Forensics expose roots of building failures

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Architecture lost some of its sparkle? Get your deerstalker and uncover grim truths as a forensic architect

WTC dust cloud: Picture after the collapse of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2018 at 10:34h.
WTC dust cloud: Picture after the collapse of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2018 at 10:34h. Credit: Greg Semendinger, New York City Police Aviation Unit

If a tendency to binge watch true crime documentaries is playing havoc with your social life, perhaps it’s time to consider a career as a forensic architect, one who applies investigative techniques to track down the causes of building failures.

Forensic techniques played a key role in unpacking the demise of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Bangalore, which collapsed in April 2013 killing over a thousand people.

An investigation revealed that cracks in the facade had opened up as a result of instability in the concrete, which contained too much sand and too little rebar. Four additional storeys had been added to the original four-storey block to accommodate textile factories, without approval, which introduced machinery loads the building was not designed for.

Forensic analysis of photos verified that a crack existed in the building before the collapse, and its formation, unique like a fingerprint, showed where the structure was weakest.

The reasons behind the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York are well documented, but the health effects of the gas and dust released remain highly contentious.

Rana Plaza, Savar Bangladesh
Rana Plaza, Savar Bangladesh Credit: Wikipedia

As the heap of ruins burned for over three months it worked like a chemical factory pumping out gases from toxic metals and acids. Forensic analysis, carried out by a team the University of California in Davis, highlighted the dangers associated with the tons of asbestos used in the twin towers for fire protection and insulation. Dust could have penetrated into the lungs of workers at Ground Zero, and residents and employees in the neighbourhood, long after Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn was declared safe by authorities just five days after the attack.

‘Forensic Architecture: Investigation of building envelope failures’ is one of seven topics to be discussed at the 13th International Conference on Advanced Building Skins, which takes place on 1-2 October in Bern, Switzerland.

Over 200 speakers, spread over 28 sessions, will present at the conference, which was set up to explore the latest developments in building envelope design and materials. Other topics are: Impact of climate change on building envelope design; Reactive and intelligent building envelopes; 3D-printing of the building envelope; Dynamic glazing; Textile membranes for the building envelope and Building integrated photovoltaics.

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