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The symmetry between building and human pathology

We often put our heart and soul into our homes, designing and decorating them to reflect our personality, lifestyle and taste. But even beneath the surface, our properties are just like us.

The popular analogy of buildings as human bodies illustrates how the two are essentially entities composed of systems with different functions. The body has circulatory, muscular, digestive (etc.) systems that have distinctive objectives, yet are not mutually exclusive. Similarly, buildings have electrical, skeletal and waste systems, among others, that also operate together to make the property function. The similarities are endless; and through our understanding of the human body, we can understand the complexity and need to nurture our buildings in the same way.

Some of the examples of the correspondence between the human body and buildings include:

Human bodies/Buildings

  • Skin/Surfaces, walls, doors, roof and windows
  • Neurons and synapses/Electrics
  • Skeleton/Architecture, structure and foundations
  • Veins and arteries/Piping
  • Circulatory system/Heating system
  • Digestive system/Supply 
  • Lymphatic system/Drainage
  • Respiratory system/Ventilation 

The resemblance in our makeup is also evident in the comparison between building pathology and human pathology (hence the name). Human pathology (or simply pathology) refers to a branch of medical science that studies and diagnoses diseases. It marries medicine and science to investigate causes, developments, structural and functional changes, and history so we can both understand and treat diseases [1].

In a similar vein, building pathology also provides the blueprint for care. Building pathology is the study of building ‘diseases’. It adopts a holistic view, exploring defects, decays, performance reduction or failure, and so on to find suitable solutions. Often, when something happens externally to a property, there’s a root cause and building pathology can help establish a remedy to fix the root. This avoids merely treating the symptoms, which are bound to come back again.

If we continue the analogy, visiting the doctor can also be compared to seeking out a home surveyor to identify a problem. Instead of just taking over-the-counter relief, a doctor can help identify what is behind the pain, and this is true of chartered surveyors.

“I always compare a home survey to an appointment at your local GP. If the doctor suspects something serious is going on, they will refer you to a specialist. We do exactly the same thing!” Chris Bloor MRICS

Furthermore, the complexity of the problem determines whether or not the doctor will refer the case to a specialist, or seek out a specific consultant for treatment. If the remedy is simple, the doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics or topical treatment to solve the problem. Likewise, a surveyor may suggest simple steps to fix an issue that’s not considered severe. However, in many cases – as with doctors, specialist advice is required.

For example, if you visit the GP for back pain, you might be referred to a physiotherapist. Similarly, if you complain of a problem with your feet, you might be referred to a podiatrist and so on. When it comes to buildings, a surveyor may be able to identify the root problem, and suggest what needs to be done and who needs to be contacted. For instance, if the surveyor finds mould growth around windows and doors, they may believe this to be related to damp and refer you to a PCA damp specialist. Or if the surveyor encounters structural movement, they will refer you to a building engineer. As we can see, the need for system/area-specific specialist advice extends to both the human body and our properties.

Looking further at the connection between building pathology and human pathology, the analogy extends to nearly all areas of the body and home. In a similar fashion to the comparison between building parts and human body parts, we can compare procedures and remedies for buildings to procedures and remedies for the body.

Vitamin supplements/Wall ties

One of the things surveyors sometimes see is cracks in the brickwork. This often results as a failure of wall ties – commonly referred to as ‘brick ties’ – in the cavity. A lack of wall ties or failure to bring brickwork together, which can come about due to rust accumulated over time, can have serious structural implications if not dealt with. The prognosis of the circumstance would be continued cracks and eventual structural demise. The remedy in this case is simple – new wall ties. Here building pathology helps us to diagnose what is seen on the surface (cracks) as a result of something happening beneath.

We can collate this to skin complaints. For example, skin may appear dull, pale and paper-like, resulting in an overall poor complexion. A doctor may examine your diet and deduce a lack of nutrients needed, such as vitamins D, C, E and K. In respect to this prognosis, the solution may be vitamin supplements, similarly looking beneath the surface to address the problem.

Brain surgery/Electrical rewiring

The brain is the hub of the body, sending signals around to make it function. Electricity is also responsible for sending impulses around the property, whether it’s for lighting, cooking equipment, showers, computers, TV and so on. Like the brain, it makes things function. But like the brain, it can need rewiring.

Electrical problems are some of the most common problems found in a building survey. It may only be a case of replacing parts, but in some circumstances it could require a complete home rewire.  To perform brain surgery, a neurosurgeon is required, who has extensive knowledge in the field. Comparatively – unless you’re a skilled electrician – you’ll also require a specialist’s extensive knowledge to rewire your home, particularly given the gravity of rewiring incorrectly. While we can appreciate that a broken wire is much less severe than an issue with the brain, their respective impacts on buildings and the body demonstrate their connection.

Endoscopy/Borescope cavity inspection

Arguably the most direct comparison; an endoscope is a type of borescope, however it is primarily used on humans and borescopes on mechanical objects. An endoscopy is a nonsurgical procedure performed to look inside the body, usually at the organs involved in the digestive system, and help doctors diagnose diseases. A long thin, flexible tube with a camera attached is inserted through the mouth, or another natural opening, and travels down to the organs.

A borescope cavity inspection acts in a similar way, whereby a drill is used to create a thin hole in a wall and a small camera is inserted to allow the surveyor to see inside. These inspections help determine whether there are voids or snots (blockages) on wall ties, which – as discussed – can cause serious structural damage if they are not working efficiently. A medical endoscopy and borescope cavity inspection are very similar procedures; passing a small camera through a hole to diagnose a problem. They are both non or minimally invasive, and provide instant results.

Casts and splints/Underpinning 

When you break a bone, you head to hospital to have your arm/leg/elbow/collarbone etc. put in a cast or splint, which holds the bones in place until they mend. They also prevent swelling, spasm and general further damage. Particularly bad breaks may require metal pins and plates to secure the bones and keep them in place. Casts and splints, and pins and plates, are designed to realign, hold and protect our bones, ensuring our skeletal frame remains strong. The same is needed if the skeletal frame of our properties begins to break.

The building equivalent to a human skeleton, are the foundations and structure. If a surveyor spots an issue with a property’s foundation, they’re likely to refer you to a structural engineer who can suggest a course of action. This can range from cost effective solutions, such as slab-jacking – otherwise known as concrete levelling, to more robust and expensive methods like underpinning. The latter is used to strengthen and secure foundations – similar to the role of plaster casts on bones. Arguably, it differs from treatment to human bones as it is essentially a process of refilling or adding to foundations, where channels are dug out and filled with concrete. However, the principle of strengthening and supporting the existing frame is still comparable.

Colonoscopy/Drainage survey 

During a home survey, a surveyor may pick up on issues related to drainage problems, such as deposits on walls or cracks in the structure. Or you might have noticed them yourself – gushing gutters, leaks, mildew…improper drainage leads to a lot of issues. To investigate the problem further, you’ll likely need a drainage survey. This involves a comprehensive inspection of pipes located underground that supply the property with water. Pipes may be fractured, leaky or cracked, or there may be blockages, intruding tree roots or collapses in the system. The survey examines the condition of the drainage system and often uses camera equipment – known as CCTV drainage surveys.

The significance of proper drainage is echoed in the human body, where leakage or blockages are less than ideal! If a doctor feels something needs checking, or that symptoms are not resolving on their own, they may send you for a colonoscopy. This procedure is similar to an endoscopy, using a small, thin flexible tube with a camera which is passed through the anus to check the status of the bowels. In some ways, a colonoscopy can be seen as a survey of the human drainage system; checking that there are no blockages, problems, intrusions or collapses of the system.

Bodily matter sampling/Asbestos sampling 

In medicine, blood, stool or other bodily matter samples are taken and sent to laboratories to diagnose an illness. The process is often conducted via a biopsy, excision, swabbing, phlebotomy (such as blood drawn into test tubes) and so on. These samples are often required as an initial step before further medical tests are conducted or treatment is given.

When a surveyor suspects potential contamination in your property, such as asbestos, they may suggest sampling as the next steps. The HSE claims that in cases of asbestos, anyone can conduct sampling if the piece has already broken off, however a UKAS accredited asbestos-testing laboratory must be contacted if this is not the case [2]. The sampling procedure is largely similar to how a bodily sample is treated; the matter is collected by an appropriate method and if necessary by a trained professional, placed into a clean container, labelled and then collected/sent to labs for diagnostics. As in the case of endoscopies and borescope cavity inspections, and colonoscopies and drainage surveys, the symmetry between human and building pathology isn’t just in surgeries and repairs, but in diagnostic procedures too.

While these analogies should be taken with a pinch of salt, they demonstrate how adopting a holistic view of buildings – as with the human body – can help us understand the interconnectedness of different systems on the functioning of the whole. They also show how diagnosing and treating problems can be done in similar ways, with many aspects of building pathology echoed in the practice of medicine and human pathology. So, next time you start to see worrying symptoms in the home, book in to see a GP surveyor!

[1] Funkhouser, W. K. (2009) Pathology: The clinical description of human disease, Molecular Pathology, 197-207

[2] HSE (n.d.) Sampling asbestos materials https://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/managing/sampling.htm