Where There's Smoke There May Be Fire

I was intrigued by the call from a young woman in distress. "Can you help us?" she implored. "We moved into the condo of our dreams only to discover that our downstairs neighbor is a chain smoker. Every time he lights up, we smell the smoke."

           My name is Cappy Kidd. My partner's name is John Porterfield. We're the energy detectives and it's our job to respond to the call whenever a building has gone berserk.

           We arrived at the scene of the crime, and as is our custom began to survey the situation from the outside in. What a fine four-story multi-family dwelling, clothed in greystone walls and balconies. Inside, what a classic beauty! I could see the dilemma our clients were in. How could you miss with spacious rooms, refinished hardwood floors, marble mantle gracing the discontinued coal-burning fireplace, ceilings nearly ten feet high, stained-glass windows and sunlight streaming in everywhere. The place was a tribute to a bygone era when God was in the details and some renters were truly blessed.

            "We fell in love with this place and had to buy it," our client reiterated. "But with all this smoke, it has become a disaster. We're both nonsmokers and we have a young child." The infant rested easily on her hip. "Isn't there anything that can be done?" My client was truly impressive, a one-armed wonder, hanging onto the baby in one arm on her hip while taking notes, answering the phone, opening up doors and cabinets with the other. I thought for a moment, she could accomplish with one free hand what I could only do with two.

           We got down to work. The neighbor below, the one who smokes, had graciously allowed us access to his apartment. Working on both floors and communicating by broomstick taps and walkie-talkie, we traversed the perimeter of both apartments. Porterfield was waving burning incense like an acolyte while the client and I followed his path from above, our olfactory equipment fully engaged.

           We worked our way through the living room, dining room, study and den. Nothing. Then the walkie-talkie suddenly crackled. "Wow, what's this?" Porterfield chuckled, "I think we've found the problem." He was slightly ahead of us in the kitchen of the apartment below. "You've got to see this."

           We were downstairs in a flash. And there it was. A gaping hole in the ceiling. At some point in time, someone had installed a drop ceiling in the kitchen. When John removed a couple of the cosmetic ceiling tiles he could see above the original plaster ceiling--or what was left of it. Huge patches were missing.            

           We were looking up at the wooden framing members of this roughly 90 year old apartment building. We could see the joists that spanned horizontally and supported the floor above. We could see the wooden studs that formed the walls. More importantly we could see the hollow interconnecting cavities that these framing members created. The wall stud cavities created pathways that probably ran to the very top of the building. After 90 or so years, the wood was dry--very dry--and because rough sawing was the practice of the time, it was also fuzzy.

           In our search for the pathway of cigarette smoke, we discovered a situation that posed an even greater threat to the whole building--the threat of rapid fire spread. Once we pointed out this problem to our clients, they brought it to the attention of the condo board as an issue that needed to be addressed immediately. No such luck. A year later, we hear from our client that the condo board has yet to be convinced to pay for the repairs. Our clients had to fend for themselves.

           The tools and techniques we use to trace energy movement inside of buildings just might be the ticket to solving the mystery of migratory odors. In multi-family dwellings, if you can smell what your neighbors are cooking for dinner, your building has a problem. In the best of circumstances your neighbor is a gourmet cook. Otherwise, where there's smoke, there's ire. And if a fire ever got started in those wall cavities, it would spread, well, like wildfire. (Just last month, I came upon an unfortunate building that had fallen victim to exactly that calamity. I've pictured it below as a reminder that fire in one apartment can reach the next one if not properly sealed.)

A) An open hole in the ceiling of the neighbor's utility closet. B) A huge hole seen from above the drop ceiling in the kitchen.C) The kitchen cabinets are protected and the scaffold is set up to reach above the drop ceiling. D) Viewed from above the drop ceiling, the plaster ceiling is patched with large pieces of sheet-rock. E) The holes get a fire-resistant seal of dryrock taping. F) Taking measures to seal the pathways between apartments can prevent this kind of result, as seen in a different building.

Stay tuned for “The Case of the Hidden Hatchet Job”.