What is a Critical Observation Report?

Columbus Chamber
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Member Insights by Sam Rosenthal, AIA, LEED AP; Schooley Caldwell

As a young child I lived on Long Island, and every Friday my mother and I would ride the train into NYC to meet up with my father. I felt like I was always surrounded by tall buildings and amazing structures that carried trains into the ground and way up into the air. We went to Temple every Saturday morning and then afterwards we would go into the heart of Manhattan for adventure and Dim Sum. I was always seeing scaffolding on one big building or another.

As I got older I figured out that I wanted to be part of making big buildings and big places for people. What I never really thought about until I became an architect was what was really happening with all that scaffolding around those old buildings.

Architects are licensed by the state to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public in and around the buildings we design. One of the ways we do this is by inspecting existing buildings, and many cities have regulations in place (sometimes called façade ordinances) to keep people safe by requiring building inspections and repairs every few years. In Columbus, this is accomplished with the Critical Observation Report, which is required every five years.


Simply put, for the safety of pedestrians. Thankfully, it’s not very common for pieces of a building to break off and fall to the ground, but it does happen. There are several potential causes of this, but the most common culprit is water.

Water can seep into cracks in the building’s exterior, and in the winter it will freeze. Because water expands when it freezes, over time it can dislodge brick, stone, mortar, etc. from the inside, and these dislodged pieces can then fall off the building. Sometimes, portions of a building’s façade are attached with metal fasteners. Water can also cause these metal fasteners to rust and, eventually, to expand or break, which could also cause part of the façade to fall off.

Columbus City Council passed the law that requires Critical Observation Reports in 1985, after a cornice fell off of a downtown building and injured three people on the sidewalk below, including then-Councilmember Ben Espy, who tragically lost part of his leg in the accident.

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