Matthew Fox thermo image

Matthew Fox

A thermal image of a house being surveyed.

Thermal imaging to explore building defects

Plymouth University

Plymouth University researcher Matthew Fox has been working with two Cornish businesses to explore how thermal imaging can detect significant defects in houses.  

Supported by the ESF (European Social Fund) Convergence Programme, Matthew has been working in partnership with the housing association DCH and with RTP Surveyors, which has offices in Falmouth and Bodmin. It is the first time DCH and RTP Surveyors have used thermography to identify weak points in the thermal shell of buildings.  

Matthew’s research has investigated the different thermography methodologies available for inspecting building defects, including the traditional walk-through thermography, time-lapse thermography and pass-by thermography. This has involved examining over 100 residential dwellings in Devon and Cornwall to search for building defects using each of the methodologies.  

Matthew found that there is no one methodology that fits all defects or situations. The most common methodology, walk-through thermography only captures one stationary moment in time so therefore ignores the effects of changeable climatic conditions.  

Matthew explained: “With the ability to detect unexpected and sometimes hidden building heat losses, thermography is a really good technology for this. However fluctuations in weather conditions can adversely impact upon results. To mitigate this limitation, one aspect of our research has been using time-lapse thermography, which permits the observation of thermal changes in materials over a prolonged period of time. By better understanding the effects of weather conditions on materials through the use of time-lapse thermography, this research has shown that building defects can be more accurately diagnosed compared with other methodologies.”

Sue Wilton, Practice Manager, RTP Surveyors, said: “We have been able to explore thermography options with some of our clients experiencing dampness problems in their buildings and condensation issues, as well as consider the scope for some refurbishments. Results have been interesting and raised ‘hidden’ features within buildings, giving us a focus of additional areas to explore.”  

In Cornwall there is a significant stock of existing buildings that need to be thermally upgraded in order to increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, improve the quality of life of the occupants and help with fuel poverty.  

Matthew’s work has started to develop a methodology matrix, which will help other thermographers to make improved decisions when selecting a thermography methodology for a particular defect or situation.  

Knowledge and project outcomes will be disseminated throughout the Cornish construction industry in order to help raise awareness of thermography as a viable survey and analysis tool.  

Matthew is hoping to obtain post-doctoral research to continue his work in this field. He also plans on returning in some capacity to architecture, which was his background prior to starting this project: “This PhD has greatly strengthened my knowledge and understanding of thermally significant defects, it has also given me the platform to apply my construction knowledge as an architect in a completely new way and is opening the eyes of other professionals in the industry to new methods of assessing buildings and defects using infrared rather than visual analysis.”