What is Structural Engineering?

In this article, we’ll answer the question, what is structural engineering and why is it important? We’ll explore what it takes to become a structural engineer and how it’s different from Civil Engineering, architecture, and other practices. And most importantly, we’ll share the impacts it has on your life.

So what is Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering and their differences? Civil Engineering is a term for a broad range of engineering disciplines that serve our society. This industry is known as the Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industry (AEC). Structural Engineering is just one concentration of Civil Engineering.

Some other concentrations include Geotechnical, Transportation, Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering. A civil engineer will typically specialize in one of these concentrations and each discipline has a specific focus and responsibility that may be required for a civil project.

Civil Engineers who opt to concentrate in Structural Engineering choose to focus on the science and art of

  • Planning
  • Designing
  • Constructing safe and economical structures that will serve their intended purposes

Whether that purpose is a bridge, building, or support for mechanical equipment, if the structure is being subjected to forces, it requires structural engineering.

In order to produce efficient solutions, structural engineering requires awareness and intuition, a knowledge in physics and mathematics, and an understanding of best construction practices. It also requires a curiosity and desire to continue to learn as new and powerful technologies are becoming more integrated into the industry.

Sound structural engineering typically begins with establishing all the functional requirements of the project prior to preliminary design. If the project requires architects or other consultants, the structural engineer will work with them to establish these requirements. They will include the general layout of the structure, the materials used in construction, as well as possible types of structural elements and their material properties.

During this time, they may also give input on non structural factors such as the environmental impact, general aesthetics and so on. Ultimately, the responsibility falls upon the designer to be aware of all the requirements and factors affecting the project. This applies whether the project is existing or new.

So what is the difference between Architects and Structural Engineers?

Where Architects bring the vision for a structure, their concerns and expertise are generally geared towards the general purpose and aesthetics of the structure, meeting building code requirements such as fire and occupancy, and the overall user experience.

Structural Engineers will take the Architects vision and evaluate if it is economically possible to bring to life. There are many possible situations to consider. Equipped with knowledge in wind engineering and seismic engineering, a structural engineer develops a design that not only considers how the structure responds to human or mechanical interactions due to gravity, but also the location and topographic factors to withstand the forces of nature.

Overall, they are responsible for the prediction of the performance of a given structure under various worst case loading scenarios.

A deep understanding in mechanics of materials is fundamental to create a proper economical design. Engineers must reasonably yet conservatively predict all the possible forces the structure will undergo, understand the load paths created by them and how the structure will respond throughout all members down to the foundation design.

Structural Engineering Technological advances

Structural Engineering has always been an integral part of the human endeavor. Yet, it hasn’t been until recently, with the development in materials and computer programs that such complex and efficient structures have been capable of being created.

In fact, nowadays the structural and civil engineering industries rely heavily on computer aided design (CAD) and 3D modeling. Engineers are required to model and understand in depth the output results from these programs to not only determine if the structure works, but also discern if the virtual model was correctly built.

In addition to member and connection design, BIM (Building Information Modeling) helps engineers collaborate with general contractors, builders, other engineering disciplines, and construction companies to solve coordination issues that otherwise wouldn’t have been discovered until the construction phase.

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How to Become a Structural Engineer

In order to practice structural engineering in the United States, it is required by each state to become a licensed professional.

Applicants must pass a test, be approved by a state board and meet the following requirements:

  • A Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering 
  • Minimum of 4 years of post school experience under a Licensed Engineer

Once an engineer is licensed, they can apply for a transfer to other states to practice structural engineering in that state.

They will need to provide:

  • Proof of passing the PE exam
  • Completed state-specific paperwork for the state you are transferring to
  • School transcripts or supplementary experience records and references
  • Completed state-specific PE license application to that state

Ultimately, Structural Engineering involves a deep understanding in science, construction, and technology to develop an economical design that meets the project’s intentions while staying within budget. It is crucial for the structural engineer to be creative with great attention to detail, knowledgeable and innovative.

Why is Structural Engineering Important?

Whether it’s designing new structures, or maintaining existing ones as they begin to age or become damaged, the science of structural engineering keeps us safe and efficient as we continue to grow and advance as a society.

No matter the issue, if you are in need of a structural engineering solution, our engineers and Architects are prepared and ready to help.

Give us a call today.

Picture of Scott Zurn, P.E.

Scott Zurn, P.E.

Founder and CEO of Level Engineering & Level Design Partners. With more than 4 decades of experience, Scott Zurn has contributed to all aspects of the building industry, serving both public and private sectors. He’s achieved tremendous success in commercial and residential markets, held leadership roles such as building official, city engineer, and director for local governments, and accomplished hundreds of millions of dollars in successful commercial building and civil infrastructure as a designer, project manager, and leader. As the Founder of the Level brand, Scott is dedicated to ensuring the entrepreneurial success of design professionals, as well as creating positive environmental impacts through design work. Read Scott’s full bio here.

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