and construction managers, and other commercial entities.

     “People want space and nice-looking buildings,” explains Sutton. “They also want to keep the cost of construction low. The roofs, walls and windows are all potential places for failure. This is more critical than it used to be because of the wider variety of construction materials and procedures.”

     Some buildings are already leaking as they are being dedicated. The National Roofing Contractors Association estimates that 40 percent of all new roofs develop serious problems within one year of installation. Fifty percent of these problems are attributed to poor workmanship, 20 percent poor design, 15 percent poor maintenance, and 10 percent material failures.

     The new Charleston County Courthouse in downtown Charleston, S.C., leaked from the day it opened in 2001. Stafford Consulting Engineers investigated the construction and design and identified extensive problems with the concealed water resisting systems.

     Stafford then designed and administered the contract for the repair work which was completed two years ago. “It looks exactly like it did before,” says Sutton. “But it no longer leaks.”

     Recent Stafford projects include waterproofing and roof system investigations for a major home improvement retailer, as well as some of its retail centers; roof system evaluations and designs for U.S. Army Reserve Center facilities worldwide including Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and Saipan; and building envelope evaluations for Veterans Administration facilities in various parts of the United States. One national apartment management company won’t purchase a new apartment complex until Stafford does an evaluation.


Erecting a Future

     Although the business isn’t recession-proof, Stafford Consulting Engineers has continued to grow within the current economic downturn. Building owners are now trying to extend the life of existing facilities and systems, rather than replacing them. They are also seeking to control energy costs. Building envelope consulting has become a high demand service.

     In June 2011, Stafford was acquired by Terracon, one of the major national consulting firms providing geotechnical, environmental, construction materials and facilities services to clients at local, regional and national levels. With more than 2,700 employees and more than 130 offices nationwide, Terracon is ranked 38 in Engineering News-Record’s 2011 listing of the Top 500 Design Firms.

     “They approached us because they felt that we were the best at what we do,” says Sutton. “They liked the staff and they liked that we have a strong presence in the Carolinas. We are well respected and they believed we could take the lead in their facilities services division.”

     Kevin Langwell, senior vice president of Terracon’s Facilities Engineering Division, said the acquisition of Stafford would provide significant additional resources to provide its clients with total facilities services solutions.

     “Combined with our acquisition of Energy Systems Associations in 2010, and our existing facilities capabilities, we believe we are well equipped to deal with virtually any issue affecting the ability of any facility to operate at optimum performance over an extended life cycle,” declared Langwell.

     As a result of the acquisition by Terracon, Stafford gains the opportunity to expand its work and gain more national clients. It also gains more financial backing and the ability to afford more expensive testing equipment, as well as a chance to develop a solid foundation on which to build staffing.

     Prior to Terracon’s acquisition, Stuart, age 57, was the company’s sole owner. He sees the acquisition as a way to make sure the company survives and prospers. However, while Stafford may acquire a stronger national presence, Sutton is absolutely committed to existing clients.

     “We hope to take the lead for Terracon in this business,” he states, “but be assured, we intend to do this out of Charlotte.”


Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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