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Distress, in the most common sense, can be defined as marks of age and wear, or instances that cause strain. In engineering, distress becomes synonymous with failure, and can lead to failure of the structural integrity. Distress can be caused by inadequacy of design, poor quality of construction and maintenance, or by strains to the material. Common distresses include cracking, potholes, surface deformation, and foundation failures. [a] Manuals exist identifying modes of distress in asphalt and concrete, as depicted by an excerpt seen in Figure 2 from the Distress Identification Manual for the LTPP.

Modes of distress can result from many alterations in the environment surrounding the material. For instance, such as in Figure 1 above,  cracking along an exterior wall can result from building settlement. Cracking in a building’s foundation can result from swelling in the soil below the foundation, causing the foundation to settle and crack such as the Lotus Riverside apartment building in China as seen in Figure 3. In this case, excavation near the existing building caused the stress on the foundation piles to become too much and the cracking and failure of the piles. Potholes, another common distress, develops in asphalt pavements from fatigue cracking. As these fatigue cracks grow, pieces become loose and are picked away by traffic loads as shown in Figure 4. Distress is the indicator that a failure has occurred.