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Forensic Civil Engineering (FCE)

An Emerging Field with Investigative Processes

I recently attended an International Conference on Forensic Civil Engineering at Nagpur. It was truly an eye opener in terms of using FCE as a tool in predicting structural failures. As a tribute to this emerging discipline in India, I dedicate this editorial to FCE.

There are several formal and comprehensive definitions available for Forensic Civil Engineering. One general definition given by Randall K Noon states: Forensic Engineering is the application of engineering principles, knowledge, skills and methodologies to answer questions of fact that may have legal ramifications”. In its myriad forms, Forensic Civil Engineering is useful to develop practices and procedures to reduce the number of failures, to disseminate information on failures, and to provide proper guidelines for conducting failure investigation.

There are many tools, techniques and approaches of investigation. They could be either Deductive OR Inductive methods. I wish to stress upon Inductive process which will also help us to predict probable failures. Quintessentially, with ‘Fail-Safe and Safe-Life principle, Forensic process involves collecting data for evidence, analyzing the data collected, developing failure hypotheses and test each hypothesis for its validity, finally, interpret the cause of failure. Technical factors that induce failure are quantified and determined but Human Factors generally neglected. Human errors include ignorance, lack of experience, incompetence, negligence and excess greed.

From sustainability considerations, understanding of violent natural forces that are detrimental to built environment at a specific location has to precede any further investigation. The characteristics and magnitudes of these forces are vital in determining cause of failure. It is the destructive dynamics of this natural environment, Forensic Civil engineer should also be interested in along with other failure parameters. Failures caused by excess flooding, landslide, changes in soil bearing capacity, acid rains, tornado, are some of the natural violent forces challenging we engineers even today. For example, Climate change accelerates carbonation induced corrosion as a result of increased CO2 level in the environment. Recent studies have shown that in some cities corrosion begins nine years sooner due to acute impacts of climate change.

We are all witnessing a paradigm shift in the very approach of construction industry. Twenty-first century Civil Engineers and Architects are driven by modern technology and are pushing their creativity to new heights by erecting structures using new generation materials and novel construction techniques.

While construction speed fathoms efficiency, structural failures due to faulty design or execution reflect non-accountability. There is an urgent need for qualified Forensic Civil Engineers today than ever. Structural failures are rarely reported and analysed in India. Reasons may range from political interference to sense of insecurity to lack of stringent laws to lack of awareness. A construction failure during the building process or in service generally prompts an investigation of causes and in many cases responsibilities need to be fixed. This can involve cases in civil or criminal courts. The failure analysis may provide us unique and valuable insight into the failure causes and may assist us in dispute resolution. The role of Expert witness becomes then vital.

In the wake of recently held COP 21 summit at Paris, Forensic investigation for sustainability issues in structures will also attain importance. Future Civil Engineers shall learn from Forensic investigations and evolve successful designs by anticipating, predicting and mitigating all modes of failure. Study of violent forces in natural environment should then precede any investigation and in that sense Sustainability and Forensic investigations get intrinsically connected.

Ajit Sabnis

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