Member Profile: Matthew C. Farmer

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July 20, 2016
Farmer up a ladder
Farmer assisting with temporary stabilization at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Matthew Farmer, a principal at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE), has been active with RCI since 2006. He was featured in the January 25, 2016, edition of Engineering News-Record as a top newsmaker of 2015 for designing the repair of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, damaged a few years earlier in a 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered about 100 miles southeast of DC.

Can you give me a brief overview of what you do in your day-to-day job?

Like many consultants, I do quite a bit of work on individual projects that involve . . . restoration. [I] concentrate on existing buildings primarily, although we do work on new construction projects as well.

What is your favorite part of the job?

I really enjoy getting some of our younger staff out on projects. It’s really rewarding to have them involved and watch them learn.

What is your least favorite part of the job?

Timesheets and invoicing — they’re a necessary evil.

Farmer family in climbing gear
The family that climbs together reaches high places.

How did you end up professionally where you are today?

I started in architecture, switched to structural engineering, then decided to pursue both degrees. In college, I was working for a small engineering firm, and a colleague invited me out [on a] foundation investigation. I just thought that was the coolest thing, to figure out what the problem was and how to fix it. He suggested I talk to WJE.

Can you tell me a little about your involvement in RCI?

I was kind of a reluctant member. For a long time I resisted joining, not for any reason; I was just busy with a lot of other things. Eventually, some of my colleagues at work said I should join. I have to admit it’s been really terrific. I love the Interface magazine. I think that’s one of the better journals out there for our profession. I also really enjoy presenting at the Building Envelope Symposia.

Farmer examining the statue plinth flashing installation at the George Washington Equestrian Monument in Richmond, VA.
Farmer examining the statue plinth flashing installation at the George Washington Equestrian Monument in Richmond, VA.

You’ve worked on designs for a number of historic structures. What, if anything, makes those projects different from other projects?

These unique projects are fun to work on, but the scrutiny can be intense. There are more stakeholders that can really add a layer of complexity to the project. . . . First and foremost, we try to restore over replace, and retain historical fabric. . . . The next best approach is to replace damaged material in kind with new materials. The last approach is using substitute materials to mimic or imitate the historical fabric, often to improve durability or to reduce cost. Our goal is always to develop technically sound and durable solutions for our clients while still honoring and respecting the historical integrity of the project. It can be a win-win.

Can you tell me about an interesting challenge you’ve encountered in your work, and how you overcame it?

I recently worked on a 240-ft tall carillon bell tower, built in 1931. We were asked to assess the exterior enclosure and the structure of the tower. There really wasn’t a cost-effective way to put scaffolding around it, so our engineers used ropes and controlled descent devices that allowed them to examine the tower at close range. It allowed us to get very hands-on, and get a good perspective on the parts that were difficult to see any other way.

Farmer outside building with metal detector
Farmer using a metal detector to find concealed steel elements in the cornice of an historic building site in Richmond, VA.

What kind of technology do you use in assessing damage?

One of the things we’re doing a lot of now is digitizing our observations and doing integrated photographic documentation. We also use ground-penetrating radar to evaluate embedded materials. We also frequently use metal detection and borescopes for looking at concealed conditions. But sometimes, a simple and inexpensive inspection opening will tell you more than you could learn with any of the expensive equipment.

In what way do environmental concerns affect your work?

We always take safety precautions to ensure that we know our folks are going to be safe in [a hazardous] environment. In our restorative work, many of the buildings we work on were built when asbestos or lead-based paint were common, and sometimes [that determines] what we choose to remove. Finding ways to address the hazardous concern and minimize the cost is a challenge that we constantly have in our work.

Farmer, a colleague, and a big broken sheet of glass.
Farmer discussing a window assembly load test with a colleague in the WJE Structures Laboratory.

What drives you?

The thrill of not knowing what’s coming next, what the next phone call’s going to be. . . . It kind of doesn’t matter because every contact is a problem that needs to be solved, and on the other end of the phone is a client that needs to be helped.

What do you do when you’re not on the job?

I have three kids [17 through 23]. I spend a lot of time helping them make their way through life. I also just started doing woodturning, turning bowls and plates. Got a lathe and some chisels, and it’s been a blast. What you can do with the wood and the shapes you can create— I find it super relaxing.

What is one thing most of our readers probably don’t know about you?

I play on a men’s baseball team, and I’m a pretty good shortstop.

If money were no object, how would you spend your time?

I’d spend a lot of time (on the coast of Maine) with my boat.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with RCI’s members?

Stick with RCI. It’s a good organization. [There are] great opportunities to learn from each other.

Editor’s Note: Farmer will be presenting “Playing Against a Stacked Deck: Restoration of a Stone Fin Façade” at RCI’s 2016 Building Envelope Technology Symposium on October 17 in Houston, Texas.