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IMG_1208The Boston Globe, on Thursday, March 5, 2015, reported officials said 231 buildings have collapsed or suffered serious damage so far this season due to heavy ice and snow loads. A total of fifteen collapses were reported on March 5 alone. Why so many? And, what careful considerations should be made upon inspecting the damage and documenting a building collapse claim?

Here’s why. With all of the frequent and heavy snow in New England so far, the temperatures are warming up to above freezing for longer periods of time allowing the snow to partially melt, but then it re-freezes into ice as temperatures drop again. This tends to block roof drains and scuppers as ice dams are created. Any more snow or snow/rain mix just adds more weight to roofs that have been stained for some time already. And, as flat roofs deflect and sag they can hold even more water.

As pointed out in the Boston Globe article, heavy wet snow can weigh about 21 pounds per cubic foot and pure water adds about 62 pounds per cubic foot. To make matters worse, buildings of various ages have been constructed under earlier and less stringent building codes so their capacities to hold the added weight can be severely limited. Additionally, any existing building deterioration or substandard modifications made to the building over the years can also contribute to collapse. Thus, failures occur.

Proper investigation and documentation of a roof or building collapse is imperative when it comes to supporting the original insurance claim as well as any subrogation action. It’s simply not sufficient to say the roof collapse was obviously a result of heavy snow loads. The investigating engineer must observe the big picture, yes, but must also examine the details of the collapse including aspects like what part of the building was affected, which members (e.g., columns and beams) failed, what connectors failed (if any), where exactly did the failure originate from, and what specific conditions existed at the time of collapse, to name several important aspects.

The engineer should also look for any other conditions that may have contributed to the collapse such as contributing site conditions, existing deterioration, or substandard repairs or modifications made to the building. Also, any evidence that needs to be collected and preserved should be done so carefully and methodically under proper chain-of-custody protocols.

Then, the engineer’s analysis must carefully consider attributes of the building such as its age, physical condition, intended purpose, design, construction type, materials used, etc. in light of the building codes and construction practices at the time of its design and construction. The engineer’s analyses will consider any design issues or flaws, potential construction defects, improper alterations or modifications to the building, contributes made by site conditions, and the like.

The investigating engineer needs to be called out to the site immediately in order to document the occurrence before conditions significantly change and preferably before anything is removed or demolished. Also, the sooner that any potentially responsible parties are contacted the better so that their experts have every opportunity to observed the occurrence scene and participate in any evidence evaluation and testing.

It is imperative that the claimant, or their attorney, contacts the investigating engineer to get started right away. It’s also imperative that the investigating engineer properly and methodically assess and document the occurrence, then identify, document and support all contributing factors.

-Joel E. Breuer, PE

Mr. Breuer is Managing Partner at HG Cornerstone, LLC a national construction consulting, forensic engineering, and expert witness firm serving its clients nationwide.

How to Melt Snow – Fenway Park Style

IMG_1210 Cambridge, MA in February 2015

This has been a particularly harsh winter. What to do with all of the unwanted snow? A March 7, 2015 post, written by Darren Hartwell, revealed the secret snow melting method used by Fenway Park groundskeeper David Mellor who is responsible for supplying a snow-free, grassy baseball field for the Red Sox season opener slated for April 13. At Fenway Park, this innovative, relatively low-tech method utilizes black sand spread over the top of the snow pack to increase the rate of snow-melt.

Arguably, black visqueen or black tarpaulin could be used to create the same effect, absorbing UV radiation and heat from the sun thereby raising the temperature and trapping in heat to melt the snow. The snow could melt even if the ambient temperature is somewhat below freezing.

If you’re thinking about melting snow at your own property, and we’re not advocating that you do so, there are a number of things that you should be aware of. For example, you need to be sure that there is ample drainage to properly collect and direct the runoff created, without causing other issues. Proper drainage would then need to be monitored and maintained on an ongoing basis.

Be aware that any water that drains away from the higher-temperature snow-melt area can accumulate elsewhere and then re-freeze. Therefore, it is imperative that water not be allowed to drain onto surfaces, or into areas, where it can re-freeze and pose a hazard. For example, if the water is allowed to drain into a street, roadway or walkway, it can re-freeze and become black ice, creating a very dangerous situation.

Snow-melt on roof tops, especially flat roofs, becomes particularly critical since the water created can accumulate under the snow-pack and re-freeze into a heavy layer of ice as temperatures drop if proper drainage is not established and maintained. Major issues with ice formation can be created. Ice dams can result creating water infiltration issues. And, ice formations can result that can fall from the roof.

Melting snow in and around lawns and garden areas can also have adverse effects on plants as the natural snow-melt process is altered. Be sure to do proper research and understand how existing plants can be impacted.

In any event, spring is almost here!!—GO RED SOX!!!

-Joel E. Breuer, PE

Mr. Breuer is Managing Partner at HG Cornerstone, LLC a national construction consulting, forensic engineering, and expert witness firm serving its clients nationwide.


Welcome to Part 1 of our blog on identifying and correcting potential causes flood damage and water damage.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the number two cause of property damage claims, second only to wind and hail claims, is water damage related claims. Water damage claims total in the billions of dollars every year. Such claims are particularly costly in multi-unit buildings including low-rise, mid-rise, and high-rise condominiums, apartments, office and industrial buildings, and hotels.

Typically, when a water release occurs in one unit of a multi-unit building additional units are directly affected, significantly increasing the amount of the claim. The glaring fact, however, is that most water damage claims are largely preventable.

The typical amount of a water damage claim for a single-family home ranges roughly from about $2,000 to $10,000 per occurrence. However, for a multi-unit building the low-end claims that we are seeing are in the tens of thousands of dollars range and many of the cases we consult on are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range, with some exceeding one million dollars.

Water damage can occur from any number of sources, any time of the year, and a small leak can become catastrophic instantaneously. What’s more, water tends to travel very quickly throughout a building and over great distances from its source. Water leaks can be difficult to detect and even harder to locate precisely. And, all too often, water releases occur over a weekend when reaction times are slower, and can even go undetected all weekend, increasing the scope of the damage. So it’s important to know what to look for and solve it before a water release occurs.

Below are ten sources of water damage taken from actual claims that we have provided expert witness services on involving significant dollar-value property damage insurance claims and, in some cases, extensive and costly litigation. Building owners and operators should be aware of these and take steps to identify and mitigate them in their buildings. This is by no means an exhaustive list and the items on the list are not presented in any particular order of importance, as they will vary from building to building based upon things like age and construction type.

Here they are:

  1. Roofing Issues– The condition of a building’s roof is of vital importance, especially flat roofs. Conditions like low spots, improperly constructed drainage slopes, lack of proper drainage, situations that allow ice dams to build up, improperly installed roofing materials, and physical damage left un-repaired can all contribute to water infiltration. Skylights and roof penetrations are often problematic. Roofs, skylights and all roof penetrations should be inspected annually and poor conditions remedied by qualified, licensed contractors. During the winter, properly remove built-up snow periodically in a safe and correct manner and ensure that proper drainage is working.
  2. Connector Hoses – Flexible hoses including those used to connect the building’s water supply to toilets, sinks, ice-makers, dishwashers, and heat pump units, can fail. Some brands have even been the subject of class action lawsuits. About half of the claims having to do with clothes washers are related to the connector hoses. Check hoses regularly for signs of wear and tear, and replace as needed. Also, be aware of brand recalls and class action lawsuits.
  3. Bad Plumbing Work – A surprising number of claims come from bad or improper plumbing work in the form of repairs, water system upgrades, or re-piping projects. Plumbing connections need to be made properly and, if not, catastrophic results can occur. During a typical re-piping project hundreds of pipe and fitting connections are made, increasing the chances of a mistake. Always hire well-qualified licensed plumbers to do the work. Make sure that all work is adequately checked under full water pressure before the plumber leaves the building. Hire a qualified third-party inspector to check the work on large repair and plumbing projects.
  4. Discharge from Backflow Prevention Assemblies – Backflow prevention assemblies are designed and required to prevent bad water from entering the public drinking water supply. They are connected to both domestic water supplies and fire suppression systems. As a normal part of their operation, these devises will discharge water. Also, if a check valve inside of the backflow prevention devise becomes clogged or fouled, a lot of water can be discharged all at once. A properly sized drain should be located at the backflow prevention device. Every backflow prevention device is required to be inspected and tested annually.
  5. Automatic Control Valve issues – Automatic Control Valves, commonly referred to as ACVs, or as Pressure Regulating Valves (PRVs), are installed in buildings to regulate the water pressure and to maintain that pressure within a certain set range as water demand fluctuates throughout the day. If AVCs are not inspected and maintained as necessary, properly sized, installed incorrectly, or are not properly operated, an increase in water pressure can result affecting plumbing downstream and could burst supply lines, cause water heater safety relief valves to open, and/or damage fittings and appliances. A well-qualified licensed plumber should inspect and maintain AVCs annually in full accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations. Only allow an experienced licensed plumber to install, maintain or adjust your ACVs.

Please refer to Part 2 of our blog for the next five potential causes of water damage.

Written by Joel E. Breuer, PE managing partner at HG Cornerstone. Mr. Breuer can be contacted at

Great News for Forensics Experts & Litigators: Significant Investment in Materials Science Research & Education Continues to Emerge

science-and-moneyMaterials science and engineering is applied in a significant number of property-casualty and construction defects civil lawsuits each year, including issues involving the failure of structural building materials, piping and water control-valve corrosion and fractures, and electrical equipment defects, to name a few. During litigation, each side resolutely depends on the strategic application of materials science to help prove or defend a given claim.

Whether it’s strength of materials testing, metallurgy, thermodynamics, or physical chemistry, the advancement of materials science and engineering is critical to our better understanding of how and why materials fail, our improved ability to forensically examine and test physical evidence, and our furthered capacity to furnish verifiable proof that can withstand even the most rigorous challenges.

In the South, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, recently awarded a major grant to the Louisiana Consortium for Neutron Scattering, or LaCNS, involving $4.9 million in funding for three years. The LaCNS comprises Louisiana State University, or LSU, and faculty and graduate students from other Louisiana universities that will be collaborating on the research project including Tulane University, University of New Orleans, Louisiana Tech.

In a February 9, 2015 article posted on LSU Media Center’s website ( /ur/ocur/lsunews/mediacenter/news), LaCNS principal investigator and LSU physics professor John DiTusa said “This research promises to have a long-term impact on everything from the amount of memory available in your computer and the speed at which it can be accessed, the efficiency of power transmission lines and the cost and efficiency of devices that convert sunlight to electricity, as well as the discovery of new materials with unexpected properties. All of these aspects need fundamental discoveries to make advances toward new and better devices.”

“Part of our mission is to excite and train the next generation of scientists who will be experts in both the science and neutron scattering techniques,” DiTusa said.

inel-scatAs the article also points out, neutron scattering is one of the few materials investigation techniques available capable of probing the structure and dynamics of materials over a broad range of time, length and energy scales. What this translates into is virtually unlimited potential for advances in areas of science that include the study of crystalline solids, physics, physical chemistry, and materials research.

Undoubtedly, advances in neutron scattering and related techniques will ultimately lend themselves to advances in, and contributions to, forensic sciences and engineering.

In the Northeast, Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts opened its brand new $3.7 million, 7,000 square-foot, Gelfand Strength of Materials Laboratory this past fall. The facility is named after Mark Gelfand, a software engineer and entrepreneur whose family foundation, the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, donated $1 million to the project.

“We’re very excited to celebrate the opening of these new spaces,” Wentworth President Zorica Pantić said in a press release last fall. “With these new facilities, Wentworth is providing our undergraduate students with graduate-level laboratories, which aligns with our plan to add more graduate programs, including several in engineering disciplines.”

A materials science laboratory and a nanotechnology laboratory, named Sweeney Nanotechnology Laboratory, were also opened at the same time within the materials laboratory building. The materials testing laboratory contains industry standard equipment and the latest industrial machinery used to test a material’s tensile strength, its resistance to torsion, its structural behavior, as well as other important properties.

The level of funding being allocated to materials science research and education continues to grow as we seek to better understand the world around us and as interest and breakthroughs in areas like neutron scattering and nanotechnology intensify. With this comes the potential for us to improve our proficiency as experts, claims adjusters, and litigators. Support your local science and engineering community when you can.

-Joel E. Breuer, PE

Mr. Breuer is Managing Partner at HG Cornerstone, LLC a national construction consulting, forensic engineering, and expert witness firm serving its clients nationwide.

Alert: Warning Signs before a Snow-Load Roof Collapse Occurs

fb_thumbnail_snow_loads_roof_collapseWith all of the snow we’ve had here in New England lately, we’ve already seen a number of roofs collapse from the added snow load. Already this month in Massachusetts alone we have seen roof collapses at the Piano Mill in Rockland, a commercial building in Rockland, an industrial building in Canton, a former sportsplex building in Auburn, an Abington building, and an historic building in Hingham.

There are often, but not always, advanced warning signs that occur before a roof collapses. If you observe any of these signs, safely evacuate the building and have a structural engineer perform an inspection. Your building may be sending out warnings signs in advance.

Some Warning Signs

Visual Signs: If you notice anything new or usual such as sagging ceilings or beams, cracked wood beams or posts, bent posts, cracked plaster or sheetrock, misalignment of building elements, new gaps that have formed, doors that have become difficult to operate, bulging or curved walls, cracked or broken windows, light fixtures or sprinkler heads pushing down from the ceiling, bowed pipes or electrical conduit, pipe leaks or bursts (due to bending), new roof leaks, or water stains your roof could be in danger of imminent collapse.

Auditory Signs: Creaking, popping, cracking, repeated tapping sounds in the walls or ceiling, or any strange or unusual sounds.

Felt Signs: Things that are new or unusual such as cold drafts, spongy or bouncy floors, tilting or uneven floors, or any strange movements felt within the building.

Action Items

The advanced warning signs listed represent only some possible signs that can occur. The absence of such signs does not mean that your roof is necessarily safe from collapse. It is also possible for a roof collapse to occur with little to no advanced warning signs at all.

To be safe, it is recommended that: 1) roofs be cleared of as much snow as possible in a safe and responsible manner by a qualified contractor using proper snow removal methods, and 2) an assessment be performed by a structural engineer to evaluate existing snow-load conditions when snow cannot be safely or practically removed. The engineer can evaluate the degree of danger and can help manage the situation with possible solutions such as added temporary shoring and bracing. Always err on the side of caution.

Written by Joel E. Breuer, PE managing partner at HG Cornerstone. Mr. Breuer can be contacted at


Written by Joel E. Breuer, PE managing partner at HG Cornerstone. Mr. Breuer can be contacted at

Building Codes Ramping up in the South

shutterstock18325365840-crop-600x338This is good news as better codes will help protect life and property. As the attached article published by PropertyCasualty360 points out, just this past November the state of Mississippi implemented its first statewide building code, Texas held hearings to examine its coastal codes, and although the 2014 building code legislation did not pass in Alabama, the importance of adopting minimum statewide building code standards is being discussed.

Miss. legislators enact first statewide building codes to withstand greater hurricane force wind | PropertyCasualty360

Eliminating Construction Defects During Pre-Construction

WoodFamedConstructionPotential construction defects can be eliminated early on through sound project management techniques. Here’s one I like to use for private contracts.

The period of time between when a contractor’s bid has been accepted and the signing of the construction contract presents unique opportunities and this “sweet spot” is typically underutilized. This is the period of time when the parties are “happy-happy”—the contractor has won and the owner or PM has identified someone they can work with. Work has not started yet so nothing has gone wrong. This is when the pre-scope meeting should be employed to iron out the expectations of the contractor and whether anything was missed in the bid, as is typically done. However, the pre-scope meeting should also be a technical meeting and key technical people need to attend.

Here is a unique opportunity to really delve into the written specifications, drawings, materials types, installation techniques, construction methodologies, when key construction observations will be made by the PM, input from the manufacturer’s representative during the project, how situations unique to certain trades and products will be handled, and when to expect holding key discussions, to name a few. Yes, these things should have been looked at during bidding, but now a second, even closer look is merited.

This only works if key technical people from the owner’s and contractor’s sides attend though (e.g., architect, engineer, onsite PM, construction supervisors), and, this spirit of open communications will be better maintained throughout the project. In my opinion, most construction defects issues have their roots in bad or missing communications. -Joel Breuer, PE

A Case for Construction Experts to Study —

dreamstime_l_34189952Very interesting aspects to this case: 1) the plaintiff’s expert applied “total cost” methodology vs. “measured mile” (expert did not err in this per judge), 2) the judge found that the subcontractor-plaintiff suffered an “increased workforce” under a “compressed schedule”, 3) judge listed both design problems and project mismanagement as grounds for loss-of-productivity damages, and 4) judge concluded that the no-damages-for-delay provision did not preclude recovery regardless of how damages characterized, i.e., failure to provide time extensions vs. hindrances/interferences.

‘No damages for delay’ clause doesn’t bar recovery | Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Co-Defendant? Retain Your OWN Experts!

images-5This is what can happen when a co-defendant rides along on the coat-tails of the primary defendant’s expert. In the event that the primary defendant settles out or is dismissed from the case, the co-defendant may not be allowed to utilize the services or prior testimony of the primary defendant’s expert if stricken.

Chess match nets $12.25M in construction defect suit | Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Where do twenty- and thirty-somethings want to rent? A Boston viewpoint…

Teenagers-on-PhonesThis past week I attended the Architectural Boston Expo 2012 a.k.a. ABX, held at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center—Nov 14-16. I brushed up on everything from social networking to the anticipated future of multifamily living. Topics addressed included: What are our twenty- and thirty-somethings looking for in apartment communities? Can we keep them in Boston?

Our younger gens are much more social and seek out others with similar interests to share ideas with, collaborate with, and integrate with. The answers included smaller apartment floor plans that by the nature of their size are more affordable, flexible living space (the concept of movable walls, interior wall bike racks, self-expression walls for writing and posting on, and random areas to gather in), and connectivity to neighborhood venues to name a few. Some apt. developers are meeting this.

Neighborhoods are important too. Coffee shops, Internet cafes, smaller local clubs and meeting places steps away from the apartment, along with bike and commuter options close by. Where do you see multifamily products headed for this demographic in your area?  -Joel Breuer, PE