Structural engineers are trained professionals who design the structural support systems that allow buildings to withstand the test of time. They create these structural support systems by analyzing various forces and loads affecting a building and then performing mathematical calculations to design a system accordingly.
These guys are the reason buildings don’t fall down after exposure to the elements for 100+ years or when 3 feet of snow piles up on the roof or an earthquake hits.
If you would like to learn more about what a structural engineer is, please read on.
Or, if you find yourself in one of the following situations, you may benefit from this blog.
- Have you been told that you need to hire a structural engineer in order to move forward with your building project?
- Are you considering going to school to become a structural engineer?
- Do you plan to build a custom home and want to know more about the technical guys behind your plans?
If you answered yes to any of the above situations, please read on.
What is a structural engineer-
We talked a bit about what a structural engineer is above. Let’s get into the details here.
Structural engineers are actually a sub-branch of civil engineering. Civil engineers are the guys that design bridges, roads, waterways, dams, airports, tunnels, etc for both the private and public sector.
Structural engineers typically get a degree in civil engineering with a structural emphasis or may simply go on later to obtain the structural training necessary to design various buildings. If this is the case, they will learn the ins and outs of building design & analysis.
It’s their job to analyze a building from the rooftops (and anything that may sit on the roof including snow) all the way down to the soils. This is known as load path; the direction in which each consecutive load will pass through connected members, ultimately moving all loads to the ground.
The load path determines which components in a home will be load bearing; hence why some walls are considered load bearing walls and others are not.
As you will see in the sketch below, loads will move from the snow loads on the roof all the way down to the soils.
You may be wondering what kind of loads we’re talking about.
See the chart below.
As you can see above, some loads are from snow while others are from earthquakes. Geographical areas play a large role in building design. Structural engineers are well versed in all possible loads affecting buildings and how to design a structure accordingly.
Keep in mind that not every structural engineer focuses on construction projects. Some will specialize in the design of machinery, vehicles or various medical equipment. It all depends on where their interests lie.
We will talk about the unique projects that structural engineers work on later.
What does a structural engineer do?-
For the most part, structural engineers will be tasked with:
- Engineering/analyzing building designs- In other words, they will be responsible for taking a building plan and performing calculations to ensure the design will work and then adding structural details to that plan so builders have instructions to go by.
- Assessing/engineering existing structures- Structural engineers can perform assessments on existing properties to ensure they meet building codes & regulations. If not, they can design the appropriate improvement. They can also design plans for updates, remodels, new load requirements, etc.
Both situations mentioned above could entail commercial, residential, multi-family, industrial or even city infrastructure construction.
Most structural engineers will specialize in a specific industry. This is because each industry is vastly unique and takes experience and hard work to master.
Examples of common industries that structural engineers work in:
- Coastal and marine structures
- Residential or commercial construction
- Energy and power plants
- Water and public health structures
Every project a structural engineer will tackle, regardless of industry, is different. It is rare that they would work on the same project twice.
Here are a few examples of projects a structural engineer could work on:
Engineering new construction plans-
It’s very common for architects and structural engineers to work together. You can think of architects as the artist and engineers as the math people that make the plan work. Essentially, an architect may reach out to a structural engineer to work on a project together (residential, commercial or industrial). The architect will send the engineer a tentative house plan or blueprint which the engineer will review. This kind of project takes a lot of time. The structural engineer must make sure the building plan is doable. If the plan is unrealistic structurally, the engineer may offer some suggestions to remedy the situation. If all looks well, the engineer will go through each component of the building, adding details like: materials needed, connection types & member sizing. These details describe how the structure must be built; construction companies will use this as their guide. Programs, such as AutoCAD®, are used to implement these details to the blueprint.
Engineering existing designs or smaller projects-
What do we mean by smaller projects? Well, instead of designing a system for an entire building, the engineer may add structural detailing to a remodel plan, deck or even a retaining wall or fence. Keep in mind that smaller projects may not always have an architect or designer working on the plan. In fact, the contractor could have sketched up a plan themselves which can then be sent to a structural engineer for the proper load detailing. This load detailing and a licensed professional engineer’s stamp on the design is what allows for building permits to be pulled. Computer programs do not need to be used for something like this. Structural engineers may actually print the details directly onto the sketch; this is known as red-lining.
*Details called out in a structural drawing will vary project to project.
Sometimes, a smaller project may not require a building plan. One example of this could be removing a load bearing wall from a building. Although no plan is needed, the building department may want to see a drawing from a structural engineer depicting the replacement structural support. This drawing could include some instructions for removing the wall (how to install temporary supports, etc) and how to install the new support system. Lastly, the drawing would include the licensed professional engineers stamp of approval.
Structural home inspections-
It is very common for structural engineers to be involved in home purchase transactions. Sometimes home inspection companies may flag an area on their report which could prompt a second opinion from a structural engineer. This is very common with foundations. Suspicious cracks, shifting, or water in the basement may push a home buyer to hire a structural engineer for a foundation inspection.
Construction defect is a construction company and homeowner’s worst nightmare. Because of this, structural engineering firms often get hired to oversee building projects. Remember, just because an engineer calls for a building to be built a specific way does not mean it will be. With a structural engineer physically on the construction site, construction anomalies can be addressed and avoided.
In cases where structures were built incorrectly, engineers may be hired to investigate the property and determine where the issues occurred. Typically, a large report will be generated with photos and explanations. If the case goes to trial, the structural engineer may testify as an expert witness.
Structural engineers can be involved in storm damage cases where catastrophic events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, hail, wind, or earthquakes may have caused property damage. Typically, the property owner will file an insurance claim. Engineers may get involved if the claim was denied and the property owner wants to refute it. The next step would be for the insurance company to send their own hired structural engineer out to inspect the damage. At that point, a homeowner would typically hire their own third-party structural engineer to avoid bias.
Accidental Structural modifications-
Structural engineering companies sometimes get emergency calls for accidental modifications on construction sites. One example could be the removal of a load bearing wall or other structural component. We’ve even personally received emergency calls for damaged buildings that were hit by a car. Situations like these are very serious and can lead to permanent damage or building collapse.
Structural engineers will often analyze existing structures to ensure they are up to building codes and regulation and that proper maintenance has been carried out. One example of this could be a bridge inspection.
Structural engineers can work in city infrastructure alongside civil engineers. This industry focuses on design and analysis 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.
Community development impact analysis-
There are actually engineers who specialize in ensuring that developments (including new highways, waterways, or commercial buildings) do not cause harm to the surrounding areas. These engineers have extensive knowledge on loads & forces and how they affect the environment around them. For instance, if installing a new roadway will make a nearby building fall down, the project needs a new plan.
What makes a good structural engineer-
Structural engineers must have certain qualities to be successful.
The absolute best structural engineers seem to have the following qualities:
- Math skills & problem solving- When it comes to engineering, being good at math alone isn’t enough (it is super important though). There is no “one” project out there that is the same. Therefore, a good structural engineer must be able to logically think on their feet and design plans that will work for each situation thrown at them.
- Creative- Most people think of architects as the creative ones (and they are). However, engineers have to be very creative in their own way as well. For instance, a homeowner may have a certain vision and budget for their project. The engineer may have a great plan to bring that vision to life, but it may not be budget friendly. Therefore, an alternative solution is necessary to create the same “feel” the homeowner is looking for, but at a fraction of the cost. Oftentimes, this takes thinking outside-of-the-box to get the job done and make the homeowner happy.
- Detailed- I’m just going to say it, engineering if not for “big-picture” types. Ever heard the phrase, “the devil is in the details?” Well, it definitely applies here. One mistake can ruin a structural engineer’s career. Their stamp of approval on a blueprint means that they have meticulously reviewed the plan and have 100% certainty that their design is solid.
- Love to learn- As we’ve mentioned above, every structural engineering project will be different from another. Therefore, it’s impossible for a structural engineer to know everything. They are constantly learning and pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone. A good structural engineer thrives on the challenge of learning something new.
- Team players- Structural engineers must be good at working with others. This is because they often need to interact with the construction team, other engineers, architects, designers, property owners, city municipalities, etc. Conversations need to be had to ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal.
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Where to find a residential (or commercial) structural engineer-
This question is asked more often than not. That is because it’s not everyday that a typical person requires a structural engineer.
Well, unless they’re involved in construction & development. Then, they wouldn’t be asking this question because they probably already have several engineers working with them.
So, if you were just told that you need a structural engineer to obtain funding for a home purchase, to pull a building permit with your city or to help you engineer your architectural plan, read on for tips.
Tip #1- Ask your friends. If you have any friends that have recently used an engineer, referrals are the best. However, we realize this is not always an option.
Tip #2- Ask your contractor. Most contractors do residual work with structural engineers and should know who the best in town are. They may also have insider information on who has the best turn-around time or who is the most affordable.
Tip #3- Ask your city building department. Many city building departments will have a list of structural engineers in the area. They do not pick favorites or hand out names by any means, but they may give you some ideas on who to contact.
Tip #4 – Ask your home inspector. Most home inspectors work closely with structural engineers. They may have a good resource for you.
Tip #5- Ask your architect. Architects work hand-in-hand with structural engineers. They may have a go-to contact for you.
Tip #6- Do an online search. You are bound to come up with a few names on the internet. Be sure to check reviews on the company to see what other people are saying. You can also ask them questions about their experience, what types of projects they specialize in, turn-around time, costs, and the deliverables you can expect to receive.
Tip #7- Avoid platforms like Angie’s List or HomeAdvisors. Conglomerates such as these (both of these platforms are owned by HomeAdvisor as of 2017) will ask for your personal information and release it to dozens of contractors. So, unless you want a bunch of companies blowing up your phone, you’re better off doing a simple search on google.
How to know if I need a structural engineer-
We wanted to include this topic because so many clients ask us about this. So, how do you know if you need a structural engineer?
Anytime, you are altering a structural component of your home, you need a structural engineer to sign off on the plan.
Because, every time you alter a building’s structure, the loads will shift. Every house was built according to a specific structural plan which cannot be altered without a) precautions and b) replacement of a new structural component capable of carrying existing loads.
For instance, you can’t just start cutting into floor joists or taking down random walls. Your home could literally fall down.
Projects that require a structural engineer:
- Remodels & renovations that will alter a home’s structural plan such as: adding a floor, removing load bearing walls, bonus room above garage, or room additions.
- Adding significant load to a floor: Adding a large fish tank, granite countertops, a dance floor or piano to your home could necessitate the need for additional joist reinforcement and a structural engineer.
- Adding a deck: Most deck’s will need a structural engineer to sign off on the plan in order to pull a building permit.
- New construction: 9.5 times out of 10, you will need a structural engineer for a new construction project. Sometimes, homeowners will purchase a pre-engineered plan for a new home which may not require engineering. However, each plan’s structural requirements vary region to region. For example, home’s in northern regions require the capacity to carry more snow load on the roof while home’s in earthquake zones require seismic engineering. You should always have a structural engineer at least analyze your plan before putting it into action. Rural area building departments are not always as strict as metropolitan areas when it comes to pulling building permits or having inspections done. Be sure to cover your bases and hire an engineer to work with you.
- Retaining walls over 4 feet (in Minnesota): Retaining walls over 4 feet tall will require a structural engineer to sign off on the intended plan.
- Some fences: Building permits are required for some fences depending on your city’s regulations. Depending on your building department, they may require a structural engineer to sign off on your plan.
Projects that may not require a structural engineer-
Projects that will NOT alter a home’s structural plan will not require a structural engineer. This could be things like:
- Bathroom remodel (as long as significant weight isn’t being added)
- Kitchen remodel that is NOT taking down walls (unless adding granite or other heavy loads)
- New roof (unless you suspect heat loss (ICE DAMS), then definitely have an engineer out while the roof is off to save you money).
- Refinishing a deck
- Adding cabinets
Can a structural engineer stamp porch drawings-
You asked it, we’ll answer it. Yes, structural engineers can absolutely stamp porch drawings once they’ve thoroughly analyzed the proposed plan and determined it’s structurally sound. If the plan is not up to par, they can add the structural detailing necessary to make the plan solid.
Structural engineers can also generate a porch drawing up front. This structural drawing will include the detailing necessary to pull permits and provide a contractor with the needed information.
*Example of a structural drawing. Upon completion, this would be signed & stamped by a licensed professional engineer.
If you are a DIY person, just know that structural engineers create drawings with the experienced contractor in mind. Contractors know how to read these drawings and plans. It may not always be easily understood by a beginner. If you plan to do some of the work yourself, be sure to let the engineer know this up front. They may be able to create a more user-friendly drawing to meet your needs.
What are structural engineering calculations-
Structural calculations are the math calculations that happen behind the scenes to make your building stand upright. They are used by structural engineers to determine the loads a building must withstand. These loads were discussed earlier.
Calculations also help to determine the correct materials, member sizing and connective fittings needed for building performance.
The building components analyzed with calculations are: foundations, piers, piles, footings, columns, beams, joists, slabs, trusses, rafters and other connection mechanisms. Calculations will determine what size each of these components must be as well as what materials would be best and which fasteners will be required to hold the structure together.
Structural engineers spend hours performing calculations. As they strategize the best way to arrange a building, they also consider factors such as a client’s budget. The more labor and materials required, the more expensive the project. So, engineers learn to be economical, attempting to use the least amount of building material possible and incorporating straightforward building plans, to meet client’s financial goals.
Can a structural engineer design a house?-
The simple answer is yes, a structural engineer can design a house. A structural engineer could be a one-stop-shop for a client. However, it can get pricey. Remember, most structural engineers work by the hour.
The standard method for working with a structural engineer is to either:
- Hire an architect or designer first: If you want a custom home or have a very specific idea in mind, you should probably hire an architect or designer to help you get the blueprint rolling. Your architect will let you know when it’s time to get a structural engineer involved to perform structural calculations and add detailing to the plan.
- Purchase a building plan: Have you found a building plan you love? If you love the plan exactly how it is, shoot it over to your engineer so the proper load calculations and detailing can be done. If you want any artistic changes, you may need to send this to an architect first before it goes to the structural engineer.
Some structural engineering firms will have architects and/or designers in house. If this is the case, you can have your plan solidified with one company. However, smaller outfits typically do not house architects/designers, but probably work very closely with their chosen vendors. If you are starting with a structural engineer, ask them what their process looks like.
How much does a structural engineer cost?-
Most structural engineers work by the hour. Average hourly fee could range from $200-$400/hour.
Simple home remodel projects average around 2-4 hours of engineering work. Typically this is $400-$1,500.
For example, a foundation inspection with a follow-up report will typically cost anywhere from $450-$700. A load bearing wall assessment may range from $450-$2,000 depending on how many walls need to be inspected and if scopes of work or drawings are required.
For larger projects, structural engineers could charge by percentage. This percentage could range from 1-20% of the total project cost.
How much does a structural engineer report cost?-
This is a hard question to answer because no project is ever the same.
In residential projects, a report is typically generated for a foundation inspection, load bearing wall removal, or structural anomaly. These reports are usually in the $400-$1000 range. This may include an inspection, report of findings and/or scope of work. However, if underlying issues exist, the engineering work required could be more.
Commercial projects will usually have a higher price point because the workload is greater. These projects can be billed by percentage of the total project or by the hour. If an entire commercial building needs to be inspected and reported on from top-bottom, the price point could get quite high. Ask the engineer up front for a quote so you can be prepared for what’s coming.
We hope you found all you were looking for in regards to what a structural engineer is and what they do. Ultimately, structural engineers can be found across many industries making buildings structurally sound. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be the person that designs a system capable of withstanding the test of time.
If you have any additional questions, please contact us at 763-544-3355.