What Does a Structural Engineer Do?
A structural engineer is a key player within the construction world, but their work often goes unrecognized because it is all done behind the scenes. We often think of the architect who envisioned the building design or the contractor and crew who physically completed the build, but the structural engineer is often forgotten, although their work is fundamental to the safety and stability of structures. The work of a structural engineer is essential for safety, infrastructure development, sustainability, and innovation for homes, commercial buildings, and other structures within a community.
The Basics of Structural Engineering
As a discipline, structural engineering falls under the umbrella of civil engineering; engineers responsible for infrastructure projects in both the private and public sector. A civil engineer can work on projects such as roads, bridges, utilities, dams, buildings, and other structures used by the general public. Structural engineering is a more focused subset of civil engineering specializing in the design of structures.
Structural engineers are responsible for designing, detailing, and reviewing plans for structures to ensure their stability under stresses such as gravity, wind, earthquakes, sustained traffic, and other forces. This process involves determining how much of which loads need to be applied, where they will affect the structure, and then designing members such as beams, columns, and shear walls to efficiently transfer those forces through the building and into the earth through a foundation.
In addition to safety and stability, structural engineers consider factors such as the comfort of the people in or on the structure, as well as any long-term fatigue the structure will possibly experience. More often than not, these comfort levels drive the design. For example, have you ever been in a parking deck where the floor shakes when vehicles move? This structure is likely perfectly safe; however, the movement may lead you to wonder if it is on the verge of collapse.
Qualifications and Qualities of a Structural Engineer
A qualified structural engineer will have a 4-year degree in civil engineering or architectural engineering from an accredited college or university, with an emphasis in structural engineering. They are required to pass a fundamentals of engineering exam and work under a licensed professional engineer for a minimum of 4 years as an Engineer Intern (EI) where they will have the opportunity to apply the things learned in the classroom on real life projects. During their time as an EI they will be required to take the Professional Engineer (PE) Exam in order to become a licensed PE upon completion of their state’s internship requirements.
Structural engineers should be highly knowledgeable about building materials such as concrete, masonry, timber, and steel. They need to understand how materials interact with each other and how they’re affected by fatigue, temperature, vibration, and other influences. Structural engineers carefully select materials that are appropriate for the project, considering factors like strength, durability, and cost-effectiveness.
They should understand physics and the effects of the forces that are around us. They use mathematical models and computer simulations to assess how various loads, such as wind, earthquakes, and heavy traffic, will affect a structure. They must ensure that the structure can withstand these forces without failing or becoming unsafe.
Aside from their professional expertise, the best structural engineers exhibit an eagerness to collaborate and innovate. Structural engineers collaborate with clients, architects, contractors, government agencies, and other engineers to find the most efficient solutions for each project. Structural engineers are also at the forefront of innovation in construction materials and techniques. They are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible, allowing for the construction of increasingly complex structures.
Above all, structural engineers focus on safety but should also care about the sustainability of any construction project they are involved with. As long-term thinkers, they are always looking ahead to the future of the structure, not just the construction itself.
Type of Structural Engineering Projects
Structural engineers work on a large variety of projects and each type of project has its own unique set of challenges. Below are some examples of the types of projects structural engineers work on:
A structural engineer is often required when there are structural changes made to an existing structure while doing a remodel. For example, before removing a wall you need a structural engineer to do an onsite engineering inspection. The engineer determines whether the wall is loading bearing or not, and if it is, then they can help design a beam and column system to replace the wall. Other common examples of when you might want an engineer to come look at an existing structure is if you are putting a hot tub on your deck or adding solar panels to a roof. A structural engineer can help ensure that the current structure is strong enough to withstand the additional weight being added.
Structural engineers are also recommended when a new structure is being designed. A straightforward house may be simply designed to code; however, it is recommended to have a structural engineer involved if building on a slope, spanning larger areas (such as an open floor plan house), high vaulted ceilings, large windows, or if you wanted to add a hot tub or fireplace on your deck.
For commercial projects such as skyscrapers, department stores, schools, hospitals, and many others, structural engineers are not just recommended but are required by law and essential for ensuring the structure will be safe for public use.
Home Purchase Transactions
When you go to purchase a home, it is often advised to get a standard home inspection done to inspect the condition of the home’s:
- Heating and/or Air Conditioning System
- Interior Plumbing and Electrical Systems
- Roof, Attic, and Visible Insulation
- Walls, Ceilings, Floors, Windows, and Doors
- Foundation, Basement, and Basic Structural Components
If the inspector finds something questionable within the structure of the home such as a cracked foundation, they might require a structural engineer to come and do an additional inspection to ensure the structure is safe and sound.
Construction defects occur in both residential and commercial structures and are usually related to faulty design, defective materials, poor craftmanship, or failure to adhere to applicable building codes or plans. A structural engineer will perform a site visit or use existing documentation to work with their client and either prove that issues are present, or that no/minimal issues exist. If the client does end up in a legal trial, the structural engineer can take the stand as an expert witness.
After a catastrophic event such as a tornado, hurricane, hail, or wind has caused damage to a property, a structural engineer can come do an inspection to strengthen your insurance claim.
Bridge Construction and Rehabilitation
Structural Engineers are heavily involved in the design and maintenance of bridges. When roadways are expanded and a new bridge is needed, a structural engineer must analyze dead loads and dynamic loads; external forces such as wind and seismic; as well as vibration limits and fatigue to help them make the proper material selection and design decision. As bridges start to age, routine maintenance and inspections are also required to make sure the bridge is safe to use by the general public. All public bridges in the United States are required to be inspected at a minimum every two years. When it is time to repair or refurbish a bridge, a structural engineer will prepare plans to ensure the repairs are done safely and that they effectively fix the problems.
Hiring Areté Structural Engineers
Areté Engineers is located within the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and we provide structural engineering services that meet all the qualifications mentioned. We have Professional Engineers on our staff that are qualified and have a depth of experience in residential structural assessments, structural design for residences and commercial buildings, as well as bridge inspection, design, and repair. Our team has the experience, knowledge, diligence, and humility that contractors, builders, and architects love working with. Feel free to visit our website or contact us to learn more about how we can help.