Lab microscope and camera (C) Daniel FriedmanForensic Investigation Tools & Methods
Forensic engineering, forensic microscopy & photography aid in building & environmental investigation & diagnosis

  • FORENSIC INVESTIGATION of BUILDINGS - CONTENTS: tools, methods, classes & references for the forensic investigation of building or building-related contaminants, defects, failures & hazards
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about the forensic investigation of contaminants, defects or failures of buildings, building components, or the building indoor environment

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This article series aids building inspectors & building failure investigators & indoor environmental investigators with access to tools & methods useful across a range of disciplines ranging from forensic engineering & building inspections types of laboratory test methods and forensic microscopy.

While some of the forensic methods and microchemistry used in these techniques have their origins in criminal forensic investigative methods, our focus is not on crime but on buildings and the indoor environment.

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Building Failures & Indoor Environment Investigation Tools, Methods, & References

Article Contents

Definition of Forensic Investigation of Buildings & the Building-Environment

The detection diagnosis, and identification of the cause, effects, and thus possible remedy of building defects or failures and of building-related environmental complaints or hazards using physical evidence and scientifically and mathematically sound methods, guided by a sufficiently-broad investigation scope as to reasonably-assure that key factors are not excluded.

The terms forensic and science imply the forming of opinions through a disciplined approach rather than just speculation. This approach to building investigation includes the disciplined professions such as architecture, engineering, chemistry, professional home inspection, as well as science, mathematics, and forensic microscopy but also the wealth of diagnostic information arising from the various building trades.

Experienced building failure and indoor environmental complaint investigators, and even home inspectors and contractors of more humble scope are likely to agree that in any such investigation (why did the foundation crack, why did one section of my roof blow off, why does my house smell, why is my basement wet, why does my heat keep going off) the most effective forensic investigation approach will combine at least the following:

Client & site information: the building forensic investigator conducts a careful interview of the building owners, occupants, or clients to understand the concern or complaint, and to consider, without pre-determined prejudice or conclusion, the observations of the client or others. Checklists, data logs, and similar documents can assist in this step.

Collapsing building © Daniel FriedmanBuilding construction materials, site conditions, and event history: by visual inspection and where available consultation of appropriate documentation, the building investigator considers the individual and the interrelated effects of the building's materials, site, exposure, architecture, and maintenance history.

For cases in which the known problem is not patently obvious, or where the investigator is open to discovery of less evident but important contributors to a building failure or environmental complaint, this process, especially when informed by information about the site & from client above, can identify targets for more in-depth or perhaps invasive inspection and testing.

Building & environmental physical measurements & tests where appropriate, such as tests of materials, contents, or samples that are conducted to identify contaminants, to study material failures, etc. However reliance on blind tests alone, without the other steps above, is likely to give unreliable results.

Diagnosis & recommendations: based on all of the information gathered, the forensic investigator constructs, tests, documents, and then provides a reasoned explanation of the cause, effect, and possibly the recommended remedy for the building or building environment concern under investigation.

Other Definitions of Forensic Investigation

As will be readily evident from formal definitions of fields of non-criminal-related or police forensic investigation work given below, the definition of forensic science and building investigation are somewhat confusing, sometimes contradictory, and often narrowly drawn to legal concerns or to confine its scope to performance within a specific profession. This narrowing is necessary for certain fields of investigation, particularly legal work. The more narrow definitions below also appear to reflect the protection of the turf of some practitioners.

Forensic Science

The application of scientific knowledge and methodology to legal problems and criminal investigations. - 11/15/2013

Forensic Architecture

The presentation of spatial analysis within the contemporary legal and political forums. Their practice combines the principles of property surveying, structural engineering, the physics of blast forces and the chemistry of composite materials. The project undertakes research that maps, images, and models sites of violence within the framework of humanitarian law and human rights. - composite adapted from Wikipedia 11/14/13 & the Centre for Research Architecture, Department of Visual Cultures, U.K., 11/14/2013

Forensic Engineering

The investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury or damage to property. - Wikipedia 11/14/2013

The application of the art and science of engineering in matters which are in, or may possibly relate to, the jurisprudence system, inclusive of alternative dispute resolution. - National Academy of Forensic Engineers - NAFE: 1991

Forensic Building Science & Investigation

The investigation, resolution and prevention of construction related defects and ensuing damage. - example drawn from a private engineering firm, 11/14/2013

Forensic Building & Environment Investigation Topics at InspectApedia

Note: try using the InspectApedia search box in the light blue area near page top to find any building or indoor environmental topic inspection, detection, diganosis or repair topic at InspectApedia. CONTACT US if after a search you cannot find information you need.

Building Forensic Inspection & Testing Texts

  • Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction, by Steven Bliss. John Wiley & Sons, 2006. ISBN-10: 0471648361, ISBN-13: 978-0471648369, Hardcover: 320 pages, available from and also See our book review of this publication.
  • BIBLIOGAPHY ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, MOLD, IAQ - our list of key references & citations
  • BOOKSTORE - ENVIRONMENTAL - our list of recommended books, many available online
  • Building Failures, Diagnosis and Avoidance, Ransom, W.H., E. & F.N. Spon, (19877), ISBN 0 419 14260 6
  • Building Pathology, Deterioration, Diagnostics, and Intervention, Samuel Y. Harris, P.E., AIA, Esq., ISBN 0-471-33172-4, John Wiley & Sons, 2001 [General building science-DF] ISBN-10: 0471331724 ISBN-13: 978-0471331728
  • Building Pathology: Principles and Practice, David Watt, Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition (March 7, 2008) ISBN-10: 1405161035 ISBN-13: 978-1405161039
  • Construction Drawings and Details, Rosemary Kilmer
  • Dampness in Buildings, Diagnosis, Treatment, Instruments, Oxley,T.A., & Gobert E.G., Butterworths (1987), ISBN 0-40801463-6
  • Decks and Porches, the JLC Guide to, Best Practices for Outdoor Spaces, Steve Bliss (Editor), The Journal of Light Construction, Williston VT, 2010 ISBN 10: 1-928580-42-4, ISBN 13: 978-1-928580-42-3, available from
  • Diagnosing & Repairing House Structure Problems, Edgar O. Seaquist, McGraw Hill, 1980 ISBN 0-07-056013-7 (obsolete, incomplete, missing most diagnosis steps, but very good reading; out of print but used copies are available at, and reprints are available from some inspection tool suppliers). Ed Seaquist was among the first speakers invited to a series of educational conferences organized by D Friedman for ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors, where the topic of inspecting the in-service condition of building structures was first addressed.
  • Design of Wood Structures - ASD, Donald E. Breyer, Kenneth Fridley, Kelly Cobeen, David Pollock, McGraw Hill, 2003, ISBN-10: 0071379320, ISBN-13: 978-0071379328
    This book is an update of a long-established text dating from at least 1988 (DJF); Quoting:
    This book is gives a good grasp of seismic design for wood structures. Many of the examples especially near the end are good practice for the California PE Special Seismic Exam design questions. It gives a good grasp of how seismic forces move through a building and how to calculate those forces at various locations. THE CLASSIC TEXT ON WOOD DESIGN UPDATED TO INCLUDE THE LATEST CODES AND DATA. Reflects the most recent provisions of the 2003 International Building Code and 2001 National Design Specification for Wood Construction. Continuing the sterling standard set by earlier editions, this indispensable reference clearly explains the best wood design techniques for the safe handling of gravity and lateral loads. Carefully revised and updated to include the new 2003 International Building Code, ASCE 7-02 Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures, the 2001 National Design Specification for Wood Construction, and the most recent Allowable Stress Design.
  • Building Failures, Diagnosis & Avoidance, 2d Ed., W.H. Ransom, E.& F. Spon, New York, 1987 ISBN 0-419-14270-3
  • Domestic Building Surveys, Andrew R. Williams, Kindle book,
  • Defects and Deterioration in Buildings: A Practical Guide to the Science and Technology of Material Failure, Barry Richardson, Spon Press; 2d Ed (2001), ISBN-10: 041925210X, ISBN-13: 978-0419252108. Quoting:
    A professional reference designed to assist surveyors, engineers, architects and contractors in diagnosing existing problems and avoiding them in new buildings. Fully revised and updated, this edition, in new clearer format, covers developments in building defects, and problems such as sick building syndrome. Well liked for its mixture of theory and practice the new edition will complement Hinks and Cook's student textbook on defects at the practitioner level.
  • Guide to Domestic Building Surveys, Jack Bower, Butterworth Architecture, London, 1988, ISBN 0-408-50000 X
  • How Buildings Work, The Natural Order of Architecture, Allen, Edward, Oxford University Press (1980),ISB N 0-19-214952-6 (Great Britain)
  • Surveying Buildings, 2d Ed, Hollis, Malcolm, Surveyors Publications (1986), ISBN 0 85406 289 0
  • Troubleshooting Guide to Residential Construction, The Diagnosis and Prevention of Common Building Problems, Bliss Steven, Ec., The Journal of Light Construction (Eds.), Builderberg Group (1997), IS BN 0-9632268-4-3

Articles & Products

  • "A Foundation for Unstable Soils," Harris Hyman, P.E., Journal of Light Construction, May 1995
  • "Avoiding Foundation Failures," Robert Marshall, Journal of Light Construction, July, 1996 (Highly recommend this article-DF)
  • Avongard foundation crack progress chart for structural crack monitoring
  • "Backfilling Basics," Buck Bartley, Journal of Light Construction, October 1994
  • "Inspecting Block Foundations," Donald V. Cohen, P.E., ASHI Reporter, December 1998. This article in turn cites the Fine Homebuilding article noted below.
  • "When Block Foundations go Bad," Fine Homebuilding, June/July 1998

Texts on Microscopy, Microchemistry, Particle Identification

  • Art, Biology, and Conservation: Biodeterioration of Works of Art, Robert J. Koestler, Victoria H. Koestler, A.Elena Charola, Fernando E. Nieto-Fernandez, Editors, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002, ISBN 1-58839-107-8 [special thanks to Ulrik Runeberg, Conservator, Laboratorio de Conservacion y Restauracion de Pintura y Escultura, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, for providing this superb text to our lab.]
  • Asbestos Identification, Walter C. McCrone, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago, 1980, ISBN 0-904962-11-3
  • "Asbestos Floor Tile, Examination of, by White Light Interference Microscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy," James R. Millett, R.S. Brown, W.M. Ewing, & T.A. Dawson, The Microscope, Vol. 50:4, 2002, pp. 173-178, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago, IL
  • Dust, The Secret Life of, Hannah Holmes, John Wiley & Sons 2001, ISBN 0-471-37743-0
  • Fibers, Microscopy of Textile, P.H. Greaves, B.P. Saville, Bios Scientific with the Royal Microscopical Society, 1995, ISBN 1-872748-24-4 (RMS Microscopy Handbook #32)
  • Forensic Microscopy, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago, course notes, exercises, tables, appendices
  • Hair: "The Basic Structure of Hair," Hair identification manual, John W. Hicks, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice, 1977
  • Handbook of Chemical Microscopy, Volume I, 4th ed., Clyde Walter Mason, John Wiley & Sons 1983, ISBN 0-471-57531-3
  • Handbook of Chemical Microscopy, Volume II, 2nd ed., Emile Monnin Chamot & Clyde Walter Mason, McCrone Research Institute 1989 (republication), ISBN 0-471-57531-3
  • Particle Manipulation: "An Organized Approach to Isolating and Mounting Small Particles for Polarized Light Microscopy," Anna Teetsov, The Microscope, Vol. 50, 4th Quarter, 2002, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago, 2000 [periodical]
  • Polarized Light Microscopy, Walter C. McCrone, Lucy B. McCrone, John Gustav Delly, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago, 1984, ISBN 0-250-40262-9
  • Polymers: "Polymer Identification by Microscopical Dispersion Staining," Stephen A. Skirius, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago
  • The Microscopical Characters of Artificial Inorganic Solid Substances: Optical Properties of Artificial Minerals, Alexander Newton Winchell, Horace Winchell, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago 1989
  • The Optical Properties of Organic Compounds, 2nd ed., Alexander N. Winchell, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago 1987 (republication)

Building Forensic Inspection & Testing Tools & Equipment

Thermography images courtesy Paul Probett (C) InspectApediaPhoto at left, demonstrating thermal imaging by Paul Probett, is discussed at THERMAL IMAGING, THERMOGRAPHY

Building & Environmental Investigation Forensic-level Education

Forensic Science & Forensic Engineering

  • National Academy of Forensic Engineering (NAFE), Contact: Marvin M. Specter, P.E., L.S., F.NSPE, Hon.M.ASCE, Executive Director NAFE, 174 Brady Avenue Hawthorne, NY 10532, Tel: 866.NAFEORG, Email: nafe@nafe.orgWebsite:
    [Focus appears to be on automotive accident investigation but the association aptly points out the shorcomings of any sort of forensic investigation performed by individuals who have only rudimentary training and education in the appropriate sciences and mathematics.] Note this NAFE definition of forensic engineering which is considerably more focused than our own:

    Forensic Engineering “ defined as; —the application of the art and science of engineering in matters which are in, or may possibly relate to, the jurisprudence system, inclusive of alternative dispute resolution.“
    - National Academy of Forensic Engineers - NAFE: 1991
  • The Forensic Engineering Curriculum Committee sets curriculum recommendations for universities & colleges offering a forensic engineering degree. There are numerous such programs, perhaps first approached by a simple web search or by contacting the FECC.
  • Forensic Architecture Centre for Research Architecture, Department of Visual Cultures Goldsmiths, University of London 8 Lewisham Way London SE14 6NW United Kingdom General Project Enquiries T: +44 (0)20 7078 5387
  • CONTACT us to recommend listing. No fees are involved.

Forensic Microscopy

  • McCrone Research Institute, 2820 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago IL 60616-3230, Website:, Email: (Focus is on education; disclosure: numerous courses attended by the author - DF)
  • The McCrone Group, 850 Pasquinelli Drive, Westmont, IL 60559, Tel: 630-887-7100, Website:, no email (Microanalysis, materials characterization, instrument sales, and education), this organization maintains Walter McCrone's original McCrone Atlas of Microscopic Particles and provides an online microscopy journal

Watch out: there can be public confusion between these two McCrone organizations, both stemming from the same original root.

Home Inspection Education

Building & Environmental Forensic Investigation Supplies

  • IAQ & Mold Testing Instruments
  • Microchemistry
    • Judy and Don Doje, Doje's Forensic Supplies, P.O. Box 500, Ocoee, FL 34761
  • Microscopy

InspectAPedia is an independent publisher of building, environmental, and forensic inspection, diagnosis, and repair information provided free to the public - we have no business nor financial connection with any manufacturer or service provider discussed at our website.  We are dedicated to making our information as accurate, complete, useful, and unbiased as possible: we very much welcome critique, questions, or content suggestions for our web articles. Working together and exchanging information makes us better informed than any individual can be working alone.

Opinions here are the responsibility of the author. Most of this material has been subject to ongoing peer review but is without any professional engineering analysis. Building inspections may include the discovery of defects involving life, safety, and significant costs. Building inspectors who are not both qualified and certain of the authoritative basis of their conclusions should obtain their own expert advice from qualified experts.

This work is also based on the author's construction & inspection experience, training, research, and survey of material from ASHI, and from N. Becker, R. Burgess, J. Bower, D. Breyer, A. Carson, J. Cox, A. Daniel, M. Lennon, R. Peterson, J. Prendergast, W. Ransom, D. Rathburn, E. Rawlins, E. Seaquist, and D. Wickersheimer. Some useful citations are in the article above and at REFERENCES.

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