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The Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners (CVDG)

Introduction

This section of the free, 100+ page Construction Vibration Damage Guide ("CVDG") for Homeowners has summary information for those whose homes have developed cracking in walls, damage to home mechanical systems, doors and windows misalignment, damage to concrete and concrete blocks, exterior stucco cracks and other signs of distress while road construction, or any other heavy equipment construction causing ground vibration, has been occurring within hearing distance. Such individuals may have real concerns about whether the construction caused the damage to their home or property and how they should deal with that problem.

This and linked pages in the CVDG, which provide more detail on all the topics mentioned in this section, are directed mostly at homeowners facing potential or existing construction vibration damage to their homes. Responsible contractors with an interest in understanding vibration monitoring results, vibration monitoring contractors, consultants, university educators and attorneys working in vibration damage litigation may also find the CVDG useful. Those who want a quick overview of the contents of the CVDG for Homeowners can read its Executive Summary.

The Guide is written in non-technical language, having a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 12, although it defines, discusses and explains many scientific and technical terms, concepts and issues. The tips here and on linked pages in the CVDG should not be considered as attorney or legal advice (see disclaimer). Seek advice from a legal professional, if you need help on the law.

At the top, left and bottom of this and all other pages of the web version of the CVDG, you'll find links to more extensive discussions of individual topics in the CVDG, as well as links to other parts of Vibrationdamage.com. The CVDG page, Closing Thoughts, has a broader summary of the CVDG contents and conclusions. Homeowners can get a free PDF copy of the entire CVDG for at-home, non-business use, minus ads and navigation, plus additional content not available online, from our Download page.

Background

Most people living in towns and cities will have road or other construction using heavy equipment occurring in the vicinity of their homes or businesses sooner or later. Large construction jobs are bid for and run by general contractors. Most such jobs have multiple sub-contractors working for the general contractor.

Many construction companies are professional, honest and responsible. But, there are some whose behavior is not so admirable. Unfortunately, misbehavior and misuse of heavy equipment by construction workers are all too common (see Damage Prevalence in the CVDG Pro). When misused, or used properly too close to homes and other properties, heavy construction equipment-caused vibration can, and does, damage structures. This fact is part of the reason why contractors must carry insurance for most projects. Although much of what can be found on the Internet regarding this subject says, in effect, that "construction can't cause damage", such statements are, at best, based on highly selective readings of the scientific literature and inappropriate application of clearly unsuitable vibration standards, if they are based on any scientific understanding at all.

Although construction vibration damage usually isn't hard to see (example in drywall at right), it often takes place without the immediate knowledge of the nearby residents. They simply haven't thought to look for it or they attribute the damage they see to other causes. Only later, as damage becomes more extensive and apparent, will some homeowners note it as unusual. Other types of damage to mechanical systems like plumbing and heating, as well as to the structure itself, may be hidden to casual view and may only become apparent later when failure takes place. Stresses placed on the structure by construction vibration are resolved over a considerable period of time (months to years), so that the full extent of any vibration damage may not become clear until many months after completion of the job.

Since most folks work during the day, homeowners often do not know that potentially damaging vibrations have taken place in their homes and on their properties. They may not know or be able to differentiate the types and appearances of damage caused by construction vibration compared to those brought about by temperature cycling, weather changes, normal aging and other processes related to the normal use of a structure. Damage to whole neighborhoods can occur undetected by most of the residents. Those homeowners who are at home during the construction usually will not be able to separate non-damaging vibrations from those with damage potential, unless they actually see cracks forming in response to vibrations. Homeowners who find damage may not make the connection between it and the construction work. This occurs mostly because they are unaware that vibration damage to structures can occur in construction using heavy equipment - and are told that it can't happen by construction companies, project sponsors and their paid consultants. The result of all these, and other, factors is that construction vibration damage is likely greatly under-reported relative to its actual occurrence (see Is Damage Possible? and Damage Prevalence in the CVDG Pro for more on this topic).

Most people don't have the scientific knowledge and legal experience to document a vibration damage claim properly and deal with the contractor, its insurer and its attorneys. They may not be able to get, analyze or fully understand the real import of vibration monitoring data acquired on behalf of the contractor. Often, that vibration monitoring is only started after damage is reported, in the relatively rare examples where any monitoring is done at all. Without proper knowledge, preparation, research, documentation and analysis, homeowners have little chance for fair treatment by construction companies, project sponsors and insurers determined to evade responsibilities for construction vibration damage. The CVDG will help you gain the necessary knowledge.

How Damage Can Happen

Most construction companies, and the vibration monitoring companies and consultants who work for them, will tell you, at a minimum, that construction cannot cause damage to structures in the normal course of work. This view that construction doesn't cause damage, while perhaps self-serving, may well be accurate in specific examples of damage. But, it hinges on the definition of "normal course", the nature of the equipment used, the location of the work relative to structures and the way in which the equipment is employed in the job, among other variables.

Under pressure of deadlines, monetary incentives for meeting them, or even just for "fun", construction company employees will sometimes take "shortcuts". Many of these shortcuts the construction company itself would not sanction. It could be argued that such monetary motives might actually contribute to damage by encouraging the use of unsafe shortcuts, even though they are unsanctioned by any of the parties involved in the work.

Even some "properly done" construction operations, e.g. impact pile driving and use of vibratory compactors (photo at left) in compaction operations, are known to produce vibrations which can cause damage if close enough to the nearby property and structures. Vibratory compactor vibrations from an actual road reconstruction job on a city street are shown in the diagram at right, generated from the contractor's own raw vibration monitoring data. That monitoring was started only after an initial damage report. Nearly all of the recorded vibrations violate some or all of the relevant construction-based vibration standards; several violate even blasting standard recommendations. It is well-documented that the project from which these vibrations were recorded caused extensive damage to many of the over 200 homes along the path of the work. For more on the likelihood of construction-related damage, see our pages, Is Damage Possible? and Vibration and Damage.

Single Event vs. Continuous Ground Vibration

Most ground vibration standards, and statements made about them, are ultimately based on, or strongly influenced by, scientific studies of blasting vibration in surface mine and quarry operations and, to a lesser extent, construction blasting vibration. It is important to understand that such studies, and the standards based upon them, estimate damage probabilities for a group of structures from a single blasting event, not the probabilities of multiple events damaging a single structure. This is an important point for construction, where the vibrations are almost never single and the interest is in damage probability for a single structure, even if other structures also have damage.

Blasting-based vibration standards, and the studies supporting them, have much value when properly applied to blasting situations, since blasting creates relatively infrequent vibrations lasting, at most, a few seconds. These facts are recognized explicitly in the important blasting vibration damage study, USBM RI 8507:

"The safe level criteria established for blasting are often applied to these situations with little justification. Traffic is usually a steady-state source of low amplitude. Appropriate safe levels would have to be lower than for blasting, which is relatively infrequent and of shorter duration."3 (emphasis added)

Thus, blasting standards are not appropriate for construction settings, where, as with traffic, vibration can continue for minutes, hours, weeks, months or even years in some large projects (e.g. the Central Artery Project, "The Big Dig", in Boston1). In another example, a road construction contractor's own partial production of selected vibration monitoring data indicated that it violated relevant road construction vibration standards at least six hundred times in the course of a project. Extensive damage of similar appearance was documented in a large number of homes along the path of the two streets involved in the work.

Our own calculations, based on actual road reconstruction vibration data, show that total heavy equipment-caused construction vibration exposure in a single day can be from tens to well over a hundred times that experienced from worst-case blasting at an active mine. For more details of the conclusions, see Resonance/Fatigue. Technical details of the calculations and further discussion can be found in the CVDG Professional Edition chapter, Vibration Exposure.

Resonant Amplification of Vibrations In Homes

Continuous or long-lasting construction vibration enhances resonance and fatigue effects in home vibrations, which are far less significant in short duration, relatively infrequent and widely-spaced mine blasting events. Fundamentally, blasting vibrations last for a few seconds at most, less than the duration of the vibrations caused in a home by nearby blasting. Construction vibrations last far longer than the natural duration of home vibrations, allowing resonance and fatigue effects far more time to do damage through additive build-up of vibrations in the structure, a process referred to as "amplification".

Dominant Construction Vibration FrequenciesFurther, construction vibrations have vibration frequency components which are mostly within the resonance frequency regimes of homes (below 40 Hz frequency), as shown at left by the set of Fast Fourier Transform-derived dominant  vibration frequency data from a road reconstruction job. There is very limited scientific study of the effect of long-lived, heavy equipment-caused, construction vibrations on homes, as opposed to the far more extensive, but largely inapplicable, blasting studies. Thus, use of mine or construction blasting-based standards in construction situations not involving blasting is misleading, ill-advised and unjustified scientifically.

Ground impact-related vibrations are particularly worrisome, in that they generally produce vibrations with energy distributed over a wide range of low frequencies near home resonance frequencies. Such broad frequency distribution vibrations are not properly accounted for in any existing ground vibration standard, but are virtually certain to activate, and amplify, all the "vibrational modes" (i.e. types of vibration motions) of the home. Worse yet, because of the nature of the way ground vibrations move through soil, properties a few hundred yards away from the construction (or more in some circumstances, see CVDG Pro's Vibration Safety chapter) can be damaged by vibrations.

Construction Vibration Damage Research

Studies of blasting-caused damage to homes and other structures make up most of the research literature of vibration damage. These largely well-done studies provide much useful information (e.g. damage appearance and causes, frequency dependence, home resonance frequencies and more) which can be valuable in construction vibration settings. However, as indicated above, they are poor indicators of damage potential from heavy equipment use, because the vibrations produced by heavy equipment are different in just about every significant way from those produced by blasting (either in mining or construction). Thus, vibration standards and conclusions regarding damage potential based on blasting studies have little direct application in non-blasting construction.

There is very little research on the effects of long-duration (i.e. more than a few seconds) construction vibration on homes and other structures. The limited research that does exist indicates that heavy equipment-caused construction vibration must be subject to much lower velocity limits than that originating from blasting. The relative scarcity of direct studies of construction vibration effects leaves many of the most critical scientific questions unanswered. These research opportunities are explored in more detail in the CVDG Pro, particularly in its Vibration and Homes chapter.

Handling Construction Vibration Damage to Your Home

If you have construction involving heavy equipment ongoing in your area (e.g. within hearing distance), you should immediately examine your house for signs of cracking. Roughly diagonal cracks (see at right for example) in drywall, plaster or stucco at the corners of wall penetrations (doors, windows), and cracks in concrete patios, driveways and slabs, if not pre-existing, are often indicative of construction vibration damage. Several other types of damage can also occur.

It is best to document carefully the condition of your house as soon as you learn of planned or ongoing construction or, at the latest, as soon as you detect damage. Even if you don't see cracking at the time of construction start, cracking and other damage may develop later or become more visible. Construction damage can take months or even years to become fully apparent, so any increase in cracking or other damage to the house is cause for concern. A summary of warning signs of vibration damage can be found in the free CVDG downloadable PDF and Professional versions' Appendix B.

Some types of construction-caused damage can look very similar to "settling damage" or can involve construction vibration-caused settling, so you will need to try to differentiate the two. This is especially relevant in light of the high likelihood that a contractor, its representatives and paid "experts" will say the damage was "latent" (i.e. ready to occur), pre-existing (i.e. prior to construction start) or due simply to "normal settling". For more on this topic, see the CVDG chapter, Recognizing Damage and Counterarguments in the CVDG Pro. Whether you have cosmetic or structural damage or both, you will need to document it as extensively and as early as possible. For more on documenting damage, read our page Recording Damage.

Time of damage onset is often vital to establishing causation. It is often estimated in litigation contexts by "experts", based on appearance of crack edges, using methods and judgments which are scientifically questionable. Even after several months of aging, there is often no discernible age-related change in crack edges visible to mere inspection. Thus, any meaningful deductions about the timing of a crack, based on its aging with time, are usually impossible by mere inspection. The scientific hazards of estimating crack timing are touched upon in Recording Damage and, in more detail, in the CVDG Pro's chapter, Estimating Damage Age.

The best approach is to head off vibration damage problems prior to construction by documenting the house condition and registering your concerns in public comment meetings. If you end up with damage, there are some things you should keep in mind. Construction companies receive complaints with some frequency about damage alleged to have been caused by their activities. They are experienced in dealing with complaints. Many will likely discount as "pre-existing damage" (see Counterarguments page, CVDG Pro) any claim you make based solely on your statements. You must have documentation of the damage and substantial evidence of a causal link to the construction activity (see Damage Causation in CVDG Pro), at a minimum. If your claim is substantial, it will most likely be ignored without this evidence and more. That said, the fact that construction companies usually must carry insurance for their work indicates, by itself, the potential for damage, even though it doesn't always occur.

Damage Classification and Documentation

Damage to structures is usually classified in non-technical settings as "structural" or "cosmetic". "Structural damage" refers to any type of change which could compromise the stability of the structure. Its existence is usually determined by a structural or civil engineer who examines the damage. Structural damage is often hidden or disguised by overlying cosmetic damage and can involve damage to mechanical systems (heating, air conditioning, plumbing) in or around the house, as well as to the structure itself.

"Cosmetic damage" is basically everything else which affects the appearance of the house: cracking of drywall or plaster, nail or screw "pops" (like those shown in the photo at right), exterior damage to the finish of the house, cracking of concrete driveways or patios, surrounding property wall damage, doors and windows out of alignment due to shifting of the structure, and so forth. Scientific studies of vibration damage use an entirely different set of terms to classify damage, although these, too, suffer currently from imprecision and lack of numerical definition. For more on classification of damage, both in non-technical and scientific settings, see the CVDG chapter, Vibration and Damage.

Damage Repair and Costs

"Structural" and "cosmetic" are not synonyms for "expensive to repair" and "inexpensive to repair", respectively. A large amount of "cosmetic damage" can be more expensive to fix than limited structural damage. Since the total damage loss governs your options and your course of action, the size of the loss is the standard by which you should judge your damage and determine how you handle your claim. In one case, the repair cost for the "cosmetic" damage was nearly $70,000, plus the cost of completely moving out of the house while the repair was done (over $40,000), plus an additional $20,000 of move-related costs.

In just about all jurisdictions, an owner is required to disclose any significant damage, even if repaired, to any potential buyer of the property. Most real estate professionals will tell you that this disclosure requirement can result in a significant permanent loss of value of the property, even after repair, separate and apart from the damage itself. The CVDG Professional Edition page, Damage Repair has much more information on evaluating and repairing damage.

Legitimate Claims

A vibration damage claim is not a good way to "get rich" or to get a few cosmetic drywall cracks fixed "for free". Some construction companies will pay small claims fairly easily through their insurance; many will fight every aspect of a clearly legitimate claim, especially if it is large, since it affects their insurance rates for future projects. If you have just noted a few (under 10 or so) hairline cracks, it's at least possible that they were present before the construction; you may not have seen them. It is highly likely that you will hear just that argument if you make a claim, whether or not it is accurate in your situation. It takes determination, knowledge, persistence and money to pursue a large damage claim, so it should not be undertaken lightly. That said, if you can provide evidence linking the construction to the damage and have sufficient damage to justify your time, effort and money in pursuing your claim, then doing so is a realistic option.

Pre-construction Surveys

Questionable claims can be fought by construction companies by use of "pre-construction surveys". Such surveys are often required by contract. They can involve something as simple as a construction company employee driving or walking by recording video of the outside of the house prior to construction start. Typically, drive-by or walk-by video surveys are of limited value, in that they don't show detail more than about ten feet away from the camera.

In other cases, the contractor will also seek permission to videotape the interior of your home before start of construction. Such interior surveys can be valuable or useless, depending on how carefully they are done and how focused the videotaping is on those elements of the structure which might later show damage (e.g. corners of wall penetrations). Just as videotaping may be required prior to the start of construction, some contracts may require pre-construction vibration monitoring in the area of the construction, which gives an idea of the normal vibration levels caused by traffic and people. If such surveys are done, you will need to get copies of them to pursue your claim. For more on this and other pre-construction matters, see Pre-Construction.

What If I Have Damage?

If you believe you have construction-related damage, you must first consider the extent of the damage and the progress of the job at the time you note the damage. A few "cosmetic" cracks in drywall or plaster simply are not of enough significance to justify pursuing a claim, especially if you note them late in the project. If you notice substantial damage early in the project, your very first action must be to immediately notify, preferably both verbally and in writing shortly thereafter, both the construction contractor and the entity (often governmental) for which the contractor is doing the work. Notification gives them a chance to address your damage and make any changes necessary to avoid further damage to your home and others. It also helps protect your legal rights.

Usually, the insurance carrier for the job will be called in immediately and you will be dealing with the insurer, rather than the contractor or sponsor of the work. Often, the contractor or its insurance company will involve an attorney almost immediately. At that point, you will have to give serious consideration to how to pursue your claim, perhaps even getting your own attorney, if your damages will justify the expense. The CVDG Pro also provides much additional information on what to expect after you make your claim, as well as the process of litigating a vibration damage claim. If your claim goes to litigation, you will find help in the CVDG Pro on dealing with many aspects of that process.

You may believe that your home insurance will cover such damage automatically. There is a very good chance that you will be mistaken in that belief. Most home insurance policies carry exclusions for "earth movement". These can be invoked by the insurer, legitimately or not, for vibration damage cases, even though, in construction damage situations, there is rarely any cracking of the soil that would provide scientific evidence for earth movement. The majority, though not universal, opinion in the courts seems to be that such general ground movement exclusions only cover "natural", not man-made, earth movement sources. For more on this topic and related ones, see the Pursuing A Claim section of the CVDG.

Vibration Damage Claims and You

You may be understandably angry and frustrated at the people that you feel have damaged your home and subjected you to everything that goes with that, through no fault whatsoever on your part. However, you must not allow yourself to make bad decisions motivated mostly by that anger, especially before you are represented by an attorney. Since contractors have lawyers, money and experience on their side, a homeowner must do everything possible to reduce the gap in perceived, or real, power to achieve a fair settlement. The CVDG Professional Edition section, Settlement, has detailed information to help the homeowner prepare for settlement talks and mediation. The homeowner should have some real knowledge of the contents of the CVDG, preferably the Professional Edition for any claim in litigation. Of course, there are other ways to gain some of that information (e.g. the short form references indicated in the footnotes and the complete citations in the CVDG Pro's Cited Literature chapter), but the CVDG is probably the most concentrated source of information about handling construction-related vibration damage claims available. More information about handling vibration damage claims can be found in the Pursuing a Claim chapter of the CVDG and in the CVDG Pro chapter Handling a Claim and Involving An Attorney, as well as several others in the Pro Edition of the CVDG.

Nuisance Impacts

Even if construction can be shown not to have caused damage, vibration and noise can be a considerable burden on nearby homeowners, interfering with sleep, work and daily activities. Since such interferences can go on day and night literally for years in some major projects, their importance cannot be discounted. In some notorious examples, the contractor must be watched nearly constantly by the homeowner, as the use of risky procedures becomes more common when the contractor thinks the residents are not at home to watch and document its activities. These life-changing interferences can place tremendous and undue burdens on homeowners - far more than the "normal" ones imposed by living in a given location or neighborhood. These nuisance impacts are of sufficient consequence that, in most vibration damage litigation, nuisance will be one of the causes of action.

Construction Vibration Damage Prevalence

There are no relatively readily obtained, reliable estimates or studies of the occurrence of construction vibration damage worldwide or in the U.S., although it is clear that damage instances are substantially under-reported. However, those who download the CVDG and cite damage to a structure as their download reason come from over 90 countries (as of the date of this writing).

 

Virtually every U.S. state and territory is represented among those reporting damage.5 Moreover, relative to their proportion of the construction dollar value in the U.S., public construction projects are substantially over-represented relative to private projects among the CVDG downloaders who report damage as their download reason. See Damage Prevalence in the Pro version of the CVDG for more information on the reporting and distribution of damage claims.

What Nobody Wants

Virtually nobody - project sponsors, contractors or homeowners - would argue that vibration damage to surrounding structures is a desirable outcome of construction. It's something nobody actually wants. Therefore, why does it happen far too frequently all over the world and what can be done about it? Correcting this worldwide problem requires both goodwill and an admission that the problem exists by those creating it. For more discussion of these matters, see Consequences and Prevention.

Many of the problems which arise in construction vibration damage can be traced to virtually non-existent regulation at the state or local level, even though good standards and information often exist at the national or international levels. For some thoughts on how to properly regulate construction vibration to prevent damage with minimum cost and interference with construction activities, see Vibration Regulation.

Where Do I Go From Here?

A good place to start in the CVDG, if you're unfamiliar with ground vibration science and terminology, is our page Vibration 101. That chapter of the CVDG has a basic introduction to ground vibration and its effects. If you're not a scientist, reading it will help you understand many other CVDG pages and the broader scientific literature of vibration effects and damage.  Other pages in the CVDG expand greatly on this basic information. Vibration standards and their use and applicability in construction settings are discussed in the CVDG's Vibration Standards chapter.

The many other topics discussed in the CVDG can be located in the CDVG Contents and in the links along the margins of the online pages. To give yourself maximum flexibility to view the CVDG web pages, you may want to open the CDVG Contents in a separate window or tab. The links near the top, left margin and bottom of each page on the site provide quick ways to navigate the CVDG and other pages on the site. You can get a free, non-business, at-home use copy of the entire CVDG, minus ads and web navigation and with added content, in PDF format from Vibrationdamage.com's Download page. General information on using the CVDG to best effect can be found in the downloadable PDF and Pro versions' Appendix A.2


1. Over a hundred vibration damage complaints were filed in connection with the "Big Dig", according to an article in the Boston Globe of March 27, 2005, "Big Dig now faces property complaints".
2. Most of the pages of the CVDG have footnotes, like this one, which provide either short-form references to vibration scientific literature or additional information. Full citation information can be found on the  CVDG Pro's Cited Literature page. These citations are provided to allow those having limited or no familiarity with the vibration damage literature to get it, read it and draw their own conclusions. Virtually all of the references cited in the footnotes are available for free download from the Internet.
3.
Structure Response and Damage Produced by Ground Vibration From Surface Mine Blasting, USBM RI 8507, p. 72
4. Registered users of the PDF versions of the CVDG may quote its pages royalty-free, subject to certain limitations. See the Vibrationdamage.com Site Policies document for more information on quoting and citing the CVDG and Vibrationdamage.com.
5.The map graphic depicts damage reports by state and territory for the U.S., Canada and Australia. Reports for other countries are indicated by country only.

Disclaimer: The pages and documents on Vibrationdamage.com are not offered, and should not be considered, as advice or counsel on the law in any jurisdiction or form. Seek the advice of an attorney with construction vibration damage claim experience and knowledge, if you need legal help. Trademarks appearing on the site and in the CVDG are the properties of their respective owners and are used in the CVDG only for the purpose of identification. Information appearing on the site and in the CVDG is believed correct, but the site and the CVDG are provided "as-is". They are not guaranteed or warranted in any way, nor are your uses of them warranted or guaranteed.


This page is a chapter from the Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners (CVDG), a 100+ page free document with over 200 color photos, diagrams and other illustrations. It is available at http://vibrationdamage.com as a series of web pages or in full, web navigation and ad-free, as a downloadable PDF document, with additional content not available on the web. The free version of the CVDG is licensed to homeowners and others for personal, at-home use only. A Professional Edition (CVDG Pro), licensed for business use and with over three times as much content, can be ordered from our Order the CVDG Pro page, usually with same-day delivery. You can comment about this page or ask questions by using our Visitor Comment form. If you would like to discuss vibration damage issues, join us on Facebook.

 

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