Construction forensic specialist nails down problems

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Aram Boghosian Photo for The Boston Globe

Von Salmi, a construction forensic specialist, checks the density of a home’s wood paneling with a knife while also looking for mold, color changes on surfaces, and flaws in paint coverage at a home in Newton.

Whodunit?

Bullet fragments, bloodstains, and DNA samples are the clues for crime investigators. But for construction forensics specialists like Von Salmi, telltale signs can range from a bit of mold or a rotten baseboard, often symptomatic of a bigger issue.

Instead of solving grisly murders, Salmi, of Von Salmi & Associates in Westminster, is on the trail of sloppy contractors or incompetent subcontractors, trying to determine why a homeowner is facing catastrophic failures – such as flooding, construction defects or roofing problems – in a new home or following a renovation. He’s also hired as an expert witness in arbitration and litigation cases.

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“Many people are at the point of last resort; they don’t have a lot of money to retain an attorney, so they have me investigate, identify the problem, and recommend the proper fix,” said Salmi.

Salmi, a former building contractor, said one of his most unusual cases was when he was called to look at a large coastal home in southeastern Massachusetts. A million dollars worth of landscaping had been installed but shriveled away a month later.

“Everyone looked at every reason under the sun – problem soil, infection, and other causes – but it wasn’t clear why all the plants died,” said Salmi. He carefully studied all the fragments of information and saw a pattern developing, and ultimately discovered salt water in the well.

“No one thought to check the well water,” said Salmi, who said ultimately, it was determined that the landscape company was liable.

Q: Could this make a good reality show series – the CSI of the construction world?

A: Certainly, I think all of us can identify with the multitude of issues. Some issues seem small, but are actually indicators of a larger problem. If a front door doesn’t close, the homeowner might think the paint is sticking, but actually there might be rotting door sills, and a whole new set of complications arises.

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Q: Has there been an increased need for your services?

A: During building booms, more inexperienced contractors enter the marketplace, resulting in sub-par work. It takes time for defects to manifest themselves, but I think in the next 5-10 years, you’ll start to see more people facing interior moisture, water penetration in foundations, and HVAC concerns.

Q: What cutting-edge forensic tools do you use?

A: I use tools like infra-red scanners and thermometers, Swiss hammers, and boiler door tests, and other devices. These are all ways of measuring and detecting temperature, properties or strength of materials.

Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: My brother-in-law was a lawyer, and he was having some troubles with a builder who was a client. He asked me if I would look at some of the concerns and verify their validity. I came in, did a report, and was able to resolve the case. I enjoyed the detail work and discovery process, combined with the satisfaction of seeing physical things being built. It was a natural extension of the contracting work I did for many years.

Q: As a forensic investigator, do you have a Sherlock Holmes detective cap and pipe?

A: No. I don’t smoke, and I have to waive the hat because I’m follically challenged.

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