Consequences and Prevention
All parties to vibration damage occurrences agree that it's not a desirable outcome of construction work. Most damage is relatively easily avoidable at virtually no additional cost. So, why does construction damage occur repeatedly worldwide, what does it mean for those affected, and what can be done to prevent it or resolve it fairly and at minimum cost when it does happen?
The Responsible, the Irresponsible and the Indifferent
If homes or other structures are particularly close to construction activities (e.g. within 25 ft. or so), it's not unheard of for even careful, responsible, well-meaning contractors to cause relatively minor damage to nearby structures. Such responsible contractors will usually be reasonable about resolving any damage claims. It's just good business for them to realize that they will spend more time, money, goodwill and future credibility fighting a legitimate damage claim than they will in just paying the claim (or having their insurer pay it), with apologies.
More serious construction vibration damage (e.g. wall penetration cracking at right) can happen when construction companies put profit over safety, don't care enough to show due prudence, don't understand the risks, perform operations on site in manners which violate company rules and/or operator's manuals for the involved equipment, fail to use free, well-known and published vibration mitigation procedures, are given poor information and advice about vibration effects by their paid "consultants" or some combination thereof. When damage is reported in connection with their work, contractors, project sponsors and their employees all too often rationalize the damage away. They tell themselves (and just about everybody else) that "construction can't cause damage". They are usually completely unaware of both the lack of supporting evidence for that assertion and the massive evidence to the contrary in the scientific literature of vibration damage. Such a biased and scientifically unjustified attitude means that the contractor's employees likely will do more damage in future projects.
There are some contractors who regularly employ equipment with well-known risks too close to homes and buildings, make questionable choices among those types of equipment available (e.g. choosing compactors with nominal vibration frequencies below 40 Hz), then compound the errors by making highly doubtful and unnecessary decisions about the way they carry out operations (e.g. repeated vibratory compaction of pavement butt joints perpendicular to the street direction, as shown in the photo, directly in front of homes known to the contractor to have been damaged by its previous work). These companies seem to generate damage complaints, and even litigation, in job after job. Searching the web during the process of researching a claim (see Researching A Claim in the CVDG Pro for more) will usually uncover multiple examples of lawsuits filed against such contractors. Some of these may involve damage claims, while others may allege shoddy work or contract non-performance.
Sometimes, You Get What You Pay For
One might think that, after a while, these uncaring and/or dishonest contractors' reputations would catch up with them. However, that isn't necessarily the case. It may not matter in the slightest, even if the bad reputation is known to the project sponsor and others connected with proposed project.
One contractor, an example of whose compaction work is shown just above, damaged many homes in a road reconstruction job along two suburban streets with over 200 adjacent homes. Extensive supporting evidence of that damage1 and its cause was produced to the municipality and contractor in the course of litigation. The contractor, municipality and their paid "experts" repeatedly denied any responsibility for the pervasive damage, without providing any scientifically consistent alternative explanation for its widespread and sudden appearance in many homes.
Nonetheless, that contractor continued to work for the same municipality repeatedly in the ensuing years, including after a major repair had to be done (and paid for by the municipality, see photo at right above) on that contractor's original damaging work, only a few years after the work was completed. The repair site was less than a hundred feet from the location of the compaction photo shown above. It was at one of several locations at which the original contractor had violated its own rules against pounding with an excavator bucket to break pavement. Another failure of the same general appearance occurred at the same intersection on April 3, 2017 (photo at left), also repaired at the cost of the municipality's taxpayers.
A dispute between the contractor and the municipality itself, on still another job, reportedly lead to arbitration and came near to litigation. Even that did not stop the municipality from awarding a contract to that same contractor for work on a nearby frequently traveled and highly populated street immediately after the arbitration.
As this history illustrates, those who believe a project sponsor will take due care in contracting for and assuring proper performance of a construction job using heavy equipment may be badly disappointed. There may be some good reasons (and some very bad ones) why project sponsors, particularly public entities, may continue to award contracts to contractors with poor records. Perhaps the most important of these is a low-bid requirement. Ordinances or state laws may virtually require a public sponsor to accept the low bid, even from a contractor with a long record of damaging the property of others. Private project owners also may feel strong pressure to accept low bids.
If you have construction of that sort ongoing or about to occur in your area (within a city block, roughly2), you would be well-advised to check up on the contractor by searching the web for other litigation and complaints. You may not be able to stop the use of that contractor, but you can at least prepare yourself to deal with damage if it occurs, by finding out what kinds of complaints there have been in the past. You can find much more on how to do this in the CVDG Pro's Researching A Claim chapter and in the CVDG's Pre-Construction chapter.
Consequences of Vibration Damage
Based on information gleaned from visitors worldwide to Vibrationdamage.com,7 it appears to be relatively rare for construction firms and project sponsors to accept willingly any part of the responsibility for damage, no matter what their contractual responsibilities might be for making right the damage they bring about or how overwhelming the evidence supporting construction causation. In most cases, the result of vibration damage is either that the injured party ends up paying for the irresponsibility of the contractor and sponsor out of his own pocket or that all the parties must spend far more in litigation-related costs than would typically be required to fix completely all the damage.
Ultimately, that state of affairs places most of the financial, and nuisance, burden on the homeowner, even though he has no control over the construction, no input into the construction contract and no share of the construction profits. Under the current system of funding projects and rewarding on-time completion, the contractor gets paid his contract fee and completion bonuses whether or not he damages surrounding homes and no matter how many he damages. Such policies are easy to justify when you start from the unquestionably false premise that "construction can't cause damage". There are few, if any, real checks and balances to limit damage, even though construction contracts usually include standard provisions which, in theory, make the contractor "responsible" for damage. The aggrieved homeowner may get little satisfaction from such contract provisions.
However, even the contractor will pay a price for causing damage in increased insurance costs, making its proposals less competitive and less profitable. These effects could lead fewer awards of contracts. In addition to litigation costs, the sponsor will pay in higher project and insurance costs, as well as increased resistance from homeowners to future projects. That resistance means projects will be slowed or stopped entirely, costing the sponsor extra money.4 Taxpayers will pay in settlement and litigation costs for public projects. Public entities will pay due to decreased property values, which lower the tax base. To paraphrase the English poet John Donne,6 ask not who pays for construction vibration damage. In the end, we all will, even if the burden falls disproportionately and unfairly on those whose homes are unnecessarily damaged by construction with heavy equipment.
Avoiding Damage Proactively
Construction vibration can be mitigated to safer levels by well-known and publicly available procedures, which are discussed in brief in the CVDG's Vibration 101 chapter and, in much more detail, in the CVDG Pro's Vibration Mitigation chapter. Some attention to how and what equipment is used is often all that is needed to avert damage.3 Biased and self-serving attitudes to the effect that "construction can't cause damage" often contribute to repeated damage, but are directly and strongly contradicted by the scientific literature of vibration effects.
Project sponsors can sometimes bear as much moral (and legal) responsibility for damage as the contractor, if they haven't done even the most basic of due diligence to prevent or minimize damage. Yet, some simple steps can help fulfill this responsibility:
Construction vibration damage is mostly, if not entirely, preventable. It occurs far too often because it is poorly understood by those financing and performing the work and largely exempted from both unbiased examination and responsibility. Clearly, it is better to prevent it than to fix the likely expensive damage after the fact - or, worse yet, to try to "solve" the problem in the courts. A legal approach is both far more expensive (usually even than the cost of complete repair) and less likely to yield a fair resolution. Even a win in court for the sponsor or contractor will likely have negative repercussions that can last for years. Yet, those contractors and project sponsors who try to evade responsibility for extensive, widespread and well-documented damage are almost certainly forcing the homeowner(s) to file suit.
In the end, handling and preventing vibration damage is about respecting the rights and property of innocent home and building owners just as much as one who owns or runs construction projects expects cooperation from them. As the public becomes more and more knowledgeable about the real risks of construction vibration damage, construction projects will become more contentious and expensive, unless those who fund and perform them face the reality of vibration damage. They can then take serious, but mostly relatively cheap and easy, steps to prevent it, both honestly and justly. A contractor or sponsor who mistreats homeowners having legitimate damage claims to avoid responsibility for the damage, is only creating a far larger problem (and expense) for future work.
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