Flip, Flop, Or Farce? Flip, Flop, or Farce? Unknown Environmental Problems Affect Everyone – Even Architects, Engineers, and Contractors

My television viewing ranges from a lot of Disney Jr. (thanks to the 3 year old), baseball, more kids shows, more baseball, and reality TV. Much of the reality TV is trash, but some shows are pretty good.
We also enjoy some the house fixer-upper shows – like the ones where house flippers buy a home, set about fixing it up, and later sell the home for a tidy profit. But of course, there’s almost always a surprise – hidden structural defects, mold, asbestos, or lead. These problems usually lead to a good bit of bleep, bleep, bleep as they express their surprise, displeasure, and basically ask themselves what they’re gonna do.
I get a kick out of this because, if you’re like me and you watch these shows, you see a lot of these problems coming, and you call it. And sometimes my wife and kids are amused by this, and sometimes they’re not. Kind of like the annoying guy you watch football with that insists on breaking down the offensive and defensive formations before the snap – EVERY PLAY. I usually limit my play calling to hoping we’ll run a flea-flicker, or get REALLY upset when we’re running the option. Les, if you’re reading this, DON’T. RUN. THE. OPTION. It only gives everyone besides you and the team a collective chest pain.
Back to these shows. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see they’re probably going to have an asbestos problem when they pan through and you get a shot of the old 9”x9” floor tile, or anticipate a lead problem when you see they’re about to scrape peeling paint off a hundred and ten year old farm house. But many of these unknown environmental problems are avoidable.
And these are people who flip houses all the time – they renovate older homes. So why should this ever be a surprise? I guess a lot of this is made for TV angst to make the episode’s story more compelling. In our business, the best surprise is no surprise, and dull, uneventful projects are pretty nice. But that doesn’t make for good TV. So I have to think most of these surprises (or at least the initial reaction and drama ) are set up, because more often than not, the job still gets done, and there’s a happy ending at the end of the episode. Of course, that’s not taking into account any accidental exposure to the environmental hazards they’re now having the bleep-fest over.
But for those of us in the environmental hazard abatement, renovation, and demolition field, we should know better, and I suggest that our fellow design professionals and contractors should too. I mean, does anyone in the business not know that you should check for asbestos, lead, and other environmental hazards before starting demolition? And what renovation projects involve zero demolition? Not too many.
And so we also see where architects, engineers, and contractors put themselves and their employees at risk by not evaluating the site for environmental hazards. Here’s where my architect and engineer friends joke and say “that’s what interns are for!” in a way of laughing off the exposure risks. I hate to say it, but some design professionals think only contractors get exposed or injured at the job site. After all, when was the last time you thought about the environmental risks when entering a derelict building, attic, or crawlspace?
pitt theater

What if you found out illegal demolition disturbed friable asbestos in here, and you just walked around in there for 30 minutes? Or one of your employees just came out?

Having said all that, unknown site conditions do exist, and sometimes pose problems despite the best efforts of the project team. Or maybe the project scope changes, and in the rush to complete the work, no one checks the materials that previously weren’t going to be disturbed by the work.
a mix of low and high tech tools can take you a long way

a mix of low and high tech tools can take you a long way

Sadly, to some, environmental problems don’t exist as long as no one tells them. But when they’re notified of the presence of asbestos containing flooring under the carpet they’ve been ripping up, or lead in the paint they’ve been scraping, you’d think they’d been exposed to radiation. Or they act like they’ve never run across mold before. At this point, I sometimes like to ask what they do on their other projects when no one raises the issue. They usually giggle like a kid caught stealing cookies and mumble something unintelligible, or they just look at me like I just tried to explain the infield fly rule.
Do you want this lurking behind your walls?

Mold like this doesn’t need to be a surprise on your projects

How do we change this? Some would say (and I don’t entirely disagree) that architects, engineers, and contractors are professionals and should know better, and should act to avoid these problems. That’s fine – but that doesn’t prevent the unexpected exposures that occur for whatever reason. So I’d suggest educating our people (yes, even you, my fellow design professionals), and using a project checklist may help. We’ve developed a general project checklist, and if you’d like a copy, email me and I’ll send it to you.
Stay safe, my friends.
And remember, if you need help:
Wynn's a good guy to have around if you like corny jokes and want to solve mold problems

Wynn’s a good guy to have around if you want to solve environmental problems