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An Introduction to Forensic Structural Engineering: What It Is and What It Covers

August 20, 2021

Origin and Cause Investigators and Engineers help provide clients with accurate information when structural damage is caused by fires, storms, accidents, or other events. Our swift analysis helps clients find closure and move forward. We specialize in concrete, wood, steel, and masonry structures both modern and old. In today’s age of rapid development and the heightened pace of project delivery, issues concerning compromised structural integrity are abundant. Forensic structural engineerings help determine the cause of structural damage and offers the best way forward with evidence-based analysis.

Read on to know more about forensic structural engineering and what our services entail.

Part 1: Introduction to Forensic Structural Engineering

Q.1 What is Forensic Structural Engineering?

As mentioned above, forensic structural engineering is all about determining the integrity of a building or structure. A building is being acted upon by various factors at any given time: natural forces such as wind and seismic forces, extreme weather conditions, and the weight of the building itself. 

Forensic structural engineers study various aspects including building code violations, water damage, design flaws, foundation issues, framing issues, soil movements such as settlement and heave, and geotechnical issues to determine the probable cause of structural failures. 

Our professional forensic structural engineers are well versed in mechanics, physics, and how different materials hold up in various situations and conditions. This helps them assess the cause of failure and provide a way forward for the clients.

Q.2 When is Forensic Structural Engineering Needed?

Structural engineering investigation is needed to determine the cause of a failure and establish a chain of causation that led to the damage. To determine this cause of failure, our forensic structural engineers employ structural analysis, building science, project rehabilitation as well as the application of various building and fire codes.

We are also called upon to provide the following services:

  •     Forensic Geo-structural engineering Investigations
  •     Building Envelope Failure Evaluations
  •     Drone Assisted Inspections
  •     Construction Litigation Support
  •     Agricultural Facilities Losses
  •     Extreme Weather Event Rapid Response Plans

Many times, when structural damage occurs due to heavy winds, snow, and floods, the cause is attributed to the weather, but the underlying cause could be completely different than the apparent cause. If the cause of damage is not properly investigated, the right remediation will not take place and this might lead to further damage in the future. This is why structural forensic engineers are key to determining the true cause and extent of the damage to help clients move on safely.

Q.3 Who Normally Requires Forensic Structural Engineering?

Forensic structural engineers can be called upon at any time as we offer a variety of services. We assist by providing structural drawings as well as obtaining various building permits with the right applications. We provide a general review of construction service throughout the project to ensure all safety standards are being met.

Apart from calling us during the construction phase, clients also call us to determine the cause of structural failure and loss of structural integrity after a damaging event has occurred. We use modern, state-of-the-art equipment including drones, modeling and computer analysis, and infrared cameras to accurately access the cause and extent of the damage.

Contact us if you find cracked foundations, leaning or bulging walls, sagging ceilings. It is better to inspect the cause of these issues before further damage takes place. It is advised to take care of these smaller problems today before they lead to bigger issues.

Q.4 How Structural Investigation Helps Resolve Disputes & Makes the World Safer

When there are multiple probable causes, there might be an area of doubt and uncertainty. You should call us to determine the most likely cause of the damage. Our expert forensic team visits the site of damage to carry out extensive research and gathers all the relevant information and provides a comprehensive report highlighting the underlying causes. If required, material sampling on the site or in-situ testing such as Schmidt hammer is conducted as well. All steps are taken to provide accurate findings.

By providing the right assessment, we can help resolve disputes by:

  •     Being expert witnesses who can be called upon in court
  •     Providing accurate building code reviews
  •     Sharing technical information as to the cause of failure
  •     Providing accurate damage assessment 

Our services further help impart safety to our clients and the world at large by:

  •     Providing remediation and rehabilitation options to move forward
  •     Identifying best practices to reduce future failures
  •     Developing reports and guidelines to overcome future failures

Part 2: Types of Structural Accident Investigations

Q.1 Types of Structural Investigations a Forensic Structural Engineering Team Carries Out

The structural investigation team analyzes life-threatening events that lead to the collapse of vulnerable buildings. Building code requirements are reviewed to ensure standards of protection are always met.

Examples of structural investigations include:

1) Fire can start and rapidly spread through an entire building. To give time to occupants to exit the building safely and delay the spread of fire, fire separation and protection requirements in building codes have to be put in place.

2) Climate change data is reviewed to see whether newer standards need to be met for increasing extreme weather conditions.

3) The magnitude of the ground vibrations should be documented to see the extent of the home/building area repairs. Stronger vibrations have higher PPV (Peak Particle Velocity) and could cause widespread damage.

4) During snowfall, forensic structural engineers review more than just the safety features. They realize that a roof is not supposed to collapse unless it faces an unexpected load that goes beyond the safety margin.

5) There has been a rise in cases of insurance claims from inadequate renovation projects. Forensic structural engineers are called upon to connect the probable cause of the collapse incidents. Damages to the properties in these shoddy renovations were often overlooked due to the lack of engineering evaluations.

 Q.2 What Kind of Incidents do Forensic Structural Engineers Investigate?

Forensic structural engineers study a vast range of incidents and occasions where damage has occurred. We work with commercial as well as residential clients and safety bodies to understand the underlying and complex causes of structural failure.

Our investigation includes but is not limited to:

  •     Structural Collapse
  •     Material and foundation related failures
  •     Fire and Explosion Damage
  •     Construction Defects
  •     Water Damage
  •     Tree Impacts
  •     Snow and Ice
  •     Vehicle Impacts
  •     Wind
  •     Lightning Strikes
  •     Construction Ground Vibration
Q.3 What Does a Forensic Structural Engineer Do?

A forensic structural engineer has to be prepared to examine all the facts to find the source of the structural failure. They evaluate establishments, come up with solutions, and identify safety standards that need to be implemented. These can be of concern if standards are not up to date during the assessment.

If damage has taken place and repairs are needed, a forensic structural engineer will provide you with an overview of the main issues at hand and guide the next course of action.

Q.4 What Qualities do You Need to Possess to become a Forensic Structural Engineer?

Apart from having an in-depth understanding of physics, mathematics, and engineering design principles, forensic structural engineers also need to possess a few other qualities for a successful career. They must rely on an innate quality to never accept events at face value and always have the curiosity to delve deeper and find the answers that escape the naked eye. They must also be great at problem-solving, time management, teamwork, interpersonal skills, numeracy, and creativity.

Forensic structural engineers complete a four-year course of Bachelor of Engineering majoring in Civil Engineering. They may decide to go for higher studies focusing on Structural Engineering. To become a Professional Engineer, pursue a postgraduate degree in Engineering.

Apart from these qualifications and qualities, one of the most important aspects a forensic structural engineer must possess is the ability to report incidents clearly and accurately with all technicalities intact. This is what makes a successful forensic structural investigator.