Collapsing building © Daniel FriedmanThe Fear-o-Meter
How building testing & inspection clues add up to a risk assessment & an action plan

  • FEAR-O-METER - CONTENTS: how to weigh building observations in assessing risks & how to decide when invasive, destructive or other investigation methods are justified. How to determine & report the probability of a costly or expensive building or building environmental problem.
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Levels of severity or "fear" associated with inspetion observations can help determine what to do next.

Building damage or hazard general risk assessment helps decide on actions to be taken: this fear-o-meter article describes how a building inspector or forensic investigator collects evidence that then cross thresholds of reporting or action.

This "worry-threshold" approach explains how the the investigator must report or act appropriately to her or his overall assessment of the level of risk. We include a discussion of the Fear-o-meter (the varying level of worry about the implications of clues observed at a building, and Dan's 3-Ds, describing how we set priority of repairs at a building.

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The Fear-o-Meter: Using a Promotion Theory of Observations To Detect, Investigate Further, or Report Building Defects & Hazards

Enviro scare curve of fear vs time (C) Daniel FriedmanWhat is the Building Inspection Thought Process?

Our graph at left, discussed at ENVIRO-SCARE - PUBLIC FEAR CYCLES, illustrates that while some fears about high costs or unsafe conditions in or around buildings are more real than others, in general public anxiety about all of these topics varies over time.

Definition of Type I Errors & Type II Errors for Building Investigations

The purpose of describing a procedure for translating forensic or building observations into action thresholds is to improve the accuracy of the investigator's conclusions while at once avoiding unnecessary costs of either Type I Error mistakes or Type II Error mistakes.

An example of a Type II Error in which the property owner was incensed that the patterns on his garage ceiling were not in fact toxic black mold is discussed at BASKETBALL MOLD SYNDROME - BBMS.

Steps in a Building Investigation

The following steps describe what most competent inspectors actually do in the course of examining a building for evidence of these costly or dangerous defects. The inspector takes these steps, roughly in this order:

1. make observations

2. consider implications

3. evaluate interactions among components and systems

4. weigh risks and probabilities of a potential defect - levels of fear

5. collect more data which increases or decreases level of concern (fear)

6. continue until the observations (fear) force the defect across thresholds of reporting

7. make recommendations

Four Point Fear-O-Meter: Simplified Building Defect or Hazard Reporting Thresholds

Asbestos pipe insulation in poor condition (C) Daniel FriedmanAs thresholds of reporting or action are crossed, the inspector musty report or act appropriately to her or his overall assessment of the level of risk. We pose first a simple four-point fearometer scale, followed for those who prefer, a ten-point fearometer scale.

1. Lowest worry: consider but do not report - premature, keep the observation in mind and continue inspecting

2. Medium fear: report potential defects to client with advice: watch, investigate

3. High fear: report likely defects to client and advise further action

4. Extreme fear: report or find and identify virtually certain costly or dangerous conditions

A 10-point Fear-O-Meter Scale

Cosmetic Black Mold on building framing - Daniel Friedman 04-11-01Think in terms of an escalating measure of risk, or a "fear-o-meter" whose needle is moved towards the right - the red "great fear" zone by some observations or towards the left or green or less worrisome "low risk" zone by a series of observations or bits of information obtained during a building inspection.

Our photo (left) shows "black mold" that can be quite scary to lots of people. But in some cases what's thought to be harmful "toxic black mold" (BLACK MOLD, TOXIC & ALLERGENIC) may only be a harmless, cosmetic growth on lumber (BLACK MOLD, HARMLESS) - a discovery that means that with additional expert assistance a fearometer may swing back down from a high reading to a low one.

What's the fear? It's that we fail to detect a condition that, when discovered, will be expensive to correct, or we fail to detect a condition at a building that is an immediate threat to life and safety (risk of collapse, improper use of chemicals) - in this case confined to the topic of insect damage. (Obviously other building-related safety topics must not be ignored during any building inspection.)

Collapsing building © Daniel FriedmanAs you collect visual data and interpret it along with historical data (repair history, leak history, age of property, history of modifications) about the site and building along with environmental data about the area (zone of high or low insect risks) your fear-o-meter pointer moves back and forth, crossing action thresholds.

Other events that disclose hidden damage under normal use and passage (walking on a surface, touching it with a finger or pencil or pen, operating a control intended for homeowner use, flipping a switch, opening an access cover or panel are normal activities that, even if they then result in damage (finger goes through the side of a joist, walking on a roof and falling through rotted roof sheathing), those are not types of damage for which the inspector should be held liable.

As we describe at CONTEXTUAL CLUES Can Expose "Hidden" Defects, Sometimes we can peg the Fear-o-Meter at 10 even without invasive methods. Inspecting an aluminum sided building built on unknown foundation materials as its floor appears to be slab on grade, with no access beneath the building, and with exterior siding that extends below ground level, and with buckled, bulged siding at the bottom of the wall almost certainly means that the building sills and possibly its lower wood framed walls have been structurally damaged by rot or insects or both.

Articles discussing use of the Fear-o-Meter include

Contextual Clues Can Expose "Hidden" Defects

Buckled aluminum siding at ground level means sill rot (C) Daniel FriedmanContextual clues, subtle little defects, visual or other anomalies, modifications, historical data, and site conditions may later suggest the presence of a costly or dangerous problem at probability high enough to justify a warning to the client even when there is no unequivocal, directly visible defect.

(Example: very rusty old furnace in basement showing history of recurrent flooding, high risk of failed heat exchanger. Dangerous. Investigate further, reserve funds to replace unit.)

There is considerable argument among building inspectors about whether or not the inspector is obligated to report important building defects that are recognized by inference rather than by obvious simple visual data.

We inspected a house (shown at above left) with no accessible crawl space, a history of roof spillage around the foundation, trees close to the house, aluminum siding and framing below grade, and a bulged first course of aluminum siding all around the home. Anyone familiar with how aluminum siding is placed on a building knows that you start from the first or bottom course and hang siding up the wall.

There is no way you could install a bulged first course. The bulge had to happen later - in this case from building settlement on crushing, rotted, or insect- damaged wood sills and floor framing. Yet outside there was no visible evidence of rot or insect damage to the house sills, since they were not visible (without invasive measures not part of a normal home inspection.).

The FEAR-O-METER pegged at 10.

The realtors present at this case study, and some of the building inspectors all argued that since one could not personally see a framing problem, there was nothing that should be reported. This camp argued that reporting a costly building damage condition was mere speculation.

I agree - that it is speculation, but I'd call it "informed" speculation. If the collection of contextual clues crosses a sufficient threshold of risk, such items should be reported. And of course, as most readers will suspect, later removal of siding showed very extensive sill and floor joist framing damage from termites and rot. At $100./linear foot just for sill repairs, this was a very costly problem that needed to be brought to the attention of the building buyer and owner.

Weighing the Risks in Deciding What To Report

Weigh the risk of angry realtor who feels that you should not be thinking so carefully about hard-to-see defects, or embarrassment of being mistaken by warning of a potential hazard against the risk of someone's injury or in the case of collapsing septic and cesspool systems, dangerous chimneys and flues, carbon monoxide and combustion air problems (can't see that one can you?), or even mundane falling hazards, there is risk of serious injury or even death!

How to Set Priorities for Building Repairs: - Dan's 3-D's

How do we cope with the quantity of details which present themselves? Focus attention on the high-risk topics.

When is the Building In Control of the Expenditure of the Client's Money?

Here are the classes of findings which deserve highest priority of attention. This little list can help the inspector and the inspector's client sort through the large volume of clues and "findings" that will be produced by any careful inspection of a building. For the following three items, the "building is in control of the client's money" in the sense that items in all three categories really need to be addressed promptly.

1. Things that are Dangerous [3]

2. Things causing rapid, costly Damage

3. Things that are essential that Don't Work [4]

Maintain this focus. Distinguish between what is potentially important (costly, dangerous, doesn't work) and what is not only unimportant (on a cost and risk scale), but can be a dangerous distraction. Don't waste energy, and don't mislead your client by permitting the client to think that the purpose of your inspection was to find defects.

When is the Client in Control of the Expenditure of the Client's Money?

Correcting other defects may be highly desirable, may make a building more economical to operate, or more comfortable, but they may be elective in that the client can decide when these expenses are to be incurred.

If a building has no insulation, the inspection and report need to point that defect out, and significant cost may be involved in its remedy. But delaying the installation of insulation means higher heating or cooling costs, not that the building is suddenly unsafe or deteriorating rapidly (excluding the freezing pipe problem in freezing climates). So this is an example of an item which, while important, can be deferred.

You may point out minor defects, as a courtesy or even as an added service, but keep yourself and your client focused on the purpose of the inspection: to reduce the chances of a costly or very dangerous surprise. Otherwise both you and your client will be very sorry later. Explain this focus to your client.

Isn't this what you're already doing? Then why talk about it?


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