Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering that involves the application of the laws of physics, mathematics, and empirical knowledge to safely design the ‘bones’ and load-bearing elements of man-made structures. Modern-day structural engineering provides a large and detailed body of knowledge that can accurately predict the performance of different shapes and materials used in structures to resist loads and stresses on structures. The principles of structural engineering were used thousands of years ago when building structures like the pyramids in Egypt or the Acropolis in Greece.
WHAT DO STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS DO?
Structural engineers are trained professionals who are responsible for making sure that the structures we use in our daily lives, like bridges and tall buildings, are safe, stable, and don’t collapse under applied loads. They do this by applying their technical knowledge to specify different types of construction materials in various shapes and geometries and design structures that can withstand the pressures and stresses of their environment such as gravity loads, storms, and earthquakes.
As a structural engineer, I work closely with my clients to understand the function of the project in order to provide a safe, constructive, and economical solution to complete their project successfully. Generally speaking, the structural design process of a building can be divided into three stages: load calculation, structural analysis, and design.
Depending on the function of the building, standards and building codes can be used to estimate the weight of the building, and snow, wind, and earthquake loads on the structures. Once the loads acting on the structure are known, the structure is analyzed to determine the effect of all these loads on the individual elements of the structure. Engineering software can be used by structural engineers to analyze different kinds of structures. It is always a good idea to check the validity of the software results using first principle knowledge and basic structural analysis formulas. The forces and stresses from the structural analysis software can be used to design the main structural elements including the floor system, vertical supports, foundations, and other parts of the building.
As a structural engineer, the safety of the public is my top priority. When it comes to buildings and infrastructure we use in our society, the consequences of a collapsed structure can be catastrophic. This is why structural engineers use factors of safety in their design to account for uncertainty in load assumptions and unexpected deficiencies in construction material or workmanship.
WHERE DO STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS WORK?
Structural engineers are brought on to a project if an owner is planning on changing the use of a building, introducing more floors to a building, or adding a significant expansion to a building. It’s very important to understand that introducing alterations to any structural element without consulting a professional engineer may result in serious damage to the structure and in some cases partial or extensive collapse of the building.
Structural engineers are also brought on board if there is damage to a structure due to fire, corrosion, environmental deterioration, impact or wear and tear that could result in a loss of capacity and impose a threat to the public’s safety. When a structural engineer is contacted for an assessment of an existing building, they would visually inspect the structure and determine the structural integrity of the load bearing elements, potential concerns regarding the occupants safety, suggest repair techniques and recommend structural details to restore the structure to its original conditions in order to resist the applied loads.
ARE ARCHITECTS & ENGINEERS THE SAME THING?
I get this question often and the answer is no. Both architects and engineers have important but different roles in the design of a building. I like to explain this by thinking of a residential building for an example. If the aesthetics of the building looks pleasing and the spaces inside feel comfortable and inviting, this means that the architect did a good job designing the building. The work of the structural engineer, however, is evident in the stability of the structure under different loading conditions. No matter how windy it is outside or how much snow there is on the roof, the building remains intact, safe, and comfortable to its occupants.
Hopefully, you now have a good understanding as to what structural engineering is, what structural engineers do, and the importance of structural engineering in a society where there are structures all around us that we are constantly using in our day to day lives. Structural engineers, as do other engineers, have a huge responsibility to ensure that the public is safe and cared for and that their best interests are considered.