After the fire: A day in the life of a structural engineer

Photo Essay, Calgary Journal, February 2009

There are holes in the ceiling, the siding has melted into a puddle next to the house and belongings are singed beyond recognition. The destruction of a fire, and the efforts to control it, is hard to imagine if you haven’t seen it.

But Kevin Brown has seen the inside of most Calgary fires since he started Gravity Engineering, Inc. – after the firemen have put out the fire, the owner’s insurance agents call him to assess what must be done to restore the structural integrity of the building.

“All fires smell the same,” says Brown, who goes to between seven and 20 fires a month.

As a structural engineer, Brown assesses properties after an event such as a fire, collapse or structural impact like a vehicle crash.

Brown walks through the sludge created by fallen insulation and the water used to put out the fire, using a laser measure to get the dimensions of the building. Despite the dramatic setting, the information gathering process requires methodical and precise work in order to have everything he needs to write his report.

As a one-man show, Brown knows that any time he spends not working is simply added on to the end of his workday and so he often doesn’t take breaks. “I usually work until I’m done,” says Brown, “I eat at very odd times.”

After the Fire: Graphing
Brown uses personalized graph paper for his sketched plans. These plans help him to calculate the damage and the repairs required for each job.
After the Fire: Garage
The garage at this Calgary house was completely destroyed by fire, so the restoration company had to pull it down.
After the Fire: Jackets
Burned jackets hang inside the arson-damaged house. Even when belongings are preserved, the smoke odour is difficult to remove.
After the Fire: Sketching
Kevin Brown adds to his building sketch at the site of two arson-caused house fires.