What is Architectural Forensics?

The term ‘Architectural Forensics’ varies in definition. In short, it refers to the investigation of the built environment, whether that be in relation to crime and injustice or an investigative process to discover the root cause of damage and deterioration in buildings. Often forensic architects are invited to identify potential issues and advise in how to avoid them. The role of this architect is to remain unbiased, identify issues within construction, determine potential causes and suggest solutions. They are to uncover factual evidence, which may aid in future construction or provide answers to issues associated with a particular built environment.

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Renowned in architectural forensics, Forensic Architecture, established by Architect Eyal Weizman in 2010 uses the built environment itself as a tool in order to investigate a wide array of crimes, including human rights violations and state and corporate violations across the world. With a headquarters in Goldsmiths, University of London, the team is comprised of an array of interdisciplinary team members, including architects, lawyers, filmmakers, investigative journalists and scientists. Pioneering the way to extensive spatial investigations they work alongside a range of environmental justice and human rights groups and non-profit organizations in order to work with select communities that have been affected by both social and political violence and injustice.

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Plume analysis is used by Forensic Architecture. It analyses the movement of clouds released in warfare, such as those that appear after a bomb explodes.. Image Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

The group’s ability to evolve in parallel with our ever-changing technological world has proved beneficial. The widespread availability of digital recording equipment, satellite imaging and data sharing platforms has contributed to its success, with much evidence being used in legal cases in countries such as Germany, Israel, Guatemala, and Greece, instigating multiple citizen tribunals and UN, military, and parliamentary inquiries. These have been exhibited in some cultural and artistic venues, raising awareness and offering answers.

Forensic architecture gives voice to materials and structures, offering a voice to people by translating and disseminating the evidence of the crimes committed against them, whether this be political conflict, border regimes, environmental violence or police brutality. Using varied architectural methods and tools in order to conduct spatial and architectural analysis, the practice studies how space is actually sensitized to the events that take place within it.

There is a principle of forensic investigation called the ‘look hard principle’ - and it claims that every contact leaves a trace. Because many of the crimes that forensic architecture is looking at today happen within cities, happen within buildings, architecture becomes the medium that conserves those traces - Eyal Weizman 

Architectural forensics demonstrates the power of the built environment as a tool for storytelling. Investigations such as ‘The Case of Parvin’ (Pushbacks across the Evros/Meriçriver) commissioned by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights is an example that uses a range of methodologies in order to uncover evidence related to testimonies of detainment and beatings from migrants and refugees crossing the river from Turkey to Greece. Using a range of 3D modeling technologies, geolocation, fieldwork, open-source intelligence, and software development, Forensic Architecture has been able to uncover material to corroborate a particular individual’s testimony and reconstruct her own experience of the ‘pushback’ she faced.

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Digital Reconstruction of a Syrian Torture Prison from the memories of Survivors. Image Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

The Forensic architect is an architect that investigates general building failures, rather than just using the built environment as a tool to uncover evidence of crime and wrong-doing. These individuals are able to understand the symptoms of building failures and are able to actually pursue the initial causes. With an in-depth understanding of materials, they are aware of the way building systems should perform upon construction (although it is to be noted that they also employ engineers for assistance). These systems may include elements such as insulation, rain screens, etc. Following an extensive process to record existing building conditions, they examine original design documents/specifications, review them and research particular manufacturers' requirements in order to assess how the building systems function and interact with one another. The forensic architect is much like a detective carrying out investigative and operative work, noting their findings for the ultimate conclusion.

A forensic architect may utilize the following tools. A borescope can be used to investigate small and enclosed spaces without damaging existing construction. This is shaped like a flexible tube, with both a lens and light source. Videoscopes are often employed, observing and recording building activity, pachometers can be used to measure the thickness/depth of existing concrete cover, and hydrometers are utilized to measure humidity.

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3D Model Depiction of the Bombing of Rafah, Gaza. Image Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

What is fascinating about the process of the forensic architect is that the forensic analysis is not only conducted post-construction phase, it is often applied during design development in order to prevent commonly occurring building operative issues. They are aware of the physics of building materials, how natural forces interact with buildings, how occupants interact with and use buildings, fire resistance, building components, and building systems and functions. Forensic architecture can be a method of quality control and peer review, improving outcomes for completed projects.

Other such companies pioneering the way through the means of forensic investigation in architecture include Hawkins, leaders in forensic investigation. They employ forensic architects in order to investigate issues related to fire/explosions, contamination and pollution, fraud and crime. The analysis benefiting insurance companies, building owners and legal advisors, since potential liability due to defects in the design and construction of buildings can be uncovered and dealt with appropriately. For example, they can reveal the initial causes of condensation and mold, due to thermal bridging.

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The Grenfell Tower Fire, London, 2017. Image Courtesy of Natalie Oxford / Wikicommons CC BY-SA 4.0

As an interdisciplinary team, including civil, structural and geotechnical engineers, they utilize processes such as BIM (Building Information Modeling), use extensive site inspection and documentation and review design drawing and construction specifications in order to assess the overall adequacy of building design and if it sufficiently complies with both planning and building regulations.

Ultimately architectural forensics conduct investigations to determine the cause and origin of particular events, failures and damages. They prepare scopes for remediation, perform evaluations of existing buildings, report and communicate findings and provide any deposition, arbitration, mediation, or testimony. This investigative work can both improve future project delivery and offer justice to victims of wrongdoing. Perhaps this kind of work in an interdisciplinary setting could prove beneficial in disaster mitigation/prevention against calamities such as the Grenfell Tower Fire (2017) and the Sampoong department store collapse (1995)...

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Cite: Rebecca Ildikó Leete. "What is Architectural Forensics?" 18 Jun 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/983759/what-is-architectural-forensics> ISSN 0719-8884

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