What is a Forensic Structural Engineer?

by Rick Abbott PE, SE


The term “Engineer” has normally been understood in society to refer to a person who has obtained a degree in engineering; however, it is too broad of a term to describe what that person is qualified to design or investigate in the real world.

While many of the engineering fields have similarities and require a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, and mathematics; in-depth study and additional specialized training is required to fully understand and apply the engineering principle to create or evaluate real world systems.  For this reason, universities offer many types of engineering degrees.  As the knowledge based grows and specialized areas of expertise are needed, more types of engineering degrees have been added.

The initial five branches of engineering are Civil, Mining and Metallurgical, Mechanical, Electrical, and Chemical Engineering. The sub-branches of Civil Engineering included Environmental, Geotechnical, Surveying, Water Resources, Transportation, and Structural Engineering.

Path of a Structural Engineer

Some engineers are required to obtain certain designation in order to identify different levels of qualifications.  Below is a description of the typical path of obtaining the designation of a structural engineer (SE).

  1. A graduate (or degree) engineer is a person who by education has obtained a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree from an accredited collage in a specific engineering branch.
  2. Engineer in training (EIT)– after obtaining a BS in engineer, a graduate engineer is allowed to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.
  3. Professional Engineer (PE) - After an EIT has obtained 4 years of work experience, they are allowed to take the PE exam.
  4. Structural Engineer (SE) - After a PE has obtained 4 years of working alongside a SE, they are allowed to take the SE exam.

The Expert

Anyone can offer an opinion; however, an opinion that will stand in legal matters must come from an expert in the field of study, and the opinion must be formulated in a scientific manner.  The days of a "so-called expert" blurting out their opinion based solely on their education and experience are gone.

A PHD in the particular field of study is not a prerequisite needed to rendering an opinion or drawing a conclusion on a technical issue.  A PHD is a good prerequisite to be considered as an expert in the field of study of which the opinion or conclusion is needed, but it is not the sole reason a conclusion can be given.  The following are not prerequisites needed to render an opinion.  The following are good prerequisites to be considered as an expert in a certain field of study:

A BS degree | a Master’s degree | A PHD degree | Special Certifications | Professional Licensing | Work experience

Scientific Method

An expert opinion must be offered by an expert, and the opinion must follow an accepted path of deduction.  The accepted path is known as the scientific method.  The scientific method as it pertains to damaged buildings consists of the following stages:

  1. Propose or define a non-biased question such as, “What is damaged and why.”
  2. Information Gathering Stage –conduct a site investigation where observations of damaged and non-damaged conditions are documented.
  3. Gather all related information with regard to the damage such as interviews, weather data, and surrounding conditions.
  4. Construct a Hypothesis. Test the individual hypotheses one by one.  Analyze the data and draw conclusions, and accept or reject the hypothesis based on engineering principles.
  5. Communicate the results.

Forensic Structural Engineer

“Forensic” is a broad term, but when used in front of structural engineer, its meaning is, “a structural engineer who investigates damaged or failed structures.

A expanded definition of a Forensic Structural Engineer is as follows:

“Forensic Structural Engineer” is a licensed professional engineer who has obtained knowledge, skills, and abilities through education, training, and experience in the field of structural engineering to inspect, evaluate, analyze, and render opinions, conclusions, and recommendations pertaining to a structural engineering problem where something went wrong, failed, was damaged, or did not perform as intended.

Technical papers relating to the topic of Forensic Engineering

ASTM E678-07(2013) Standard Practice for Evaluation of Scientific or Technical Data
ASTM E2713-11 Standard Guide to Forensic Engineering
ASTM E620-11 Standard Practice for Reporting Opinions of Scientific or Technical Experts

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