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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.

“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.

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“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.

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.

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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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