From investigating the collapse of a high-rise building to a bridge overpass or stadium — forensic engineers grapple with complex questions while determining what happened in order to avert future failures. Moreover, their findings can have a multi-million-dollar impact in the way insurance coverage is applied and losses are shared. As we observe National Building Safety Month, it’s important to understand the many factors that contribute to a complete forensic investigation.
Following a structural collapse, timing is everything. Our engineers are onsite immediately — catching the first available flight — to begin sifting through the destruction. From an outside perspective, the scene may appear to be piles of rubble and debris, but to trained engineers, it is a treasure trove of evidence that can be used to discern the cause of failure.
A forensic investigation often begins with taking photographs and documenting evidence before the scene is disrupted or evidence is cleared. Collapses involving loss of life result in search, rescue and recovery efforts that can sometimes delay collection of physical evidence. In these instances, aerial video footage and photography from drones can offer added perspective.
Depending on the type of collapse, soil samples and material samples will be collected. Even early press reports or weather readings can offer valuable insights as initial hypotheses begin to form. As engineers follow the evidence to home in on a cause, they may analyze maintenance records, architectural or engineering design drawings, construction plans, and material laboratory tests. All will contain valuable clues as evidence begins to mount.
Depending on the complexity and scope of loss, forensic investigations of a complex structure can take weeks, even months to complete. Reports and findings must be validated through a thorough peer review before they can be shared. Attorneys and senior adjusters at insurance carriers frequently rely on these reports as part of their coverage analyses. Many large, complex losses become litigated and findings are viewed by judges and jurors. In other cases, our engineers are deposed for pending court cases based on what they have learned over the course of their investigations.
The cause of loss can be as varied as the structures themselves. In some cases, structural collapse can be attributed to a defect in design; in other cases, failure is due to poor construction or faulty materials. The construction process itself can be risky as most structures are designed to function as fully completed, but the different construction stages can lead to vulnerable conditions. Extreme weather such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or freezing temperatures can also result in partial of complete failures. For instance, over time, rainwater can cause deterioration and ultimately, lack of proper or scheduled maintenance can contribute to structural failure. Human error, flawed calculations and gross misjudgment are also contributing factors.
Many of these questions could not be resolved without expert training, advanced skills and proven experience. What makes this even more remarkable is that there are a limited number of engineering firms and professionals that are capable of providing the level of analyses and investigations that these large, complex losses demand. Buildings, bridges and other complex structures have a story to tell. Our job is to make sure we understand their language based on the clues and evidence they present.
EFI Global’s team of engineers specialize in steel structures, concrete and foundations, blasts and explosions, fire, nuclear stations, industrial facilities, marine environment, and buildings, among other specialties. Held to the industry’s highest ethical standards, these individuals rely on advanced engineering degrees, specialty training and many years of experience while investigating some of the industry’s most high-profile, complex property losses. To learn more, visit https://www.efiglobal.com/.