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What Is Structural Engineering and What Do Structural Engineers Do?

  • 11 January, 2021

According to the Structural Engineering Association of California (SEAOC), "structural engineers create drawings and specifications, perform calculations, review the work of other engineers, write reports and evaluations, and observe construction sites." That's a long explanation and, to me, it means that there are a lot of opportunities within this specialized field.

Structural Engineering is typical considered to be a subset of civil engineering, with a focus on structures. Structures can be buildings or bridges, but they can also be a little more out-of-the-box, so to speak. Many sculptures, monuments, billboards, and rollercoasters need to be structural engineered!

It's easier to understand the many paths of structural engineering if you consider the lifecycle of a structure. For the case of this blog post, I'll use buildings as our primary structures of discussion.

What Is Structural Engineering and What Do Structural Engineers Do?

1. New Design

Every new building (with the exception of small family homes in most states...) needs to be structurally engineered. Typically, the owner hires an architect, and the architect will begin to set up his team. He'll need a structural engineer to produce structural drawings and calculations to give to the city for approval and then the contractor for construction. The freedom of the engineer in this role varies widely, but typically the architect will supply the structural engineer with architectural drawings and the engineer will design a structural system that works within the bounds set by the architect. This doesn't always move smoothly, so be prepared for many conversations discussing options and solutions! If you are a good problem solver, this is an ideal role. There is a lot of creativity in devising these solutions.

2. Renewal/Retrofit/Restoration

During the lifespan of a building, it's likely that the building will change hands and the new owner will want to upgrade some systems. Or the original owner may just want to bring the building up to current code, potentially for seismic safety, but for many other reasons too. A structural engineer is commonly involved in these situations. These upgrades can be as small as installing new roof mechanical units and making sure the current roof can support the new load, or it may involve adding or removing existing elements of the structural system. Working with existing buildings also will appeal to problem solvers since you are frequently working within a strict set of existing conditions.

3. Forensics

And then, there are times when buildings don't work as they should. The media programs us to automatically think of building collapses, but this type of work ranges from bouncy floor systems that make tenants uncomfortable to, yep, building collapses. This type of work requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking because you typically go into the assignment with limited information and will need to use your detective skills to figure out what went wrong. This work is typically performed for lawyers or insurance companies who are seeking to understand the allocation of compensation for the damage. This type of work is good for those who are interested in putting all the pieces together. It typically requires a person who is willing to respond quickly to emergencies and potentially travel to the sites of the failure.

As you can see there are many paths to take in structural engineering and they all involve problem solving, creativity, strong technical abilities, and communication skills. It can be a very fulfilling career for the right candidate! I've certainly enjoyed my career so far in this field.

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