Construction is both a part and a sign of progress in society. No reasonable person would argue that all of it should be stopped. Most construction contractors are honest, decent people who are trying to do a professional job, usually under significant time constraints, at the lowest possible cost. Sometimes, some very limited vibration damage in a residential neighborhood can occur, even for work done by the most well-meaning and careful of contractors. Such well-meaning, respect-worthy contractors will usually be reasonable about resolving damage claims, without subjecting the injured party to much more than the minimum amount of abuse and worry.
Unfortunately, not all contractors can be said to fall into that category. These other folks, sometimes with the support of the people who fund them, will ignore recommended safe methods, Federal regulations, equipment operation manuals, vibration standards and their own policies, damaging your home and many others. If your house gets spoiled by one of those, you're in for an unpleasant fight.
Substantial vibration damage is neither necessary nor unavoidable. There are well-known, free, publicly-available and respected documents which describe how vibration damage occurs and how to mitigate vibration so as to forestall damage. While not all construction projects cause damage to nearby structures, it is widely accepted among those with some understanding of the relevant science that damage is possible under some circumstances. It is, perhaps, even probable when safe operation procedures, accepted methods, company policies and mitigation means are ignored.
If you are involved with a construction vibration damage occurrence, you will probably be subjected to unscientific, unsupported and self-serving biases to the effect that "construction can't cause damage". These seem prevalent among those involved in construction-related activities. While it is undoubtedly true that not all construction work causes vibration damage and not all damage claims actually involve construction vibration causation, blanket statements that damage is "impossible" are both unproven and unprovable logically. Many of the people who offer, and, perhaps, genuinely believe such views, seem completely unaware that, if there is any rational basis for them at all, it is limited, scientifically extremely weak and too often contradicted both by experience and scientific studies.
Such biased attitudes may actually contribute to damage, by giving construction workers and on-site supervisors a false sense of security about the potential consequences of their work. Further contributing to damage are monetary incentives in contracts for on-time completion, which too often end up encouraging the contractor to do the work as fast as possible, with minimal concern for surrounding property. Such unintended incentives for the contractor to carry out operations in a predictably risky manner could be removed simply by requiring that receipt of such incentives be contingent upon completion of the job without damage complaints.
If there is any foundation at all for "construction can't cause damage" opinions, it appears to rest largely on the selective reading and misapplication of blasting vibration standards and studies. These are of limited value in non-blasting construction vibration settings, as the studies themselves state explicitly several times. Short duration blasting vibrations, both from mining and construction, have been broadly and, for the most part, well-studied scientifically. However, there is too little directly applicable scientific study of long duration (i.e. more than a few seconds) or continuous construction vibration, in spite of the obvious potential importance of such work and the known critical differences in frequency distribution and duration between construction and blasting vibration.
A careful reading of the far more extensive blasting vibration damage literature is more than sufficient to raise many questions about whether construction vibration damage might be far more prevalent than acknowledged or imagined by those doing the construction work or those hired by construction contractors to endorse their positions. Although the subject of some current work, information on construction vibration damage is still dominated by blasting-related studies. These are useful and valuable in a general sense, but have clear, and admitted, limitations in construction settings. Calculations of total displacement, from seismographic data in a road construction job, show that construction produces tens to well over a hundred times as much accumulated movement as worst-case blasting over comparable time intervals.
Blast-created source vibrations usually last for less time than the natural duration of vibrations generated in the home, allowing the home vibrations to die well before the next blast. It is unclear how far blasting vibration damage results can be "stretched" to include construction vibration durations. These are typically much longer than the natural time of persistence of vibrations in homes, allowing potentially damaging resonance amplification effects in the structure to be maximized. These differences in vibration effects between blasting and construction vibration are poorly addressed in existing research. Worse yet, existing studies don't directly address how resonance effects may be enhanced by long-lasting construction vibrations at all.
Vibration monitoring reports, usually done at the behest of a contractor facing vibration damage claims, often base their conclusions on highly selective analyses of partial data, which lack the information needed to assess the real potential for damage from resonant enhancement of vibrations. The necessary information is usually present in, or derivable from, the raw data, but, too often, it is either not understood, not discussed by the vibration monitoring sub-contractor or withheld from unbiased study. For these and many other reasons, a home owner who has been given conclusions from vibration monitoring should get the underlying data and analyze them himself, or have someone else qualified to do it analyze them for him, to assure that the conclusions offered are really valid.
What can be said with certainty is that, even in blasting studies, there has been a steady downward trend in vibration velocities (PPV's) considered "allowable", as more and more data have been acquired (see diagram at right). This fact alone suggests that caution and open-mindedness are well-advised when considering construction vibrations and their effect on homes.
Just as claims of the "impossibility" of construction vibration damage are clearly false, not every instance of damage in a home or structure can be blamed legitimately on construction. Vibrations in a home that many people find unsettling are often insufficient to produce damage. The presence of, perhaps, under ten hairline cracks in drywall, which you notice during the construction, is not proof that construction is responsible for them. Weather and heat/cool cycling, aging, and, in highly localized areas within a home, even human activities, can all cause limited, hairline cracking in drywall or plaster.
Neither is every type of construction activity equally hazardous from the standpoint of potential for structure damage. Those activities which involve impact (e.g. pile-driving, pounding with heavy equipment) or impact-like (vibratory compaction, driving tracked heavy equipment) interactions with the ground are of particular concern. This is true because of the broad frequency distributions often associated with impacts, which just about assure resonant amplification of ground vibrations in the home, apart from or in addition to their relative velocities.
Sometimes, damage is so extensive in your home and so widespread in entire neighborhoods, that large, documented construction vibrations are just about the only consistent explanation. You will still need considerable evidence to prove a vibration damage claim, correlating the appearance of the damage with construction vibration. Some of this you can provide through video, photos taken before the damage, testimony of neighbors, etc.; other information can be provided by experts with whom you consult. Whatever your level of damage, you have to weigh the chances both of proving construction causation and winning significant reimbursement against the time, money and general stress that getting such reimbursement may cost you.
Ideally, all vibration damage claims would be resolved fairly and amicably, without intervention of the legal system. A fair settlement saves time, money, focus and untold stress for all the parties. However, if the total damage loss is sizable, you may not have any choice but to obtain legal representation and, perhaps, pursue a lawsuit. Construction insurers make decisions about settling larger claims based mostly on a balancing of the cost of settlement vs. the cost of a legal defense, not on whether it's "the right thing" to do or, even, whether their position regarding the capability of construction to cause damage has been supported in past court rulings.
Nonetheless, you can pursue, and win, a damage claim, if you have a legitimate, well-documented claim and the determination, knowledge and resources to see it through. If you and your claim have these qualities, I wish you success. I hope this Guide will help you get through that process with less unnecessary hassle and expense.
Every time a dishonest and/or irresponsible contractor fights a legitimate vibration damage claim and loses, the world becomes a bit safer for everyone's homes and property. Every time an insurance company has to absorb a claim loss, because it is proven that the contractor policyholder repeatedly did things it knew were inappropriate, risky, reckless and in direct contradiction to its own policies, the higher the insurance costs become for such people and the more likely it is they will mend their ways. Contractors must report litigation and claims against them in project proposals. Although some conveniently forget to do so, word of mouth can produce much the same result. A real and manifest sense of responsibility on the part of contractors and project sponsors to those who live in their work areas can only be positive for all concerned.
Contractors have nearly all the control over their work, while homeowners around that work have virtually none. Thus, vibration damage awareness and mitigation is the responsibility of contractors and their project sponsors. They must inform themselves about and follow widely accepted and justifiable policies, rules, procedures and truly appropriate standards in conducting their work. There is simply no excuse for causing extensive "collateral damage" in a construction job. Attempting to steamroll (no pun intended) such problems away after the fact by asserting loudly and categorically that "construction can't cause damage" is unscientific, directly contradicted by many lines of evidence and unacceptable for those whose properties have been damaged by the construction. It is also unprofitable in the long run for those making the assertion, since the unwarranted sense of security given to employees by such an unsupportable claim is likely to lead them to cause additional damage in the future. Sooner or later, such attitudes will lead the contractor inevitably into litigation, where hard questions will be asked and real answers demanded.
Societal progress does not force a choice between the benefits of construction and the rights and security of individuals who just happen to have homes or buildings around the construction. The choices people and organizations make regarding how to bring about what they view as progress will determine whether others are hurt unjustly and unnecessarily by it. As in many other areas of human endeavor, the ends cannot be used to "justify" absolutely any means - especially when the ends turn out to be anything but a blessing for those who just happen to live anywhere near the means.
Construction vibration damage is widespread, literally all over the world. It must be acknowledged as a real phenomenon whose effect is to burden unnecessarily and unfairly the homeowners whose houses are affected. The first step in solving this injustice is to admit that it can happen. Then, when damage claims are made, they should be taken seriously and professionally, without scientifically unsupportable biases. Finally, cities and states need to put in place regulations whose intent and basis is to limit or stop unnecessary damage.
While it can't cover every aspect of construction vibration damage, I hope that the Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners (CVDG), and the scientific, litigation and personal experience that led to it, has been of value to you. I've left out a great deal of important material, because it may be too technical for, or of limited interest to, some readers of the free CVDG. Much of that content that can be found in the CVDG Professional Edition.
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