This is a 3-Part series to help insurance adjusters during a claim inspection make a post-fire assessment of a building’s structural framing system. From my numerous case history inspections involving damage to structural framing members after a fire, what appears obvious and straightforward is not always the case. This article is a quick synopsis to help the adjuster be better prepared for a structural inspection and assessment while understanding what needs to be looked at, and if there are hidden factors to further investigate.
An evaluation is essential in all fire damaged structures including residential, commercial or industrial buildings to assess key components of the building’s structural framing system. A structural evaluation more likely than not could be a three-step process starting with an initial inspection with assessment, followed by a thorough engineering investigation and ending with a verbal or written comprehensive report.
Items to inspect include but are not limited to columns, beams, joists, lintels, and floor and wall systems that have been fire exposed. These systems mainly consist of steel, concrete, masonry or wood bearing elements, ceiling and roofing framing systems and interstitial spaces or mezzanine platforms. Some uncommon areas to investigate include column bases and beam pockets or wall bearing penetrations, concrete foundations and slabs, and individual framing connectors such as welds, bolts, screws, nails, clips, etc. Determining the extent of damage and providing a quick solution(s) to an evaluation can be a daunting task for insurance adjusters. Often times, a structural engineer is required. So let’s take a closer look from an engineer’s view at some of the critical areas and more common or uncommon locations of fire related structural damage found in post-fire environments.
Since fire sources can come from either the exterior and/or interior of the building, let’s focus on the interior areas where the structural elements are more vulnerable to fire damage especially if they are not fire protected. The most common interior areas where fire attacks are in the roofs, ceilings, walls and floor spaces that damage structural elements such as columns, beams, joists, floor systems, bearing walls and lintels just to name a few. Here is a sample inventory of more common fire damaged structural items to investigate:
- Warped/deflected structural elements (columns/beams/joists, etc.)
- Cracked/spalled concrete/masonry structural elements
- Bearing levels/points of interest
- Pink discoloration of concrete elements
- Charring depth/scorching of wood framing members
- Loose, missing and/or destroyed structural connectors
After a fire occurs, an initial inspection (usually performed by an insurance adjuster) would be arranged and conducted as soon as safe entry into the building is possible. The adjuster would perform an assessment that would determine and include the following:
- Physical/visual condition of the structural elements
- Type/severity of damage observed in fire affected area(s)
- Size/timing of the fire growth by a fire analysis
- Fuel load over time
- Changing ventilation conditions during a fire
- Feasibility of rehabilitation or restoration of the building
- Need for a detailed structural investigation
After collecting data from the initial inspection and assessing the building for structural soundness, a next step may involve a more thorough investigation with report by a structural engineer. As this investigation begins, the engineer is performing visual non-destructive testing of structural members in the fire-affected areas. He is specifically looking for indications of large extensive cracking, spalling of concrete and masonry elements, excessive deflections, distortions, misalignment of framing elements and/or exposure of steel reinforcement in concrete and masonry structural elements to be documented. Measurements of deflections, deformations and framing geometry can be taken physically or through photographs for comparison to similar but not fire damaged members of the same structure. This summary would lead to and help identify damaged members in need of a more detailed investigation which includes destructive testing, as well as the extent and nature of any necessary repairs.
Also, the engineer is looking at the structural elements for indications that the load-carrying capabilities of these structural elements are sound and have not been seriously compromised by the fire. Where these types of conditions are present, strong consideration is given to the removal and replacement of the affected structural members. Other factors, however, such as a building’s architectural features (non-loading bearing elements) and the importance of continuing occupancy can often dictate the selection of the restoration process. If, for example, the physical conditions described above are absent, it is likely that concrete and masonry members can be repaired in place but steel members are a different story and will in most cases need to be removed and replaced in kind. In addition, fire distress that causes soot, smoke deposits, minor charring of wood members, pitting of aggregates, hairline cracking, shallow spalling and other surface damage generally require only cosmetic repairs.
Finding the extent of damage caused by a fire and solutions for rehabilitation of buildings can be a difficult process and rather time consuming. Let the experts at Warren investigate and assess the extent of structural damage from fire insurance claims to any home, business or building. Part 2 – Steel, Concrete, Masonry and Wood Framing Members in this 3-part series investigates the specifics of different framing materials that are exposed to a fire and how to make reasonable and cost saving assessments on what remains and what gets demolished. Part 3 – Observations for Reuse, Salvage and/or Repair of post-fire damaged buildings continues with providing the adjuster some basic knowledge and insight to properly assess the post-fire structural integrity of a building and to determine any cost saving repairs.
Allan Abbata is a senior consulting engineer at Warren and a licensed professional engineer in South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas, Alabama, Maryland, Minnesota and Virginia. Allan holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. He has more than 45 years of applied engineering expertise to include in-depth knowledge of building codes, rules and regulations that guide design. Allan has also prepared construction drawings and specifications, provided on-site supervision and inspection of construction projects, and. has overseen project management and responsibility for overall performance of building contracts while also serving as the client’s liaison with local, state and federal agencies and municipalities.