The Use of Emerging Technologies in Structural Collapse Investigations

The accurate and thorough documentation of existing conditions that exist immediately after a structural failure is critical for the proper analysis and evaluation of failed buildings or building systems. This is even more critical when the failure investigation involves a full or partial structural collapse. Investigation of any structural failure requires meticulous documentation of the condition of the structure in its damaged state; however, such documentation is difficult when dealing with collapsed structures due to a number of factors including, but not limited to, site safety and access limitations. Additionally, there is the potential that additional damage, deterioration, or spoliation of the structure will occur from exposure to weather or even vandalism. Because of this, it is imperative that the documentation of the existing conditions be completed as quickly as possible after the collapse event to prevent degradation of the post-collapse conditions. Thus, given the need to quickly and thoroughly document the conditions along with the need to maintain the safety of the investigators and prevent additional damage, it seems that the forensic investigators are being asked to complete a difficult, if not impossible task. While this was trying in the past, new technologies are making the job of such documentation not only more accurate and thorough, but also increasing safety for the investigators, coupled with reducing the time that it takes to complete the documentation of the failed structure.

Traditional documentation methods employed by forensic experts include taking numerous photographs and preparing detailed sketches of the collapsed structure. While these methods have a proven track record, and are unlikely to go away completely, by their nature such documentation methods are time consuming, which is a luxury that forensic experts rarely have and something that property owners and insurance companies typically look to avoid. Additionally, keeping track of where photographs were taken and what particular items or elements are being documented at which locations can be a monumental task that is both difficult for the expert and expensive for their client. This is where some of the recent technological advances available to forensic experts really shine.

Many recent advances in technology give forensic investigators the ability to accurately and thoroughly document conditions after a structural collapse while making the process safer for the investigators and reducing the time to document the conditions. These new tools have been used in other industries in the recent past, including the construction and real estate industries; however, the integration of such tools to the investigation of structural collapses has become more feasible and realistic with the continued development of the software that powers these tools. Moreover, one the best takeaways includes the quality of the cameras that capture images and video, memorializing site conditions for future review and purposes of litigation.

Some of the tools available to investigators evaluating structural collapses include three-dimensional mapping and imaging tools and unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) photography software. With the recent advances in the capabilities of these tools, forensic experts can create fully digital three-dimensional models of a collapsed structure from both the inside and the outside of the building. The common three-dimensional mapping and imaging tools allow for complete and accurate documentation of the interiors of damaged structures using high-resolution digital photographs of all surfaces which can then be assembled to create a complete three-dimensional model of the structure. This allows a forensic investigator to not only quickly and accurately document the existing conditions, but these tools allow the experts and other interested parties to do a virtual-walk through of the structure with the flexibility to observe all exposed surfaces. The idea of taking a client or jury through a collapsed structure by effectively immersing them into the building, is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence a forensic expert can offer. Furthermore, these mapping and imaging tools don’t just allow for the visual observation of the existing conditions but provide a fully dimensioned model of the structure. Similarly, visual imagery collected using drone mounted high resolution cameras allow for all exterior surfaces of a collapsed structure to be documented and can be used to create a three-dimensional model of the exterior. Additionally, depending on software compatibility, the models created by these systems can be combined to create a fully integrated three-dimensional model of the entire structure both inside and out. This allows for the condition of a collapsed structure to be thoroughly documented in a manner that is typically more thorough and more accurate.

Technology is aiding all industries and now we see how it’s aiding the forensic expert and their clients. Documentation of a collapsed structure can now be done in more accurately and in less time than with traditional documentation techniques, allowing forensic investigators to spend less time within dangerous areas, facilitate accelerated repairs of these structures, while memorializing conditions to be presented more effectively to claims professionals and litigators, and most importantly a jury. The days of static images are over, technology has made forensic reporting dynamic and immersive.

By: Mr. Terence Kadlec, PE, Practice Leader, Construction and Mr. Andy Guerra, PE, SE, Technical Lead, Construction Envista Forensics