Solutions for the Built World: Case Studies in Building Structures Investigations

Solutions for the Built World: Case Studies in Building Structures Investigations

This presentation was made to the Penn State AE 537 Class during the first week of September of fall semester 2017.  Paul J. Parfitt, S.E., P.E., Senior Associate, WJE was the visiting practitioner who provided the talk.   Mr. Parfitt discussed various categories of investigations that are customized and carried out appropriate to the type of problem to be solved or the need of the client.  Categories of investigations discussed included investigation for repair (PT inspections / repair), immediate response (failures / disasters /snow collapse) and the specialized investigation and testing techniques related to historic preservation and restoration.  Sample case studies of all these categories were discussed including the various tools and skills necessary for the particular situation ranging from industrial rope access to the use of specialized non-destructive field testing to the role of the testing laboratory.  Mr. Parfitt also commented on the background and knowledge learned in AE at Penn State relative to the skills they will help students entering the forensic or building technology / waterproofing sectors of the industry.

An excellent follow up article that compliments this presentation was written by Robert T. Ratay, PhD, P.E. and published in Structure magazine titled Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering.  Students are encouraged to review this article in conjunction with the content of the seminar by Mr. Parfitt for inclusion in the discussion that follows.



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37 Responses to “Solutions for the Built World: Case Studies in Building Structures Investigations”

  1. JeremyS
    September 13, 2017 at 9:27 pm #

    I first heard Mr. Parfitt lecture about forensic work at a school field trip to Washington D.C. back in 2016. Interning for a building investigation company over the summer I thought I knew the kind of projects that Mr. Parfitt worked on but he surprised me. I thought that WJE worked with just buildings but their range of work encompasses all types of failures. They investigate anything that is not performing as it was designed. It was also informative to see the rough percentages of what type of jobs make up they perform. Be it structural analysis, design or investigations.

    Mr. Parfitt listed several case studies which all had their own unique problem too them. A tensioned-fabric roof that collapsed due to a concrete connection issue, a grain silo that failed due to corrosion from a difference in weld material, a warehouse collapse which was caused by the connections of spliced columns. Each case was unique in nature and in cause.

    In the article it said that the structural engineer has the responsibility to perform an existing conditions assessment, develop a solution and prepare drawings and specs for the solution. I wonder if, in the forensics industry, how that work is split up amongst the firm. I also wonder if it is truly the structural engineers’ responsibility to perform that which was listed above. What if the owner has hired multiple firms and certain firms have certain scopes? Must the two firms still propose their own solution and documents? In the world that is WJE I am curious how they handle their projects or if they have a specified list that will be offered to the client or if it all simply depends on the job.

  2. Pete Pitilis Jr.
    September 13, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

    Mr. Parfitt’s lecture really opened my eyes up to how important the role a forensic structural engineer actually serves. He discussed a variety of projects and each seemed very different than the previous. A few examples are: his experience here at Old Main with the use of the drone, the failure of the storage container at the beer facility, and when WJE built a structure to assist in the reassembly of an airplane to investigate the airplanes reason of failure. Although, no matter the project one step remained constant throughout which was the importance to first ensure the site is safe for investigation and other potentially failures. Overall, it was really interesting to hear Mr. Parfitt discuss the importance of forensic engineering and the broad range of projects a forensic engineer may see during their career.

  3. HarryB
    September 12, 2017 at 8:51 am #

    One thing that struck me about Mr Parfitt’s presentation is the three steps the forensic engineer must take when called to a site. My preconceived perception of their duties on site were that they only needed to find the cause of the collapse and report it to the owner. In fact that is the third step and possibly the least important job that a forensic engineer has when on a failure site. The safety of every one on site and the stability of the building are more important and pressing than the mode of failure.
    Another thing that stuck out about the presentation was the lengths that WJE took to recreate structures after the failures. For example the recreation of the warehouse must have been incredibly tedious work.

  4. Shangmi X.
    September 12, 2017 at 8:04 am #

    Mr. Parfitt’s presentation introduced the field of forensic engineering and duty of forensic engineer. Forensic engineering was not familiar with me before this presentation. I think the testing and evaluation are the essential activities to keep the building/structure away from failure. However, investigation of cause of failure are more importance for the later repair and further maintenance. Like some people think the forensic engineers are like detectives which mostly their job is investigating the cause of the failure. I think they are also like dentists that they also fill the loopholes and fix the problems.

    Mr. Parfitt also talked about his own work experience. During the evaluation and inspection of an old building, there are chances that some parts of the structure might fail when you touch it. Therefore, this job requires carefulness and patients to keep the original structure while providing an accurate evaluation to the structure.

    Both presentation and the article introduced that forensic engineering including variety of duty and scopes.
    According to the article “Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering”, different cases can be categorized into three groups which are three different phases. Unlike general inspections, forensic engineering is based on legal actions and dealt with by law. It is a very serious job which provide safety ensurance to building.

  5. benP
    September 12, 2017 at 7:58 am #

    Everyone in building forensics so far has talked about some sort of litigation that could occur to try and reach settlement. I would like to know just how stressful going into court could be. Investigating these structures, certainly sounds like it could be interesting. However, dealing with attorneys and a customer who is looking for a good settlement is a lot of responsibility. When we engineer a project, it is a long process that we have time to catch our mistakes. In legal preceding’s, if the wrong statement is made in court or depositions, etc. the whole case can potentially be lost.

    Mr. Parfitt certainly had some neat experiences in his engineering career. Being a part of the limited access team must be rewarding. WSJ has some sophisticated equipment in their arsenal that helps them perform work with minimal disturbance to the building. It makes me wonder how a small town firm could ever compete with a firm like WSJ. In the reading, they talked about the pros and cons of being in business. Almost all of these businesses start out really small and that must come with challenge. Maybe by the end of the semester, we will see a presenter from a smaller firm.

    • EllenW
      September 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm #


      You make a good point that while the field of forensic engineering is interesting, contributing to a court case as an expert witness does not allow for any error. While in court, anything that you say will be recorded and can be used by both parties. One slip up using the wrong word or being unclear could lead to a misunderstanding which could change the whole course of the trial. Therefore, a forensic engineer should be able to speak under pressure and have a good understanding of legal proceedings and the legal system. They also need to have the technical knowledge and skills required to document and analyze the failure’s conditions.

  6. Perry H.
    September 12, 2017 at 3:00 am #

    After having listen to Paul Parfitt’s presentation and then reading Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering by Robert T. Ratay it seems to me that the field of forensic engineering is just as much, if not more, about the legal side of things as it is about figuring out why a building failed to learn from the mistakes. If this is the case Ratay makes a good point that forensic engineers need to have a good understanding of the legal processes that they could become involved in. I think it could be an interesting idea to have a forensics law course, or something of that nature, offered here at Penn State.
    Learning the law would definitely be beneficial especially for someone going to be doing forensic investigations because in some cases the law is not exactly clear cut. For example the article by Ratay talks about the concept of reasonable degree of engineering certainty. This whole concept is based on the fact that professional opinion cannot always be 100% correct. Furthermore the article goes on to say that a forensic engineers professional opinion on an investigation can be the subject of a claim of negligence and can be liable, another reason why it is important to understand the law at which you are practicing.

    • JeremyS
      September 13, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

      I definitely agree that it would be beneficial to have a law course focused on building forensics. However I think that a building failures course in itself is pretty rare already. Still it would be interesting to spend a day or two of class time discussing it seeing as we will all end up in court at some point.

      I also agree that the article talked more about the law side of forensics and the litigation. While I know that side of forensics is important I would’ve like to read more about how to recognize certain failure types.

  7. Keunhyoung Park
    September 12, 2017 at 12:50 am #

    With priceless lecture by Mr. Paul Parfitt and the article “Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering” we glanced the world of ‘Forensic of structural failures’.

    Through many of courses and seminars I learn ‘how to design structures’ based on numerous accumulated knowledge of the lecturers. However building failures were just additional topic as interest in these courses. I think that the reason why there were just few courses related to building failures and forensic techniques is that the theme often requires sharp discernment and vast experiences.

    In finding the cause of building failure there are various plausible opinions rather than an obvious solution to explain the failure. As we seen at the lecture of Mr. Parfitt the purpose of forensic working of failed building structures is to find out the cause of the ‘failure’ of the building. In realistic reason the purpose is moderated as ‘finding most reasonable scenario of failure’. Because it is impossible to figure out exact trigger of the failure since perhaps the evidence was diminished, faded out into other spread debris, or the failure mechanism is too complex to discern how the combined causes were working together. Furthermore, as mentioned at the article by Robert T. Ratay, engineers have different data and evidences would conclude their own scenario. I realized that engineers working on forensic investigation should keep their in mind the characteristic of the works, and try to consider various causes (,’no matter how far-fetched’).

    Structural failure will occur when the structure has failed to achieve intended structural performance such as stiffness and strength. Design process has developed to let the designed structures to hold ‘reasonable’ capacity.
    So, human’s faults, such as engineer not following philosophy of design code, constructor not following desirable design, or project manager not managing the construction process properly, might add ‘not reasonable’ potential failure causes to the building. Thus forensic investigation always deem these human factors from design to construction process.

    In addition, forensic engineer may have to distinguish the human failures from code’s limitation because the codes are not absolute solutions. Although the codes in these days has probability concept to redeem its limitation of integrity, it is impossible that these code cover all environmental component such as snow or rain loads.

    From the lecture and the article, I am so impressed to forensic investigation because these working requires logical thinking and feasible reasons. Mostly, these working will help to prevent (at least reduce) repeating mistake in building engineering by helping understanding the mistakes.

  8. WangjaeY
    September 12, 2017 at 12:17 am #

    I was glad to have Mr. Parfitt as a guest speaker and he shared how the forensic engineering is looked like in the field.

    First of all, I realized that WJE has many different disciplines working together as a one team to deal with forensic engineering such as field engineers, chemists, material scientists and structural engineers. I have not thought about the other professionals whom I usually think of from outside of AE fields like chemists being involved in the forensic engineering.

    I was also impressed that how much structural engineers have to be careful in their designs to prevent further failures in building/construction. After the failures happened, it is very complicated and hard to analyze the exact problem that caused the failures. Building failures also bring catastrophic disasters to occupants and laborers if it is during construction. We, as structural engineers, have to be very responsible in what we are doing with.

    I also realized that the importance of experiences from the field. I used to work in the office and every time I go out to the field to look at the structure and it always refresh myself and I gain lots of experience of working in the field. It is always true that everyone can design, but not everyone can fix it.

    • Shangmi X.
      September 14, 2017 at 12:32 am #

      I am agree with your conclusion of everyone can design but not everyone can fix. The forensic engineers are really playing a essential role in the field. Their job is all about saving the structures and preventing people from building failure. As they were collecting the evidence, they were revealing the mistakes made by the designers in most case. Although the forensic engineers may solve and fix the problem, the structural engineer who made the mistake should take the responsibility and avoid creating the same issue ever again. I think every designer should always read the reports written by forensic engineers and learn from it. Everyone in the field should decrease the rate of building failures as low as we can.

  9. Ellen W
    September 11, 2017 at 10:09 pm #

    Building failures is a complex topic because there are so many factors that come together to cause a failure. A thorough investigation of the site is required after a major collapse. The investigator needs to focused on the task at hand and to take detailed and organized notes of the site. Pictures of the site and conditions are also crucial to complete the report.
    Mr. Parfitt explained how WJE reports and preserves the evidence collected on site. The fracture surfaces of specimens show the failure mode that was experienced and this can lead to which members caused the failure. If the specimen is not properly preserved or documented, this vital information is lost.
    Figuring out what triggered the collapse is the goal of a forensic engineer. Once the cause is known, the engineer can testify as an expert witness in court, or insurance companies can use the information to pay out the claim.
    Like most topics in engineering, there is a theoretical side that is taught at college and a practical side that is learned through experience. Thank you to Mr. Parfitt for taking the time to come and talk to us, showing us the practical side of the industry and explaining what a typical day is like at WJE.

    • David K.
      September 12, 2017 at 9:56 pm #

      I agree that it is important for a forensics engineer to arrive on site with priorities set. In more “high profile” cases, one can imagine that the site after a failure can be rather chaotic. It is important to know what life safety provisions need to be taken before attempting to collect the desired evidence. Because these investigations require formal reports after the site investigations, it is crucial for the forensics engineer to have organized field notes and pictures.

      • Richard T.
        September 13, 2017 at 6:02 pm #


        I agree that being organized is a key value in the success of an investigation. You can have the smartest team there is, but if people miss writing things down it could lead to mess ups later on. It’s also important to be able to convey your work in words. I know a lot of forensic engineers spend a lot of time writing reports and getting the message to the people who are making the decisions.

    • benP
      September 14, 2017 at 7:44 am #

      I like that you bring up the difference between the theoretical side that we are learning and the practical side that industry uses. I believe that this program seems to do a good job at making the difference between the two minimal. One thing that I have not heard discussed yet by either speaker or any professors I have had this semester is money. All businesses must make money, and for engineers to have jobs, they must make their bosses money. This practical side of the industry would be nice to learn more about as this will effect us the rest of our careers. Being a great engineer and being a profitable engineer do not always go hand and hand. As an employee, if we want to make more money, we need to make our bosses more money. To do this, we must understand how our bosses make money.

  10. Shubham K.
    September 11, 2017 at 9:21 pm #

    Paul Parfitt’s presentation was extremely helpful in understanding the field of forensics. He discussed different personal experiences he had. He also gave us an overview of the types of projects WJE works on. The follow up article points out important types of roles a forensic engineer has to play. It also briefly talks about the legal side of this field and different kinds of resolutions a dispute might end up in.

    From pervious class discussions and Mr. Parfitt’s presentation, I understood that touch and feel approach is very critical in recognizing failures. This approach becomes even more important when the construction drawings are missing as the engineer doesn’t know what’s beneath all the finishes. Sometimes, it’s the architectural features that are not supported properly.

    Mr. Parfitt also talked about importance of drones and how they help first-responders and engineers determine if the site is safe or not. Unfortunately, they cannot recognize internal damages in the structures. In order to identify any internal structural damages, an engineer needs to be able to reach it. This could get very costly, depending on the reach to that structural damage. Mr. Parfitt talked about lifting engineers near the building to access the damaged structure or a difficult access team is called to do the job. These options seem very expensive and potentially dangerous. Is it possible to equip drones with necessary sensors/equipment to detect internal structural damages?

    • Perry H.
      September 13, 2017 at 9:48 pm #


      I think this is a very interesting point that you make about the advancement of drones. I do not believe that there is currently technology that can be used with drones to scan internal damage. I found this article “Drones and the Forensic Engineering Industry” that talks about all the current uses of drones which are mostly to take images and map all of the visual damages that can be seen from the perspective of the drone. The article also talks about the drone technology itself and some of the advancements that have been made. The popularity of drones is definitely increasing in the technology driven world that we live in today, so who knows what kind of advancements will come to the drone. Maybe soon there will be technology that completely changes the way forensic investigations are conducted.

  11. Tyler J
    September 11, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    The field of forensics engineering has always been fascinating to me. Growing up watching crime shows and reading mystery novels, it seems that a forensics engineer could be compared to a detective. Paul Parfitt is one of these detectives and I find what he and others do in the field amazing.

    In the article ‘Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering’ by Robert T. Ratay, it is stated that “Professional opinion cannot always, and does not have to, be with one-hundred percent certainty.” Forensic engineers are called upon to examine the evidence and do their best with what they find and what they know to determine causes for failure. As mentioned in class as well as the article attached to this discussion, often forensic engineers do not start with an answer, rather they start with many possible answers and through deduction come up with the correct answer. This takes a high level of understanding in the field of structural engineering and material science.

    I appreciated the part of Paul’s presentation that went through case studies of past failures he and WJE have been a part of. This helped me better understand the process and importance of ensuring safety on site, preserving evidence, documenting evidence, and completing the engineering necessary to determine reasons for failure. In each case study presented this process was followed so that accurate analysis could be completed. If any one of these steps was not followed, the actual cause of failure might not ever be known.

    Paul also mentioned WJE’s involvement in the 2005 Gulf Coast Hurricane building inspections. This is an area of forensics engineering I had never thought about prior to this class. Hurricanes cause significant damage. Insurance companies are very interested in whether the damage was caused by wind, water, or a combination of both. As recent hurricanes have caused significant damaged in parts of Texas and Florida I would imagine forensic engineers will be called upon again to assess the damage. The field of forensics engineering encompasses many specialties and requires knowledge in a wide variety of topics.

    • mkev
      September 11, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

      Good points. IN terms of hurricanes, we learn something every time or at the very least it refreshes our memory in terms of how important it is to build the right way in disaster prone regions. A lot of lessons are going to come out of this hurricane season.

    • CamilleS
      September 12, 2017 at 9:23 pm #

      I think it’s interesting that you point out that forensic engineers have to consider a number of possible answers and come to a conclusion through logic and evidence. This process is so different from classical structural analysis or even design. Design is based on factor such as architecture, needs of other engineering disciplines, site constraints, and owners. Forensic engineering is such a different game of evaluating factors and their effects on a structure. Specific conditions must be assessed, rather than design where typical conditions are considered and designed for. I would agree this attention to detail makes forensics such a unique field, and failure to do so can jeopardize understanding the real cause of the failure. I enjoyed hearing about how WJE approaches failures in this way to preserve evidence as well.

  12. CamilleS
    September 10, 2017 at 4:44 pm #

    I enjoyed hearing of Paul and Sonja’s experience at the failure of the spent grain tank. In our conventional structural engineering education, the strength of what could be considered a pressure tank is not touched on by our classes in AE. This experience reminds me how challenging the field of forensics is – often real life conditions that a structural engineer may investigate is not something you can find straight out of ASCE or the IBC. Sometimes, it’s not a building. This requires architectural engineers and forensic engineers to apply a background of a variety of engineering disciplines, including material science, to successfully solve real life conditions.

    Failure investigation also requires an multi-faceted approach that touches different pieces of structural engineering. The problems that they encountered in the collapse of the storage facility were not simply where did the structure fail. It required them to immediately ensure the stability of the remaining structure to aid rescue and clean up efforts. Sometimes, the failure of a building does not happen in one instance. Spalls or cracks caught before failure require a structural approach to secure their current position, and to assess their stability. These design of structural repair documents are not something that is taught in a traditional design education, instead they require an understanding of anchorage design and material science as well.

    The integration of building science and structural engineering within companies, such as WJE, is the largest example of the interdisciplinary nature of forensics. Failures are typically not solely a structural collapse, they are caused by the building’s reaction to it’s environment, and that includes water infiltration more often than not. Understanding multiple disciplines of science and engineering that effect the failure of a building is the only way engineers can investigate these failures.

    • mkev
      September 11, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

      I like your point about ASCE or IBC. One of my first projects in Ithaca NY was a cable structure….unfortunately it wasn’t supporting any building roof. It was temporary to support the hanging of public art during a festival but it was strung across a street between two buildings. Not much on that in IBC…

  13. Nick S.
    September 10, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    On Thursday, September 7th, the AE 537 Building Failures Class had the pleasure to hear a presentation by Mr. Paul J. Parfitt. Mr. Parfitt is a 2007 Penn State graduate from the Architectural Engineering (AE) program with his Bachelors and Masters degree. Upon completion of his studies he accepted a position with WJE, where he has worked to this day and is currently a Senior Associate. Mr. Parfitt explained some of the different experiences he has had during his time with WJE. Some of the most memorable projects were with the difficult access team, these include the Washington National Cathedral, Kimpton Palomar, and 1701 Florida Avenue in D.C.

    During the presentation, Mr. Parfitt discussed a variety of topics ranging from who/what WJE does, to what is forensic engineering, and case studies of several projects WJE has completed. For me as a construction option student in the AE program I never really had the opportunity to learn about some of the great structural engineering firms that are available. WJE seams no different, they perform a wide variety of tasks from structural engineering, architectural engineering, litigation, etc. To me the thing that spoke volumes of the company was through its forensic division. Companies that have building failure issues, which we learned from lecture and readings is more than a catastrophic failure (loss of life), come and seek out WJE to understand and fix the issues with their building. This goes to show how well known WJE is in this area of work and how the owner can be insured that they are getting the best in the industry.

    The second topic that was discussed was the topic of “forensic engineering”. Forensic engineering based on Mr. Parfitt’s definition is the investigation of materials, products, structures, etc., that fail, understand what caused the failure, and then how to correct it. This has been an increasingly important part of the construction industry as building failures occur. As from the reading in “Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering” by Dr. Robert T. Ratay, structural failures forensics are becoming a more and more popular division of structural firm. These “investigations have become an active and lucrative field of professional practice in which expert consultants/witnesses are retained to investigate the causes of failures, as well provide technical assistance to the parties and their attorneys in the litigation of the resulting claims”. From forensic engineering these individuals are able to see what caused the building failure to occur and trace it back to its original origin. These origins as stated in “Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering” are from negligence, incompetence, ignorance, greed, disorganization, miscommunication, or misuse. In my opinion, this division of structural firms will always be around. As long we are building there will failures occurring, I hope I am wrong, but until individuals learn from our mistakes they will only continue.

    The final topic that was discussed was various case studies that WJE has been apart of. The ones that were discussed during the lecture were tension fabric roof collapse, grain silo failure, fermenting tank failure, warehouse roof collapse, crane collapse, and Old Main at Penn State. The thing that all these had in common was the procedure that was take. Mr. Parfitt stated that they accomplish several objectives before they could beginning. The first was to ensure safety of the site, their team analyzes the site to make sure that everyone/thing is safe before work commences. The second objective is to preserve the evidence. This is extremely important to the forensic team as the longer the evidence is exposed to the elements the harder it becomes to understand what happened. To me these two things are the most important criteria that needs to happen when you arrive to the site, without it the site being safe you take the risk of more people hurt and property getting damaged, and the second in taking the proper precautions to ensure all evidence is handled properly. This allows for the job to get done right and people can go home at the end of the day to their families.

    Overall, after hearing Mr. Parfitt’s presentation it left me thinking that there is a definitive need for forensic engineers in the construction industry. You hope that they never are called upon, but when they are, you can be assured an accurate analysis on the buildings failure has been completed.

    • Geoffrey T.
      September 11, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

      Totally Nick,

      From what I know, there is a high demand of forensic engineers now. The industry is thriving and they are looking for engineers that are interested in the forensic side of the industries.

      I think it is important for us to expose students to different type of career within building industry. A lot of people when they went through AE program, they most likely have a set career that they want to pursue. For example, structural students want to become structural engineers, construction students want to become either project superintendent or project manager, so on and so forth. By exposing students to different career path such as building science and forensic engineering, it opens more career path for the students. It gives them broader view on the opportunity within construction industries.

      • mkev
        September 22, 2017 at 9:46 am #

        Good point Geoffrey. AE should probably introduce more of these “alternative” careers early in the curriculum years so that students have more time to think about their choices.

    • mkev
      September 11, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

      You are correct about the Make Safe part. That includes the investigators. As I mentioned, the investigators are exempt from a number of the OSHA rules in certain circumstances. Brings us back to Rule No. 1…”Don’t walk backward while taking photos on a roof…”

  14. Richard T.
    September 9, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    I’m glad that someone like Paul had the free time to come and talk to the students at Penn State. Most of the things that we learn in our classes are very theoretical and usually are not applied the way that they are taught in a work environment. Therefore, having someone from industry come and speak with us was a wonderful experience. Paul works for WJE which is a structural forensic firm in the DC area. From what I’ve learned in his talk, the structural firm investigates building failures or buildings that need repair. I find this very relevant today because a lot of the buildings around the country are getting to the point where they are crumbling. A lot of the buildings are older and due to weathering, they are falling apart. They are not designed to last as long as we thought.

    We often forget about the important things when a job needs to get done. Paul taught me that before anything happens on an investigation you need to make sure that the area is safe. Safety is the number one concern in every situation. Once all that is considered then you can jump in and do the work. Another cool aspect of forensics that I’ve learned is the preservation of the site after a failure. I found it interesting that in order to freeze the condition of a piece of steel they would spray acrylic over it. This would prevent any further rusting of the fracture surface. For an outsider with little knowledge this would feel a bit extreme to do this but as a forensic engineer your job is to reconstruct and learned about how the failure happened at the moment it happened. Every little detail is look at very carefully.

    I’d like to conclude with my experience and relationship towards building forensics. Back in summer of 2016 when I worked for Leslie E Robertson Associates, I had the opportunity to do a feasibility study on a historic building. Although it wasn’t to investigate a failure, we had to figure out if the existing building could support new loading. In a way, this was done to prevent disaster. We went up to the floor that need investigated and we measured the existing structure. This was done because there was no documentation that I could reference. In the end, we figured that the building needed to be strengthened. The reality is that a lot of the older buildings are being repurposed. Not always is the person that’s moving in going to use it for its intended design. I don’t believe that it’s sustainable to always have new construction. I believe that what’s coming in the near future is going to be similar to this and it’s going to be an issue that many engineers will have to face.

    • Tyler J
      September 13, 2017 at 7:11 pm #


      I had a very similar experience at my internship last summer conducting a feasibility study for the placement of a rooftop crane that would see significant loads. I never thought of this as a type of forensic engineering but there some similarities. Using a combination of the existing drawings, photographs, and field measurements, I had to determine if the building could take the new loads or if the existing structure would need strengthening. This type of work is often very risky. In the case of my experience, a failure of the crane or any of the supports would have had catastrophic effects. As much as it is necessary to investigate failures, significant investigation sometimes needs to be done to prevent failure.

  15. Geoffrey T.
    September 8, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

    Forensic engineering is a special niche that deals with failures that occur in facilities, this include both building and infrastructure projects. In my opinion forensic engineers are just like detective, instead of solving crimes, they solve what causes building or infrastructure to fail. These failures are not limited to catastrophic collapse alone, but also includes deficient performance and nonconformity with design expectations, just like the article, “Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering” by Robert T. Ratay said.

    Depending on your scope of work, different scope of work requires different solution. For example, if the scope of work only encompasses initial inspection, the work may only need some simple visual inspection, short analysis and report. If the scope of work encompasses collapse, more advanced probing and testing will be required. If the work encompasses litigation process, then the work will include documenting and reviewing documents for court preparation. Thus, depending on the scope of work, the type of work that is required will differ as well.

    I personally agree when Paul mentioned that the first thing that you do when it came to collapse investigation was to make sure that the site was safe. Not only to make sure that there were no casualties, but we also need to make sure that the site was safe for the forensic engineers to work in. Sometimes the excitement to investigate could make us forget about our own safety (at least for me).

    During the presentation, Paul mentioned about the use of drone in doing visual survey of Old Main before they went in and confirm the visual testing. I am interested in knowing whether in the future, the use of drone will be more extensive to the point that we do not need any people to do the investigation that requires difficult access. Does everyone think that is possible?

    • Megan F.
      September 10, 2017 at 10:06 am #


      Interesting question. Using drones is extremely helpful for initial visual inspection. It amazed me at how clear and steady the camera was when we watched the video in class. However, I think that it is still important for someone to get up to the structure and actually touch it and see how well it is performing. The drone is able to get great images to study however, it won’t be able to tell if a brick or concrete cornice is loose. This summer when working on some facade inspections I noticed how important it was to get your hands on the surface. I would notice a small crack or water damage that didn’t seem too destructive, but sometimes when we would touch the surface pieces would fall apart right into our hands and end up being more severe than it looked.

    • Nick S.
      September 10, 2017 at 10:27 am #


      I think that while drones will be an important tool of visual surveying, we are still a distance from there being zero human involvement. I could see, for the foreseeable future, drones being used in conjunction with engineering teams in these projects, with potential to limit human interaction in time. Technology is becoming more and more used on construction projects as a used to reduce the amount of waste generated. I know from even my construction firm technology has become extremely useful. We use it in layout, clash detection, and the paperwork process. The use of technology will continue to grow in the construction industry as it get better and even more useful. However, until every company switches to these technologies human investigation will always be used.

    • Pete Pitilis Jr.
      September 11, 2017 at 10:49 pm #


      I thought it was interesting when Paul mentioned the use of drones in investigations, especially since I have a drone myself. I believe drones are a great tool to have when initially investigating a structure, however, I agree with Megan in that a hands-on investigation should be performed to ensure the safety of the structure. In areas where safety isn’t a concern, I believe drone use will be more popular. Surveying for example, I’ve used drones for surveying land and buildings to produce topographical maps and 3D models. The use of drones made this process quick and the quality is truly amazing.

    • Shubham K.
      September 13, 2017 at 5:43 pm #

      I was wondering the same thing when Mr. Parfitt mentioned using drones. I definitely think there is a possibility of using drones and artificial intelligence for building failure investigation. Drone technology has developed dramatically in the recent past and we are definitely heading towards less human involvement in potential dangerous situation. Drones with capacity of thermal imaging and night vision are already in market, it’s just the question of how much our industry feels comfortable relying on technology.

    • WangjaeY
      September 13, 2017 at 10:53 pm #

      I agree your point with providing the safety in the site being important in forensic engineering. Sometime, it is very hard to keep the site safe due to the event happened in the site or collapse.
      I also like you pointed out the extension of drone usage in forensic engineering. I am sure that using drones will become very common and beneficial to the forensic engineering as well as construction field. My boss, of course he is a professional engineer, uses the drone fairly often, but it is not used for forensic engineering since we are dealing with forensic engineering in residential construction. Our company uses more in taking good pictures and videos for advertisement of projects where we are working on so we can show them to the clients as a report. So from now, our company should think of using the drone much usefully.

  16. David K.
    September 8, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    Mr. Paul Parfitt provided the class with information regarding his career
    in the field of structural forensics and how a forensics firm operates. A few major “takeaways” from the presentation are as follows:

    1. The field of structural forensics includes the study and investigation of many more topics than it appears. It is important to realize that forensics engineers are not only called out to a site to investigate building collapses but (and more commonly) these engineers also aid clients in assessing the overall condition of building features.

    2. The study of “building science” is an important aspect of forensics and is a large source of work for companies such as WJE. Building science is a broad category of building studies that involves building enclosures. As in the previous week’s discussion post, we know that a majority of “building failures” are caused by improperly installed, worn, or damaged facade, below grade or roof components that allow for water penetration into the building. This aspect of building failures rarely involves a full failure, however, it is a major problem area for building owners. WJE provides Quality Assurance/Control work for building owners in an attempt to avoid waterproofing issues.

    3. The balance of office work and field work can be a major consideration for many entry level engineers as they search for their first full-time position. Based off of the presentation given in class, it seems as though the type of work offered at WJE accorded to new hires is anywhere from a relatively even balance to a bit more field work at times depending on the kind of work that is available. Time spent in the “field” ranges from QA work to aiding in building investigations in both the building enclosures side and the structures side of the present work.

    A career in structural forensics is something that should be considered more intensely for new engineers. Because the forensics work is not typically discussed in academic settings, it is often not viewed as a significant part of the field of structural engineering. This idea could not be further from the truth, however. For every new building that is constructed, exists the need for QA/QC work, commissioning work, and when issues with building systems arise, forensics engineers are a priority to have on the job site.

    • mkev
      September 11, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

      You are correct about the breadth of topics involved. More than once I have heard a forensic structural engineer say that they wish they had paid more attention in Chemistry class!

    • Shubham K.
      September 13, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

      Good point. From all the personal experiences that Mr. Parfitt spoke about in the presentation, it seems like forensic engineers learn a lot from experience. Overall, experience makes a better engineer, but in the field of forensic engineering, it is extremely important.

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