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Proceedings of ICE

Civil Engineering 162 May 2009

Pages 12–17 Paper 800040

doi: 10.1680/cien.2009.162.5.12
brickwork & masonry; concrete
structures; materials technology

Forensic engineering
of fire-damaged
Jeremy Ingham
MSc, DipRMS, CEng, MInstNDT,
EurGeol, CGeol, CSci, FGS,
There has never been a greater need for buildings, tunnels and
other infrastructure to be assessed for damage following fires.
is senior materials engineer at
Halcrow in London Even after a severe fire, structures are often capable of being
repaired rather than demolished. This paper describes the role of
forensic engineers in the investigation of fire-damaged structures
constructed in concrete, steel and masonry. Forensic-engineering
procedures described include on-site inspection and testing
techniques, laboratory testing and structural fire analysis. The design
and implementation of repairs is also discussed.

Every day in the UK alone, insurers pay out in include offices, warehouses and schools. In
excess of £2 million in commercial fire claims. recent years a number of notable fires have
Consequently there is a persistent requirement occurred during construction of multi-storey
for structures to be forensically assessed for fire buildings, when formwork and falsework has
damage to ensure safety and enable appropriate caught fire (Figure 1). Other common scenarios
repairs to be planned and executed. Building involve non-building structures, for example
structures most likely to be subjected to fire vehicle fires in car parks or tunnels.

Figure 1. Fire during construction of a multi-storey building (courtesy Imre Solt)

Fires occur in structures with a wide range
of different construction systems, which use
different types or combinations of materials for
their structural members. Hence, the forensic
investigator must understand the effect that
heating has on a variety of different construc-
tion materials (Figure 2). This paper describes
forensic-engineering procedures suitable for fire-
damage assessments of structures constructed
from concrete, steel and masonry.
In the aftermath of a fire the focus is on
immediate measures for securing public safety.
In the UK, the fire brigade will usually secure
the building and may call in the local building-
control officer to make an assessment of the
stability of the structure. The building-control
officer may require parts of the structure to
be demolished or stabilised before anyone else
can enter. The responsible person, as defined
in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order,1
is required to assess whether the building is
deemed safe.
The fire-and-rescue authority can request
that compliance with the requirements of the
fire-safety order is demonstrated. The author-
ity has the powers to take enforcement action
where requirements of the order are breached
or where a serious risk to life exists. Often the
authority will also be notified by the police,
which may investigate arson.
Once the immediate concerns have been dealt
with, the insurer or owner may commission an
investigation of the damage. These parties will
often have a major interest in finding the most Figure 2. Fire in a skyscraper where the fire affected various different types of construction material
cost-effective solution for repairing the struc-
ture. In the most concise terms, the assessment,
design and repair of fire-damaged structures
consists of the following stages

n preliminary inspection
n assessment of damage
n testing and detailed assessment
n design of repairs to structural elements
n implementation of structural repairs.

Assessment of fire-damaged
The scene of apparent devastation that results
from a significant fire (Figure 3) can be mis-
leading. Methodical assessment is required to
determine correctly the degree of damage and
condition of the structure. Guidance for the
assessment of the effects of fire can be found in
The Institution of Structural Engineers publica-
tion Appraisal of Existing Structures.2
The aim of an assessment of a fire-damaged
structure is to propose appropriate repair meth-
ods or to decide whether demolition of elements
or the whole structure is more appropriate. The
assessment process should determine the degree
and extent of damage to structural elements. Figure 3. View of the interior of fire-damaged reinforced concrete structure showing a spalled slab soffit and
burnt formwork debris
The assessment would usually be used to direct-

issn 0965 089 X ProCeedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – CIVIL ENGINEERING, 2009, 162, No. CE5 13

ly assess the quality and condition of structural of steel are cut out using an angle grinder or
members by a combination of saw. Table 1 lists a range of tests suitable for use
in fire-damage assessment programmes.
n visual inspection and hammer soundings As an alternative or addition to inspection
n non-destructive testing and testing, predictive fire-engineering tools,
n sampling of materials and subsequent labo- such as empirical equations or computer model-
ratory testing. ling used in design, can be used to assess the
fire severity in the structure. These predictions
The result of the assessment will be a damage are based on the fire load in the building, venti-
classification, which may be used in the selec- lation conditions, compartment size and shape
tion of appropriate repair techniques. Ideally and properties of wall linings.
this should be provided on drawings showing An estimate of the fire time–temperature
Figure 4. Removing concrete using a hammer the actual condition of the fire-damaged struc- curve can be based on the heat-release, the char-
and chisel to determine the depth of damaged ture. The assessment needs to provide sufficient acteristic temperatures at flashover, the expected
concrete (courtesy Brian Cole) information to finally prepare detailed drawings gas temperatures during a fully developed phase
with instructions on how to repair the structure. of the fire and the area of window openings
An assessment programme will consist of providing ventilation to the fire. An assessment
on- and off-site work. Prior to undertaking on- with a finite-element computer fluid-dynamics
site inspection the investigator must be satisfied program might then allow hot spots to be
that the structure is safe to enter. Temporary determined. Once a credible time–temperature
falsework or props may be required to secure distribution within the compartment has been
individual members and stabilise the structure determined, an assessment of the temperatures
as a whole. The primary on-site investigation within the concrete is possible without relying
technique is visual inspection, which records solely on site inspections and laboratory testing.
such features as collapse, distortion, deflections, As a result of heat transfer analysis it may be
degree of damage to materials and smoke dam- possible to reduce the amount of testing.
age. A small hammer may be used to conduct Based on the findings of the assessment, deci-
a tapping survey of element surfaces that will sions regarding any reduced load-bearing capac-
detect hollow sounding delaminated material. ity to the structure can be made. Instrumented
Simple invasive investigation techniques such load tests can be used to confirm whether or not
as using a hammer and chisel may also be used load capacity has been impaired. Load tests can
(Figure 4). also be used to investigate the efficacy of repairs
A site-specific classification scheme for the in structural terms.
damage would normally be devised. A number
of complimentary non-destructive testing Concrete structures
(NDT) techniques can be used to assess mate-
rial strength in situ. Also, samples of damaged Guidance for the assessment of fire-damaged
material and undamaged references may be concrete structures is given in Concrete Society
removed for laboratory investigation. Concrete technical report 68.3 When considering the
and masonry samples are typically obtained by effects of fire on structural concrete elements,
diamond drilling of cores or by careful extrac- the deleterious reactions undergone by both
Figure 5. Taking core samples at a fire-damaged
tion of lump samples (Figure 5), while samples concrete and any reinforcement bars or pre-
brick building
stressing tendons must be considered. In this
section, concrete will be considered while rein-
Table 1. Test method options for assessment of fire-damaged structures forcement will be discusssed in the following
Test location Test type Test method Structural material
section. Heating of concrete in a fire causes a
progressive series of mineralogical and strength
Concrete Steel (including Masonry
reinforcement) changes that are summarised in Table 2.
The strength of concrete after cooling varies
On-site Non-destructive Visual inspection 3 3 3
depending on temperature attained, the heating
Endoscope survey 3
duration, mix proportions, aggregates present
Hammer soundings 3 3 3
and the applied loading during heating. For tem-
Rebound hammer 3 3 peratures up to 300°C, the residual compressive
Ultrasonic testing 3 3 3 strength of structural-quality concrete is not sig-
Magnetic particle imaging 3 nificantly reduced, while for temperatures greater
Partially destructive Breakout/ drilling 3 3 than 500°C the residual strength may be reduced
Load test 3 3 3 to only a small fraction of its original value. The
Laboratory Petrographic examination 3 3 temperature of 300ºC is normally taken to be
Metallography 3
the critical temperature above which concrete is
deemed to have been significantly damaged.
Hardness test 3
Spalling of the surface layers is a common
Compressive strength 3 3
effect of fires and may be grouped into two or
Tensile strength 3 more types. Explosive spalling is erratic and

14 ProCeedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – CIVIL ENGINEERING, 2009, 162, No. CE5 issn 0965 089 X
Forensic engineering of
fire-damaged structures

generally occurs in the first 30 minutes of the

fire. A slower spalling, referred to as ‘sloughing For temperatures up to 300°C, the residual
off’, occurs as cracks form parallel to the fire-
affected surfaces leading to a gradual separation compressive strength of structural-quality
of concrete layers and detachment of a section
of concrete along some plane of weakness, such concrete is not significantly reduced
as a layer of reinforcement. Also, the thermal
incompatibility of aggregates and cement paste
causes stresses which frequently lead to cracks,
particularly in the form of surface crazing. Ther-
mal shock caused by rapid cooling from fire-
fighting water may also cause cracking.
The colour of concrete can change as a result
of heating, which is apparent upon visual inspec-
tion. In many cases a pink/red discolouration
occurs above 300°C, which is important since it
coincides approximately with the onset of signifi-
300 mm
cant loss of strength due to heating (Figure 6).
Any pink/red discoloured concrete should be Figure 7. Fire-damaged concrete as seen through
regarded as being suspect and potentially weak- the microscope during petrographic examination
ened.4 The colour change is a function of oxidis- Figure 6. View of a fire-damaged concrete slab – showing a crack running parallel to the outer
able iron content and it should be noted that as soffit showing pink/red discolouration of flint surface and red discolouration of a flint fine
iron content varies, not all aggregates undergo aggregate particles aggregate particle, indicating heating to 300–600ºC5
colour changes on heating. In general, colour
changes are most pronounced for siliceous Table 2. Summary of mineralogical and strength changes to concrete caused by heating5
aggregate and less so for limestone and granite.
Heating Changes caused by heating
On-site investigation of fire-damaged concrete temperature: °C
Mineralogical changes Strength changes
structures typically starts with visual inspection
and hammer tapping, which identifies collapse, 70–80 Dissociation of ettringite Minor loss of
strength possible
deflections, spalling, cracking, surface crazing 105 Loss of physically bound water in aggregate and cement matrix commences, (<10%)
increasing capillary porosity
and smoke damage. An example of a damage
classsification scheme suitable for fire-damaged 120–163 Decomposition of gypsum
concrete structures is shown in Table 3. A 250–350 Oxidation of iron compounds causing pink/red discolouration of aggregate. Loss Significant loss
of bound water in cement matrix and associated degradation becomes more of strength
number of complementary NDTs can be used to prominent commences at
assess concrete strength in-situ. These include 450–500 Dehydroxylation of portlandite. Aggregate calcines and will eventually change
Schmidt (rebound) hammer, ultrasonic pulse colour to white/grey
velocity, penetration resistance test (Windsor 573 5% increase in volume of quartz (-to-quartz transition) causing radial crackingConcrete not
probe) and drilling-resistance tests. around the quartz grains in the aggregate structurally useful
after heating in
A number of laboratory tests are available to 600–800 Release of carbon dioxide from carbonates may cause a considerable contraction temperatures in
of the concrete (with severe micro-cracking of the cement matrix)
aid the investigator in determining concrete con- excess of 500–
800–1200 Dissociation and extreme thermal stress cause complete disintegration of 600ºC
dition. Petrographic examination and compres- calcareous constituents, resulting in whitish-grey concrete colour and severe
sive strength testing of core samples are those micro-cracking
most commonly used in fire-damage investiga- 1200 Concrete starts to melt
tions. Petrographic examination is the definitive 1300–1400 Concrete melted
technique for determining the depth of fire dam-
age in concrete.5 It is performed in the laborato-
Table 3. Simplified visual concrete fire damage classification3
ry by experienced concrete petrographers, using
optical microscopes in accordance with ASTM Class of Features observed
C856.6 The technique involves visual and low- Finishes Colour Crazing Spalling Reinforcement Cracks/
power optical microscopical examination of the deflection
as-received sample, followed by a more detailed 0 (Decoration Unaffected Normal None None None exposed None
high-power optical microscopical examination
of prepared thin-section specimens (Figure 7). 1 (Superficial Some peeling Normal Slight Minor None exposed None
repair required)
It is advisable to assess the strength of the *
2 (General Substantial loss Pink/red Moderate Localised Up to 25% None
unaffected concrete to confirm the design repair required) exposed
assumptions. The most direct method of esti- 3 (Principal Total loss Pink/red * Extensive Considerable Up to 50% Minor/ None
mating the compressive strength of concrete is repair required) Whitish grey ** exposed
by testing core samples cut from the structure. 4 (Major repair Destroyed Whitish grey **
Surface lost Almost total Up to 50% Major/
The test procedure is given in part 3 of BS EN required) exposed Distorted
12390.7 The main value of core testing is to Notes
* Pink/red discolouration is due to oxidation of ferric salts in aggregates and is not always present and seldom in
determine the original strength of the concrete calcareous aggregate.
and hence should be carried out in areas that ** White-grey discolouration due to calcination of calcareous components of cement matrix and (where present)
have not been affected by the fire. calcareous or flint aggregate.

issn 0965 089 X ProCeedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – CIVIL ENGINEERING, 2009, 162, No. CE5 15

Steelwork and steel reinforcement steel in concrete eventually causes buckling and
residual defections of the structural element.
Significant loss of strength of steel may occur The effect of high temperature is more critical
while the steel is at high temperature. However, on prestressing steel than on reinforcing steel.
recovery of yield strength after cooling is gener- At temperatures of 200–400ºC, steel prestress-
ally complete for temperatures up to 450°C ing tendons show considerable loss of strength
for cold-worked steel and 600°C for hot-rolled (>50% loss at about 400°C). In terms of re-use,
steel. Above these temperatures, there will be a a more important factor is the effect of heat
loss in yield strength after cooling. upon the tension of the steel. Loss of tension
For structural steelwork the adequacy of fire may be contributed to by loss of elastic modu-
protection will play an important part in the out- lus in the concrete, increased relaxation due to
come of a fire. The effects of heating may include creep and non-recoverable extension of tendons.
reduction in physical properties, distortion, axial The first stage of assessing fire damage of
Figure 8. Fire-damaged brickwork exhibiting red shortening of columns, over-stressing of bolts, steelwork is on-site visual inspection looking for
discolouration of the brickwork mortar5 connections and welds.8 Heating of reinforcing defects such as buckling, bowing, twisting and
distortion of elements. Close on-site examination
may be undertaken for evidence of overheating
such as changes in metallographic grain struc-
ture. Samples may be cut from steel members
and bolts removed for more accurate laboratory
metallographic examination and hardness test-
ing. Loads due to heating may weaken bolts and
welds, so that in-situ weld testing by ultrasonic
or magnetic particle imaging is often required.
To assess fire damage of steel reinforcement
in concrete, the visual assessment is usually
backed up by taking samples laboratory testing.
This typically comprises testing for yield, elonga-
tion and tensile strength with the results being
compared with the relevant standard for the
grade of steel concerned.

Stone and brick masonry

Stone and brick masonry can be seriously
50 mm affected by building fires. The damage tends to be
concentrated around window openings and door-
Figure 9. Fire-damaged limestone masonry as seen through the microscope during petrographic ways but may also affect structural masonry.9 A
examination, showing extensive heat-induced microcracking in near surface zone5 load bearing wall exposed to fire will suffer a pro-
gressive reduction in strength due to deterioration
of the mortar in the same manner as concrete.
Table 4. Changes caused by heating of various types of natural stone that may be observed visually or Severe damage is more likely to be caused
microscopically 4 by expansion or collapse of other structural
Heating Stone type members. At high temperatures of 600–800ºC,
temperature: ºC
Limestone Sandstone Marble Granite the strength of most natural stones and masonry
250 Pink or reddish-brown Red discolouration Heating marble non- At <573ºC, if heating mortars is seriously affected and if thermal
discolouration starts at starts at 250–300ºC but reversible expansion rate is <1ºC per minute shock occurs the stone can disintegrate. Crack-
300 250–300ºC may not become visible known as thermal the thermal expansion is
until 400ºC hysteresis fully reversible. If heating ing can also be caused by quenching masonry
400 Discolouration becomes rate >5ºC per minute
more reddish at 400ºC heated by fire with fire-fighting water.
the expansion is not
totally reversible Clay bricks can withstand temperatures in
600 Calcination of calcium >573ºC causes internal >600ºC complete Develops cracks or
the region of 1000ºC or more without damage,
carbonate at >600ºC rupturing of quartz disruption due to shatter at 573ºC due to but under very severe and prolonged heating
grains with associated differential expansion, quartz expansion the surface of the brick may fuse. Spalling may
weakening and friability. becomes friable and
Clay minerals in the reduces to powder occur with some types of brick, particularly
cement disintegrate of the perforated type. At lower temperatures
(kaolinite up to 600°C,
chlorite above 600°C) of 250–300ºC, damage is usually restricted
800 Calcium carbonate Red discolouration may Differential thermal
to colour changes, such as reddening of iron-
calcines to a grey-white persist until 1000ºC. expansions at higher bearing stones and mortars (Figure 8).
powder at 800–1000ºC Any calcium carbonate temperatures (900ºC) Although not structurally significant, as
with associated loss of cement calcines to gives rise to tensile and
strength powder at 800-1000 ºC compressive stresses the colour change is non-reversible, it may be
causing disintegration causing permanent strain significant for aesthetic reasons, especially in
in the stone
the case of historic buildings. In some cases,
1000 + Melting starts masonry that is well away from the fire can

16 ProCeedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – CIVIL ENGINEERING, 2009, 162, No. CE5 issn 0965 089 X
Forensic engineering of
fire-damaged structures

suffer from smoke staining or blackening. proposed reinstatement and repair works. structures start with the removal of loose mate-
Water used to fight the fire or water that has In general the design of the repaired sec- rials for safety reasons. With historic structures,
ingressed due to compromised weatherproofing, tions of the building should comply with cur- efforts are usually made to retain as much of
may cause salt effluorescence on surfaces and rent codes of practice. However, the damaged the original material as possible by using vari-
leaching of mortars. structure may have been designed to out of date ous consolidation techniques. It is desirable
The changes caused by heating of various types codes of practice. Consequently, it may be nec- – and an essential requirement when dealing
of natural stone are shown in Table 4. The most essary to formulate a strategy for the structural with historic buildings – to match the original
important are the red discolouration caused by design of the repaired section of the building, materials to ensure compatibility.
oxidation of iron compounds which commences which is compatible with the original design. Severely damaged masonry units and mortars
at around 300ºC. The red discolouration Also, limitations may be imposed on the restora- are replaced in order to maintain structural
corresponds with the onset of significant strength tion of listed buildings. integrity. Damage to any embedded metal
loss and it can be used to detect the 300ºC The designer should prepare key plans of cramps or fixings must also be considered in the
thermal contour in a similar manner to concrete. each area showing the location of the repair repair scheme.
Other important heat-induced changes in stone work. In addition to the design drawings and
include cracking or shattering of quartz resulting details, the designer should prepare detailed Conclusions
from the α- to β- quartz phase transition at 573ºC material and workmanship specifications for the
and the calcination of limestone and marble at repair work. These should include full informa- Fire-damaged structures are often capable of
800–1000ºC. tion on the repair materials and the means for being repaired rather than replaced. Engineers
On-site investigation of fire-damaged ensuring quality control. can successfully assess fire-damaged structures
masonry largely consists of visual survey Regarding repair, at best members may need using a range of forensic-engineering techniques
and hammer tapping. For cavity brick walls, no structural repair as they have sufficient and specify well-informed repair solutions.
endoscope surveys prove useful for investigating residual strength, and at worst demolition will As an alternative to demolition this can provide
the condition of wall ties and insulation. Stone/ be required. Concrete element repair will usu- substantial savings in capital expenditure and also
brick and mortar samples taken on-site can ally include three main processes, the first being savings in consequential losses, by permitting ear-
successfully be petrographically examined to removal of damaged concrete by using either lier reuse and reoccupation of structures.
determine the depth of fire-damage (Figure 9). power breakers or water jetting. After a severe
fire it is likely that the second process will com- References
Design and implementation of repairs prise removal of weakened reinforcement and 1. The Stationery Office. The Regulatory Reform
connection of new reinforcement. The final part (Fire Safety) Order. Stationery Office, London,
Repairs to fire-damaged structures should of the repair stage will comprise reinstatement 2005, Statutory Instrument 2005 No. 1541.
provide the strength, fire resistance, durability of concrete (Figure 10) to provide adequate 2. Institution of Structural Engineers. Appraisal
of existing structures, 2nd edn. ISE, London, 1996.
and appearance appropriate to the proposed use structural capacity, the necessary durability and 3. Concrete Society. Assessment, Design and
and projected design life of the building. The fire resistance, and an acceptable appearance. Repair of Fire-Damaged Concrete Structures. The
intended use for the structure and the objec- Structural steelwork may be strengthened Concrete Society, Camberley, 2008, technical
tives for the repair should be agreed with the by welded stiffeners or replaced completely report 68.
building owner before commencing the design or in part. In addition steelwork may require 4. Ingham J. P. and Tarada F. Turning up the heat
- full service fire safety engineering for concrete
of the repair work. In addition, the local author- replacement of fire protection and corrosion structures. Concrete, 2007, October, 27-30.
ity should be consulted regarding the need for protection systems. 5. Ingham J. P. Assessment of fire-damaged con-
approval under the Building Regulations for the Repair techniques for fire-damaged masonry crete and masonry structures: the application of
petrography. Proceedings of the 11th Euroseminar
on Microscopy Applied to Building Materials, Porto,
5-9 June 2007.
6. ASTM International. Standard Practice for the
Petrographic Examination of Hardened Concrete.
American Society for Testing and Materials,
Philadelphia, USA, 2004, ASTM C856-04.
7. British Standards Institution. Testing Hardened
Concrete, Part 3: Compressive Strength of Test
Specimens. BSI, London, 2002, BS EN 12504.
8. Robery P. After the fire: testing to minimise
refurbishment costs. Construction Maintenance and
Repair, 1991, May/June, 17–21.
9. Chakrabarti B., Yates T. and Lewry A. Effect
of fire damage on natural stonework in build-
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10, No. 7, 539–544.

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Figure 10. Application of sprayed concrete to repair a fire-damaged reinforced concrete floor slab4 happy to provide any help or advice you need.

issn 0965 089 X ProCeedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – CIVIL ENGINEERING, 2009, 162, No. CE5 17
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