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What does a Structural Engineer do?

By Carol Francois
Updated May 16, 2024
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A structural engineer is responsible for the design and evaluation of anything that supports or carries a load. The role of a structural engineer can be divided into two primary areas, buildings and non-building structures or devices. In order to become a structural engineer, you must complete post-secondary education in civil engineering, as structural engineering is a specialty within this discipline.

Structural engineers who focus on buildings are responsible for evaluating schematics and ensuring that the building meets the building codes for structural safety, is safe for occupancy and is able to withstand the elements. The daily tasks of a building structural engineer are divided between site visits and design review.

During a site visit, the structural engineer inspects the foundation, infrastructure, curtain wall, insulation and building envelope. Through careful inspection and comparison to the approved building plans, the engineer can ensure that the actual building meets the drawings provided and that any necessary corrections are made. The engineer is called in to inspect at specific stages of project completion, and official approval is often required before the next stage of development can begin.

The design review process involves detailed review of submitted building plans and the creation of an issues and deficiencies list. The designer or the builder must correct these items. As the plans are changed, they must be reviewed again to ensure compliance. The approved plans are the basis for all site inspections, so it is very important that they are accurate and complete.

Non-building structural engineers work on two types of projects: product design and safety inspections. Any machinery or equipment that is built to carry a load must be reviewed and inspected by a structural engineer. Common projects for this type of engineer include reviews of large machinery, medical equipment and vehicles.

In the design phase, the engineer is part of the design team. Responsibilities include defining the structural weak points, providing safety tolerances, determining pivot points and modifying designs to increase the strength of the whole device. Load upper and lower capacity values are based on mathematical calculations, but the type of material used, location of the joint and proposed usage all have impact on the accuracy of these calculations.

Safety inspections are required on all new designs or prototypes. This work involves field tests of the load capacity of the unit through structured testing. For example, the engineer may have calculated the maximum lift capacity of a car jack as 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg).

To confirm this value, a prototype is built and then tested, using incrementally increasing weights. The performance and response of the unit are measured and documented. Only when the tests have been completed successfully and the test data analyzed will the values be approved for publication.

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Discussion Comments

By anon331422 — On Apr 22, 2013

Structural engineers ensure the serviceability and safety of the structures for the future occupants, they design and coordinate with site activities to ensure a smooth flow of work.

By anon306213 — On Nov 28, 2012

Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering which works to design buildings, bridges etc. As the work of structural engineering is not familiar with everyone, this page provides an introduction for them. Thanks for this informative post.

By Structure — On Jul 11, 2011

I'm entering my graduate program in this coming August in Structural Engineering. I'm going to do my own research. There are two options I have to pick from. One is doing research under the supervision of the steel professor, and another is under the supervision of the concrete professor. This is a tough decision for me because I don't know the job market for both specialties. I need your advice. Please help me on this.

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