Architect Roger Morse, president of Troy, N.Y.-based building sciences firm Morse Zehnter Associates, won’t be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International in Philadelphia in late June. But he easily could be.

Morse, who will present a seminar called “Confessions of an energy engineer” to teach conference attendees about energy-saving tactics, has a lengthy resume that includes examining water-logged buildings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and a 40-story tower in New York that was contaminated by toxic dust in the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Morse Zehnter develops ways to address such catastrophic problems, and it also specializes in forensic architecture — investigating paint, asbestos or fireproofing materials, among others, connected with legal cases. The company remediates more routine problems caused by mold and water intrusion and studies the “skin” of high-rises, which frequently rely on glass and aluminum to form a lightweight, protective sheath.

Morse, who had early training in physics, believes that this is a watershed moment in building design, and that materials have become so complex that traditional architectural training is no longer sufficient to handle twenty-first century high-rise requirements.

“It used to be that a wall was made out of bricks and mortar, and one person built it. Now, it’s made out of a dozen different kinds of materials and they’re very high tech,” he says. The interior and exterior walls, for example, may use vapor retardants and membranes of various types.

Gypsum board, once a simple building staple, now is available with a smorgasbord of paper or fiberglass coverings that may retard the spread of fire or the growth of mold. The new construction materials include varieties of particleboard and plastic laminates, each with its own chemical content. Sealants, too, have become complex and those intended for high-rises bear little resemblance to the old caulking compounds.

“The problem is that the responsibility for designing this [high-rise] falls on the architect, who is trained as an artist, not as a technician,” says Morse.

“What’s happening right now, it’s a really interesting time in building construction. You have an entirely new discipline emerging; it’s like an engineering science. My prediction is that 10 years from now, architects will universally hire a building scientist as a consultant to help them deal with all these complexities.”

Today, to properly design an outside wall, a designer needs a background in chemistry, physics, materials, and mechanical engineering, Morse says. “You have to be able to perform calculations for vapor diffusion and air infiltration, and you have to know about the expansion and contraction of the materials. You look at the outside of a building, and it looks like a simple thing. But it’s really very complicated.”

After the flood

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Morse and a team rushed to the Gulf Coast to try to rescue flood-damaged buildings. “We were in New Orleans early enough where you had to sleep in the back of a truck and wear snake boots — and bring a Coleman lantern,” he says.

The team worked in a couple of high-rises and two hotels, one a tower in Metairie, La., and the other a 10-story structure in the French Quarter. They crept up and down darkened stairwells with flashlights, and hooked up generators to try to start the elevators. At a historic restaurant in the Garden District, an old Southern building with clapboards over wood studs, the high winds and pouring rain drove water right through the walls.

In some structures, the gale-force winds peeled off all the gaskets holding the glass to the outside of the building, so water poured in and caused extensive damage.

Morse can relay many stories from his investigations, case studies and travels, but he promises that BOMA conference goers who attend his energy seminar on June 29 will come away with more than enough cost-saving tips and strategies to make their trip worthwhile.

The BOMA conference runs June 28-30 and includes discussions on finding market opportunities in the global credit crisis, a keynote presentation by author Fareed Zakaria on how global economic trends affect commercial real estate, and seminars on several topics, such as maximizing asset values.