Managing Forensic Engineering Costs by Defining the Project Scope

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Glenn Stewart, M.E., P.E.

How much will it cost?

This is a common question when a forensic engineering assignment is made. The primary factor that determines the cost of a forensic engineering project is the scope of work being conducted. Over the years, EDT engineers have been involved in small projects such as a document review where the clients’ questions were answered with a few hours of work that resulted in an invoice for less than a thousand dollars. Other EDT projects have had a more substantial scope that included material testing, analysis, animations, and courtroom testimony, and resulted in much larger invoices. The difference in the project scope and duration of the consultant’s involvement drives the difference in cost. This post provides suggestions related to establishing project scopes when an assignment is made in order to manage the costs associated with the involvement of a forensic engineer. 

What engineering work is needed to answer your question?

At the time of the assignment, the consulting engineer will request basic information in order to identify the tools and investigative techniques necessary to provide clear and thorough answers to the communicated technical questions. Each assignment comes with its own technical questions. By obtaining guidance from the consulting engineer at the beginning of how these questions can be answered then a proper scope can be established. With a defined project scope, the project costs can be controlled. 

For example, clients tasked with making a determination of liability related to an automobile accident may have questions such as how fast the vehicle was traveling, whether a vehicle crossed the center line, or if the vehicle lights were on at the time of the collision. At the time of the assignment, the engineering consultant should provide a description of the type of tools and investigative techniques needed to answer these questions. Available techniques for the example scenario may include a download of the vehicle data recorder, examination of the collision site, or examination of the involved automobiles. Although it would not be reasonable for the consulting engineer to know the actual answers to the client’s questions when the assignment is made, it is reasonable to know what engineering work would be required to answer those questions. When responding to the request for a fee estimate, the consulting engineer could approximate the cost based on an estimate of the time and fees in alignment with the anticipated engineering work.

Should the project be separated into phases?

Separating the project into phases is another technique to manage forensic engineering costs. It would be appropriate to pose the question to the consulting engineer whether or not the assignment could be separated into phases.  It is typical for answers obtained early in the investigation to affect the subsequent engineering work required. The various work scope possibilities can be discussed when the assignment is made. 

For example, engineering assistance may be needed to determine the scope of structural damage to a building after a fire incident. To conduct an engineering evaluation of the building, it is possible that detailed material testing of concrete, steel, or masonry would be required. However, the engineering consultant may not need this data to conduct an initial evaluation of the building. In this instance, phase one of the project could include the gathering of construction plans and specifications and conducting a visual examination of the building. Based on information obtained from phase one, the consulting engineer may be able to provide the needed technical information. If not, additional options could be discussed at that time. The need for material testing can be established based on actual building conditions. By approaching the project in phases, the costs associated with the material testing may be incurred or avoided depending upon the initial evaluation.

Parting Thoughts

The primary factor that determines the cost of a forensic engineering investigation is the project scope. When engaging a forensic engineer, it is important to have an open dialogue related to the tools and investigative techniques available to answer the technical questions. With ongoing dialogue, an appropriate project scope can be developed and costs can be managed during the course of a forensic engineering investigation.


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