Structural engineers are integral in designing and executing our buildings and infrastructure. From residential homes to skyscrapers and from roads to rail, a structural engineer delivers projects that are safe, economical, and made to last. So, what should all structural engineers expect to know?
What do structural engineers do?
Structural engineers use their physics and engineering knowledge to design and assess and improve existing structures. When it comes to design, a structural engineer typically has to meet three main requirements: Strength, Serviceability, and Durability.
In other words, a structure must not fail or collapse (Strength), it must not bend, sway, deflect, or vibrate excessively (Serviceability), and it must not deteriorate, corrode, or suffer fatigue (Durability). A structural engineer should make a structure as economical and efficient as possible if those three requirements are satisfied.
Everything from analyzing structural systems under various loads to satisfying assumptions and allowable limits to determining construction methods and materials, interpreting and drafting plans, specifications, and drawings becomes part of your repertoire.
Civil Engineers vs. Structural Engineers
Structural engineering is a specialization of Civil Engineering; in other words: All structural engineers are civil engineers, but not all civil engineers are structural engineers.
As a structural engineer, you can expect to focus on more complex structures across various job types and industries. You might find yourself working on structures as varied as skyscrapers, train stations, hospitals, mining and industrial buildings, and large infrastructure projects.
Your design must consider all static and dynamic loads while balancing the requirements defined by developers, operators, architects, builders, services engineers, and more! You'll need to perform advanced calculations and simulations to analyze structural performance and explore options. You must also ensure the design meets all stakeholder requirements and physical and regulatory performance metrics.
On the other hand, civil engineers tend to design and supervise the broader aspects of public infrastructure. A civil engineer working on large infrastructure projects can expect to deal with anything from road and pavement design to rail systems, landscaping, and drainage. They collaborate with structural engineers and other specialist engineers (like bridge and tunnel engineers) to design broader systems and communicate with stakeholders. They make recommendations and plans, ensure project sites meet performance requirements and respect regulatory standards.
To simplify it even more: civil engineers tend to look at the bigger picture, while structural engineers focus on the complex structural elements of a project.
Know your trade
There are several key groups of knowledge and skillsets that a structural design team needs to do their jobs well.
Structural engineers must have a firm grasp of physics and the fundamentals of construction to understand how structures are built and behave and how they respond to environmental conditions.
An aptitude for physics, mathematics, and science is a must. These subjects are deeply intertwined into all the concepts you learn as you head into university and the workforce.
From studying materials and mechanics to hydraulics and geotechnics to project management and, more recently, computer science, a structural engineer needs to be a jack of all trades to do their job well.
Being able to look at a real-life concept of a structure and turn it into an analytical model or free-body diagram is key to the job. Additionally, concepts like moment or torque, shear, and deflection should become second nature. Understanding and considering material properties like elastic modulus, the moment of inertia, and their impact on a system's performance are key skills you'll develop as a structural engineer.
Understanding the individual components of a structure, like columns, beams, slabs, struts, etc., are the building blocks of design. From there, conceptualizing how these components interact to create sub-systems within a structure, like lateral stability systems and floor plates, is also key.
Building a strong knowledge base about local and national building codes and standards is important too. Understanding and applying codes of practice and typical assumptions are just as important as crunching numbers.
Knowing your trade also means knowing how it all comes together on-site. Construction processes and how to inspect and evaluate a building site will be a skill you learn on the job. As a structural engineer, you should be able to inspect a building or construction site and compare what you see with the building plans. You will inspect the building envelope, walls, insulation, etc. Discrepancies are then noted and remedied. Finally, identifying defining risk and, therefore, the margins of safety to apply to global and local parts of a structure is the final piece of the puzzle to designing a safe and robust structure.
From simple excel spreadsheets to niche tools and advanced simulations, structural engineers should have strong computer skills and knowledge of software solutions.
Hand calculations in the structural analysis will always be a critical skill. In the early stages of design, when you are still in the planning phase, you can't simply input unfinished concepts into a software tool; you need a solid understanding of what you intend to input. In short, trash in = trash out.
Software tools can boost your understanding of structural concepts to help you see how structures work at scale and how to iterate a design quickly. The software can be used in various ways, from modelling existing or new systems to modelling the physical environment, evaluating alternatives, and integrating all essential design tools, features, and international and local building codes. More conventional software includes features to analyze a diversified profile of structural elements, outputting analysis and graphics, and checking for errors.
Structural engineers can add immense value to an organization with coding skills. While structural engineers are typically taught to use programs, a small proportion knows how to code. Engineers have a lot of transferable skills needed to learn how to code, and learning to do so will set you apart. Design automation, AI, and other digital transformations within the industry are gaining momentum; understanding code will future-proof your skills.
The ability to document, interpret and communicate engineering drawings, plans, 3D models, and specifications is essential. Structural engineers must know how to interpret and create drawings and models, whether by hand or with tools like Revit, AutoCAD, or Bluebeam. It allows structural engineers to understand project developments, functions, outcomes, and how they all come together. Structural engineers will never work in a vacuum; their work must be coordinated within the bigger picture of the project with designers, architects, contractors, engineers, and clients.
Being able to communicate design decisions and outcomes visually to all major participants in a project and to do so effectively is a skill and core part of the job.
This one is quite equivocal and only truly developed after years of study and professional experience. It's not just about having the answer to a problem or delivering the objective; it understands how to do so by applying creativity, ingenuity, intuition, innovation, and judgment to all tasks. Solutions may be found, but problems can persist; navigating around this separates great engineers from good ones.
Engineering judgment is the ability to formally and intuitively decide on a course of action and know how to support it. It is anything from communicating highly technical concepts to non-technical persons or understanding the nuances, intricacies, and best ways to make decisions.
The industry is changing. The need to remediate the building sector's enormous impact on natural resources, livelihoods, and the economy has gained momentum. As governments and organizations regulate a commitment towards sustainability and innovation, all industry participants must be aware of this. Structural engineers need to become more responsive to the tenets of sustainability and the environment. Understanding sustainable materials, working to produce and implement energy and cost-efficient designs, and having a grasp of supply chains, material availability, and new technologies are some new challenges engineers must take on.
As the industry shifts to being more automated and data-driven, how engineers collaborate and how existing tools and workflows are organized will evolve. All existing tools in design and analysis are effective, but there are ways to enrich them and make them work better at scale. That's our mission with CalcTree. We provide engineers with a calculation management platform to help wrangle data across projects. We want to help you organize and leverage calculations and designs like never before. Helping engineers build and share creations faster and smarter. To learn more, join our waitlist and Slack community today!