FM Frequency: Elementary, My Dear Watson (Part 1)

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the October 2008 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

Readers of this magazine probably appreciate the old cliché, “facility managers (fms) wear many hats.” In the course of a normal week (recognizing that “normal” can be a relative term), we might wear a hard hat to Monday’s construction meeting, a hairnet during Wednesday’s health department inspection, and a cowboy hat while hog tying a cube-rustling department head on Friday.

With our Sherlock Holmes hats (pipe and magnifying glass optional, but highly recommended), fms become detectives: dutifully posing questions, studiously observing circumstances, quietly discovering clues, patiently collecting evidence, and expertly solving multi-faceted facility riddles. Blessed with superior deductive reasoning and exceptional logic, and armed with a mental toolbox overflowing with priceless experience, the fm detective should not be confused with the fm magician who—with top hat, cape, wave of wand, and puff of smoke—can miraculously pinch 60 new staffers in a 20′ x 10′ conference room in under 24 hours.

Last week, I became an fm detective when a colleague and old friend (let’s call him Watson) called about a mold problem in his client’s facility. Watson is an environmental engineer and specializes in soil studies, groundwater contamination, site remediation, and regulatory consulting. He’s a well respected “dirt guy” and is generally familiar with mold concerns, but he wanted to know how a seasoned fm would approach a mold investigation.

After rejecting my initial suggestion ($450 per hour fee with a 12 hour minimum), he agreed to lunch and a milkshake in exchange for a little advice. As Watson headed toward the site, I quizzed him about the facility to find out what he’d been told about the problem.

Now in a slight twist to our typically amusing and informative FM Frequency rendezvous, this month I’m going to encourage readers to play along at home as interactive, virtual fm detectives. Go ahead and don your favorite trench coat, deerstalker, and pipe; I’ll wait. Um, hold it. I love the pearl grip on that antique pistol, but it won’t be necessary. This is a virtual project with “virtually” no danger. Also, please don’t light the pipe; we’ll be sniffing for mold.

OK, now that we all look like geeks—I mean serious investigators—we need to think like detectives. I’ll summarize what we know based on Watson’s phone call. Please read carefully, because an assignment will follow at the conclusion of this column:

  1. The facility is a small (but exclusive and high dollar) rental cottage (about 1,000 square feet) used by vacationers, typically three days to three weeks per visit.
  2. It’s located in the Carolinas (within 10 miles of the Atlantic Ocean) and is less than five years old.
  3. There is a standing seam metal roof and stone chimney with a wood burning fireplace.
  4. The building has wood framing, pre-engineered (wood) roof trusses, operable windows, gutters, (horizontal) wood siding, and is on a 36″ tall crawl space.
  5. It has central heating and cooling and is fully furnished with two bedrooms, a living room, and a small kitchen with residential grade appliances
  6. Interior walls are painted drywall. The floor and vaulted ceiling are both surfaced with 2″ wide, pre-finished oak paneling
  7. There is an attic space between the finished ceiling and the standing seam metal roof.
  8. The owner hasn’t noticed any leaks from the roof or around doors or windows.
  9. Black mold spores are visible (and widespread) all over the finished ceiling inside the space.
  10. The owner is very concerned and wants the problem eliminated immediately and at any cost.

This is all Watson knows while preparing for his site visit! Do we smell a smoking gun (or is that a pipe)? Do we have advice and recommendations for my old friend? Do additional questions need to be answered before making a diagnosis? What equipment or instrumentation should Watson consider bringing on the site visit? What specifically should he investigate? How should we recommend eliminating the mold? Have any of us experienced a similar problem?

Since Today’s Facility Manager column deadlines are notoriously fast and furious (and November is just around the corner), I’ll plan to summarize reader feedback and share the collective conclusion in December’s FM Frequency offering. Stay tuned.

Are there any prizes for great reader responses? Why elementary, my dear friends! The very best responses will receive a complimentary subscription to TFM for 2009!

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.