What Does A Structural Engineer Do? Everything You Need To Know. [Update 2021]

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What does a Structural Engineer Do?

structural engineers

In general, a structural engineer analyzes and designs the structural support systems for buildings, bridges, tunnels and other structures. They do this by analyzing gravity supports and lateral force resistance and then designing the structure accordingly. 

In latent terms, a structural engineer creates the plan necessary to ensure a building or structure withstands the test of time and does NOT fall down.  

If you are interested in learning more about what structural engineers do, including the various industries structural engineers work in and the unique projects they can work on, please read on. 

What is a Structural engineer-

Structural engineer working on commercial project

Our introduction briefly described what a structural engineer does. However, you may be wondering some specifics on what a structural engineer is. 

We’ll jump into this here. 

Structural engineers are a type of civil engineer; the engineers responsible for infrastructure projects in both the private and public sectors. This could be projects such as: roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment. There are many sub-disciplines within civil engineering such as: construction engineering, traffic engineering, water/wastewater engineering, and environmental engineering. The opportunities to specialize within civil engineering are vast. 

So, if structural engineers are a type of civil engineer, how do their roles differ? 

Well, all structural engineers are civil engineers, but NOT all civil engineers are structural engineers. 

Structural engineers’ education focuses heavily on good construction design ensuring all loads and forces are accounted for on the construction plans. They can be found working on any project that has to do with the development of existing and proposed structures. 

Listed below are a few of the projects structural engineers may work on: 

  • Bridges

  • Culverts 

  • Parking garages

  • Retaining walls 

  • Building design 

  • Building remodel or renovation

Note: Many structural engineers work in the construction engineering field and will deal with buildings such as: houses, multi-family homes, condo & townhomes, barns, sheds, and commercial buildings.

What education does a structural engineer need-

Structural engineer students in class

All structural engineers must first obtain a four-year degree in civil or architectural engineering from an accredited college or university, with coursework that emphasizes structural engineering. 

Once they finish this degree they are NOT considered licensed professional engineers. They must go on to work under a licensed professional engineer for 2-5 years (depending on the state’s requirements); this licensed engineer must specialize in structural engineering.

This is where engineers in training (EIT) really learn to apply the structural engineering principles they were taught in the classroom. The supervision of a licensed P.E. (professional engineer) acts as a net to catch any possible design mistakes and guides the EIT as they gain experience. 

Structural engineer in training working with a professional engineer

Once the engineer in training has met their state’s internship requirements they can take the Professional Engineer’s Exam. Upon passing the exam, they are eligible to be registered with the state board of engineering. It is only then that they will be considered a Professional Engineer.

Below is a summary of the requirements needed to become a licensed professional structural engineer:

  • A high-school diploma

  • A four-year degree in civil or architectural engineering from an accredited college with coursework that focuses on structural engineering

  • Two to five years of experience (depending on your state’s requirements) working under a licensed professional structural engineer 

  • Passing of the Professional Engineer’s exam

Some structural engineers may go even further by obtaining the following optional credentials: 

  • Gaining experience in the field of construction 

  • Drafting or Computer-Aided Design (CAD) training or experience

  • Gaining a Master’s, Ph.D. specializing in structural engineering

  • Engaging in research related to structural engineering & design

You see, engineering is an incredibly large field with hundreds of possible job options. If you were to obtain a degree in civil engineering, you could go on to specialize in a variety of fields. Gaining knowledge in structural engineering would allow you to be a part of building projects across many industries. 

Let’s jump into some of the building projects that structural engineers work on. 

Types of projects structural engineers work on-

Structural engineer parking ramp project

Some structural engineers focus solely on building projects for commercial, residential, and townhome/condo associations. This facet of the industry encounters unique projects and works with a wide variety of clients such as homeowners, homeowner associations, Realtors, contractors, architects, and designers just to name a few.  

Structural engineer project

Other structural engineers may choose to go into bridge construction or infrastructure fields. 

Here is a summary on the types of projects a structural engineer may be involved with: 

  • Residential Buildings: 

    • Existing structures 

    • New Structures

  • Commercial Projects

  • Home Purchase Transactions

  • Construction Defect 

  • Storm Damage

  • Additional Structural Needs

  • Bridge construction

  • City Infrastructure

  • Community development impact analysis

Residential Building Projects: 

Many clients do not realize they need a structural engineer for their building project until a city official or other professional requests it. So, how does a structural engineer fit into the puzzle?

A structural engineer is typically required whenever there are (1) structural changes made to an existing structure  (2) when a new structure is being designed. 

Structural engineer working on residential project

Structural changes to existing structure: 

Home remodel project requiring structural engineering services

Let’s say a homeowner is looking to add-on to their home or hopes to remove a load bearing wall to make a kitchen or great room.  The size of the project will dictate the proper course of action.

Major renovations or additions will require a plan from an architect or designer while a minor renovation may eliminate that step all together. However, both minor and major renovations/additions typically require a structural engineer. 

It’s crucial that your structural engineer understands all aspects of building construction including thermal technology and entire home performance as well as structural components.

Major Renovation:

Major home renovation requiring a structural engineer

Once the homeowner or condominium/townhome association has a general idea of their budget, goals, and timeline they will need to hire a designer and/or architect to design a plan for their renovation. In a nutshell, this plan will provide the client with layouts, dimensions, and construction notes/details.

On top of this, it is imperative that  your architect or designer works with a structural engineer at the onset of your project. The missing piece on the plan is something only a structural engineer can provide, the load carrying structural system including: live load, dead load, and environmental loads such as wind, thermal, and seismic.

The engineer will analyze the plan, perform calculations, and add these details to the architectural plan. Once the plan is complete, a contractor can begin work.

Minor Renovation: 

Load bearing wall removal requiring a structural engineer

Many structural engineers would consider minor renovation to be something like removing a load bearing wall between the kitchen and great room. Typically, you will NOT need an architectural plan for this. Since a plan is not needed, the owner would go straight to a structural engineer who has working relationships with contractors, architects, and designers. 

In order for your contractor to remove the wall, a structural engineer will typically need to determine if the wall is load bearing via an engineering inspection on-site. If the wall is load bearing, the engineer will need to design a beam & column system to replace the wall being removed. 

Oftentimes, an engineering report describing the beam & column system along with a scope of work will be provided to the homeowner.  The contractor can use this report to obtain a building permit from the city  and proceed with the load bearing wall removal.

 If you are pulling a permit, 9 times out of 10, this report is all the city official will require. Some building officials and/or inspectors require a drawing from the engineer in order to get the building permit, which can mean additional charges.

Engineering for new structures:  

structural engineer working on new construction project

Building a home is an exciting, and for some, intimidating time; for good reason. There are many roadblocks that can stop your project in its place. However, having a great team of people working with you is paramount to counteracting those challenges. 

 

For example, hiring an awesome architect that understands your vision will make your life much easier.

 

On top of this, a structural engineer has the know-how to provide your new home with the structural integrity it needs. Many people don’t realize they need a structural engineer. But, it is the engineer that adds the structural details to your architectural plan. 

Listed below are two examples of architectural plans one can secure from either an architect or through an “on-shelf” drawing catalog. 

Note- Some of these plans may not come with all the necessary structural details. You may need to hire a structural engineer to add these. 

Standard House Plan: 

standard house plan

A standard architectural plan for a house typically will not require engineering up front. Because these plans are common, many lumber yards can provide you with the proper elements for the load carrying structural system.

With this being said, it is a good idea to have a structural engineer look over the plan before materials are ordered and work begins on the project. If building elements are undersized by mistake, it can be a costly and regrettable expense to the homeowner/builder.

Man regretting his decision not to call a structural engineer

For example, we received a phone call from a customer stating that their brand-new granite countertops were pulling away from a wall. The homeowner was frustrated and confused because their counter tops were only recently installed.

 

An engineer was dispatched to investigate the issue and discovered that the floor joists were structurally sound but were positioned non-traditionally allowing for deflection/settlement to occur.

 

The verdict was that the joists needed to be reinforced in order to prevent the expensive granite countertops from cracking at the owner’s expense. 

 

The original architectural plan was designed to support lighter materials, not the heavy load of granite countertops, the lumber yard had simply provided the structural materials the plan called for and the contractor installed the joists the way the plan stated.  

 

This is just one example of how materials like hardwoods, granite, and tile can affect loads. Had the homeowner in this situation known to have a structural engineer look over their plans from the onset, the whole issue could have been avoided. As you can tell, making a structural engineer a key player in your initial planning is a top priority!

Custom House Plan: 

beautiful custom house

Have you been imagining your dream home for some time now? If that is the case, a custom plan may be exactly what you need. Wondering how to go about this? See the steps below. 

  1. Hire an architect or designer to create your plan.

  2. Go over your plans thoroughly with your architect or designer to make sure you’re satisfied.

  3. Hire a structural engineer to add the essential structural details aka structural framework to the plan.

  4. Hire a builder.

Engineering for Commercial Buildings

When it comes to commercial projects, renovations or new-construction, structural engineers are not  just recommended, they are required and essential.

 

Typically, the architect heading up the commercial project will hire a structural engineer to work directly with them in the project.

 

The structural engineer is responsible for all the structural aspects of the project such as: 

structural engineers analyzing loads on a commercial project

Site Investigation

Before any design work begins, a structural engineer will be involved with the initial site investigation to determine if the soil is conducive to the project at hand. Certain soils or landscape could be the downfall to a project’s success.

 

A structural engineer can use their expertise to verify that the build-site is suitable for the requirements of the approaching project or if soil corrections will need to be made.

structural engineer analyzing a new build site

Construction plans: 

A structural engineer will work closely with the architect/design team to develop detailed construction plans.

 

They tackle specific aspects of the plan such as selecting appropriate job materials, foundation design, header/beam sizing, live load, dead load, and environmental loads such as wind, thermal, and/or seismic and how all these stresses affect the building.

 

Also, safety regulations will be considered. This is a critical part of the process and will require a team of professionals working together to ensure a comprehensive and final plan. 

structural plans

Project Management:  

Just because a structural engineer creates a building plan does NOT necessarily mean it will be built according to the plan or in compliance with applicable building codes.

Structural engineers in the project management role may help to bridge this gap, providing oversight during the construction phase. 

They can ensure proper construction and installation methods are used, timelines are on track, safety and/or health prerequisites are met, and provide adequate progress reports to their clientele.

Project management is a great way to prevent construction defects by building right the first time. 

structural engineers analyzing construction plans

Engineering Inspections for Home Purchase Transactions:  

It’s common knowledge that a traditional home inspection is a good idea when it comes to buying or selling a home. Sometimes, that is all a buyer may need for peace of mind.

This type of inspection prior to a home purchase transaction will typically cover the condition of the home’s heating system; central air conditioning system (temperature permitting); interior plumbing and electrical systems; the roof, attic and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors; the foundation, basement and basic structural components. 

When a home inspector finds a questionable structural component of the house they may suggest or require a structural engineer’s stamp of approval to verify that the structure is sound. 

structural engineer analyzing foundation stair step crack

This happens frequently with foundations. The inspector may notice some larger cracks in the foundation or perhaps it appears to be bowing out in an area.

The inspector may not be comfortable with the size of those cracks and will want a second opinion from a structural engineer.

The structural engineer will perform a visual inspection of the foundation and/or provide a scope of repair in the form of an engineering report. This report can be used to get bids on any necessary repairs and/or to obtain a building permit.

An engineer’s report holds authority and is deemed most credible. This report is highly beneficial to a home buyer as it can help with purchase price reductions, officially verifies structural issues and scope of work to repair, helps speed up the closing process, and can bring peace of mind to sellers and buyers alike.

structural engineer foundation inspection

Construction Defect:

Structural engineers are often involved in both residential (single family, condominiums, townhomes) and commercial construction defect cases.

Construction defect can mean many things. The core issue could be related to faulty design, defective materials or poor craftsmanship and failure to adhere to applicable building codes from the construction company.

Determining a final verdict can be a lengthy process because there are often many parties involved such as lawyers, insurance companies, structural engineers, construction companies and other vendors/specialists. 

construction defect

A structural engineer has a very specific role in a construction defect case depending on if they are on the plaintiff or defendant side. They are either involved to prove that issues are present (plaintiff) or that no or minimal issues exist (defendant). 

Typically, structural engineers are hired by the construction defect law firm. They will communicate with the lawyers providing structural engineering expert advice and forensic investigation findings as the case is built.

First, the engineers must familiarize themselves with the case by reading any existing literature or reports on the issues at hand.

Next steps would include all party walk throughs where “all parties” can familiarize themselves with the site via a visual tour, any further investigations necessary for the engineers to view essential components of the building, research, analysis and reporting.

The structural engineers will work closely with the lawyers during the reporting phase to ensure all the appropriate information has been included in the report. This report will either be used to help settle the case outside of court or, if an agreement cannot be made, will be brought to trial.

If the case does come to a trial, the structural engineer will often be asked to take the stand as an expert witness. 

lawyers shaking hands

Storm Damage:

Structural engineers are also involved in both residential and commercial storm damage cases where catastrophic events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, hail, wind, or earthquakes may have caused property damage. There are two ways they could be involved: hired directly by an insurance company or third party company hired by the property owner. 

storm damage to a home

If a property owner believes they have storm damage, they will typically file an insurance claim. They either hire an engineer off-the-bat to strengthen their case from the start (not as common) or they hire a structural engineer to fight the insurance company if their claim gets denied.

If a claim does get denied, but the property owner feels strongly that damage is present, their insurance company may suggest that a structural engineer (whom they choose) come look at the property.

As the property owner, it is best to hire your own third-party structural engineer to avoid bias. There are too many cases of property owners getting taken advantage of because the insurance company provided their own structural engineer to their own benefit. 

Once the property owner hires a  third party structural engineer, they will inspect the site, take notes/photographs/measurements, and provide the homeowner with an analysis and report depicting their findings. The property owner  can use the report to fight the insurance company and hopefully win the claim. 

tree fell on a home

Additional Structural Needs:

Potential Structural Component Fail

There are times when a structural engineer may be needed even when a client has no intentions of building a house or renovating one. This may happen if a homeowner suspects that a structural element within their home is failing. Some potential threats are  wall cracks, uneven/sagging  floors, foundation cracks/bowing, sagging/shifting decks, cracked beams, doors that stick, or standing water in the basement. All of these scenarios may be indicative of a hidden problem within your home. Having an engineer inspect the area can prevent further damage from occurring and provide homeowners with peace of mind. 

porch fell downSolar Panel Install: 

Adding solar panels to a commercial, residential, or townhome/condo complex is fairly common today. However, it may require a structural engineer to determine if the building or complex can handle the additional loads/uplift factor from the solar panels.

If this is the case, a structural engineer will perform an inspection of the roof, perform calculations, and generate a report which will include their findings.

If the engineer finds that the roof needs to be reinforced to handle the additional loads, they can provide a scope of work or even a drawing if necessary.

solar panels on residential roof

Decks

Have you been suspicious of your existing deck? Has it begun to sag or show signs of settlement? If you are feeling uneasy, it is a good idea to have a structural engineer inspect the deck. They can check to make sure the deck was built to code, looking for things like appropriate footings, soils, supports, fasteners, etc. 

Increasing loads

Are you looking to install any of the following: hot tub, aquarium, granite countertops, whirlpool tub, piano, pool tables?

The items above add loads to your home that may be above and beyond what your joists can handle (we talked about this idea earlier under the section about new construction and standard house plans). This is most often true if you have an older home.

In general, the rule of thumb is to have a structural engineer inspect the area to ensure the additional live loads are within the allotted parameters. For instance, if you are looking to install a fish tank that holds 400 gallons of water (1 gallon of water weighs about 8.34 lbs.) ,you will be adding about 3,336.00 lbs. to your floor joists. An additional load, such as this, may require reinforcements on the floor joists.

A structural engineer has the ability to inspect the area, perform calculations, and provide you with a report/scope of work if reinforcements are necessary. 

deck carrying a hot tub fell down

Accidental Structural Modifications

Sometimes, during remodel projects, an HVAC, home flipper, plumber, or electrical professional may accidentally cut into a structural component such as a header. This can be very serious and detrimental to the structural integrity of your home. A structural engineer should perform an inspection as soon as possible. They will perform calculations to determine the best solution for the compromised area. 

Moisture Issues/Sump Pump Running Constantly

Some structural engineers have knowledge and experience with moisture intrusion in the form of leaks, ice dams, attic condensation “sweating”, window/door leaks, standing water in a basement, freeze/thaw cycles, and other drainage issues. If you are having water issues be sure to ask your structural engineer if they can help.

Structural engineers are involved in bridge construction-

structural engineer working on bridge design

Structural engineers are heavily involved in the design of bridges.

 

They must consider dead loads (weight of the structure), dynamic loads (loads that change or are applied with motion), snow loads and other stressors such as seismic, thermal, and wind forces that influence structural integrity.

 

Things like vibration limits, fatigue (the tendency of material to break under repeated stress) and torsion will be analyzed in order to make the proper material selections and design decisions.

 

Ultimately, a structural engineer will break down each of the components discussed above (and more) to design a perfectly balanced and strong bridge capable of withstanding the test of time. 

How structural engineers are involved in city infrastructure-

infrastructure structural engineer

Some structural engineers may choose to become involved with city infrastructure projects. 

 

They may work in tandem with civil engineers to analyze and implement design strategies for roadways, highways, tunnels, water, sewer, and drainage systems.

 

Ultimately, these engineers will have a thorough understanding of any loads or forces that affect these types of projects such as traffic volume, weather conditions, proper building materials, and any other stressors they are up against.

 

They will use this knowledge and other information to develop infrastructure that encourages clean and safe communities.

Community development impact analysis-

two structural engineers discussing a project

Many people do not even realize that impact analysis is a sector of the structural engineering industry.

Not only is it important to analyze the structural integrity of infrastructure plans, but it’s also important to analyze how these developments, be it a new waterway or roadway, will affect the surrounding areas.

If installing a new roadway will make a nearby building fall down, it needs to be addressed up front.

As a community development impact analysis structural engineer, you are responsible for keeping the existing infrastructure safe while developments are in motion.

structural engineers working together

In conclusion, we hope this blog provided you with some basic information on what structural engineers actually do. As we cited throughout the article, there are many situations when decision makers are unaware that structural engineers are required or could be beneficial to a project. 

Whether you are looking to start a residential or commercial renovation or new-build, need an engineer for the sale of your home, think you may need to open a construction defect case, are suspicious of a potential structural failure within your home, incorporating additional loads such as a hot tub/fish tank, or had a property fall victim to a storm, structural engineers are typically involved and can help.

If you are interested in becoming a structural engineer, we hope you see the versatility that comes with the career. Specializing in structural engineering does not limit you, but in fact opens doors across the board. 

If you have any additional questions, as always, please reach out to us at 763-544-3355.

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