What exactly is a structural engineer?

AMR Consulting Engineers
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As far back as 4713 years ago a structural engineer by the name of Imhotep built a pyramid for Pharaoh Djoser.

Amazingly, this pyramid still stands and is a lasting monument to mans’ imagination.

No doubt that without Imhotep’s involvement this world wonder would not be here for us all to see and marvel at today.

Four millennia on from Imhotep’s final breath, and even though some incredible structural engineering feats have since been achieved providing the world with some amazing architectural landmarks, there remains a bit of a mystery: what exactly is a structural engineer?

To simplify, let’s narrow the field down to structural engineers (such as me) that specialise in the design of buildings, and start at the beginning.

Approximately eight years of training is needed (post-secondary school education) to become a qualified chartered/professional structural engineer.

Four or more years of university education (lots of mathematics and physics) is followed by an equivalent time of on-the-job structured training and, if you pass the relevant institution’s chartered/professional exams, you are invited to become a member of the illustrious institution and can then be called a chartered or professional engineer.

So much training is for a reason; the implications of a collapsed building are catastrophic. 

The dictionary definition of a structural engineer is as follows: structural engineers are most commonly involved in the design of buildings and large non-building structures: any item where structural integrity affects the item’s function or safety.  Structural engineers must ensure their designs satisfy given design criteria, predicated on safety (e.g. structures must not collapse without due warning) or serviceability and performance (e.g. building sway must not cause discomfort to the occupants).

For my definition, I like to present the analogy of the human body. Think of the structural engineer as the guy who has designed the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments that hold the body together.

So, it will come as no surprise if I said that the structural engineer is part of a team.

The team includes, but is not limited to, a mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, geotechnical engineer, quantity surveyor, contractor and architect.

Structural engineering is usually considered a speciality within civil engineering. It is a field of engineering dealing with the analysis and design of structures that support or resist loads.

A good structural engineer will provide creative solutions while ensuring an efficient use of funds to achieve this.

If you are planning the construction of a building such as a house or commercial building, then you really should ensure that the appropriate professionals are employed to design it, price it and build it.

It is usually for one of two reasons that some home builders and developers do not: ignorance (they are not aware that these professionals exist for this purpose) or cost (they think they will save money if they do not employ them).

Ignorance is just a case of education, and by reading this article you now know the purpose of the structural engineer – please pass the word on.

Cost – I cannot put this more succinctly than my grandmother (and yours probably) used to, “pennywise, pound foolish”.

A structural engineer’s fee will translate into less than one per cent of the total construction cost. So for a $1 million home, this fee will be less than $10,000. Now obviously that $10,000 would go very nicely into upgrading the floor tiles, or the like, so not retaining the services of the structural engineer and “winging it” might seem an attractive way forward.

Wrong – and here’s why. Just say you do not employ the structural engineer and you get a friendly, experienced builder, architectural technician, plumber or candlestick-maker to determine the sizes of all the structural elements, reinforcing, material specifications, etc. because they say they can do it, for around a quarter of the structural engineer’s fee.

All they have done is guess and at best, crib from, previous engineers’ drawings. Structural engineers do complex calculations which are based on very strict code requirements, and restraints to determine the actual minimum sizes required, as appropriate for each project.

Your savings from not employing the professional structural engineer have just gone towards extra material costs. And, is your house safe?

Sometimes they guess right but sometimes they guess wrong and undersize and under-design, which, if not tragic for the homeowner, results in very expensive repair bills.

Much more important than cost is safety and I have left it until last for that reason. What price do you put on the safety of your family, friends and colleagues?

Professional structural engineers are not only trained to consider the safety of the people that occupy the buildings they design, but are committed to it. It is the major element of our ethical code.

We at AMR Consulting Engineers highly recommend that your team includes a professional architect, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, quantity surveyor, contractor (or design builder) and a structural engineer.

If you do, we cannot confirm the longevity or fame of Imhotep’s pyramid, but it will serve its purposes admirably, safely and cost effectively.