What does a structural engineer do?

In this article we discuss what a structural engineer is and what they do. So, let’s dive right in. 

Structural engineers are responsible for ensuring the structural integrity of architectural components, such as beams, columns, foundations, and trusses. Therefore, their work will involve a wide range of structures and will require a deep understanding of design and application.

An engineer’s work is almost exclusively concerned with public health and safety. However, you also need to keep cost efficiency and general aesthetics in mind when you design structures. In other words, it has to look nice and not break the bank. 

Structural engineers typically find employment in the construction sector working on infrastructure such as bridges, buildings, or mechanical structures. Currently, there are many opportunities to find work as a private contractor or with government agencies. There are plenty more options available, but structural engineers are in high demand mainly in those areas.

In the field of civil engineering, there are many sub-disciplines, including: transportation engineering, water and wastewater engineering, and environmental engineering. Civil engineers can specialize in many areas. 

Structural engineers are types of civil engineers. 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. In fact, this is our main focus.  

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.

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 changes to existing structure: 

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 altogether. 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:

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: 

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. 

note: PLIRIS has code compliant plans for jurisdictions in multiple states. See where PLIRIS is working.

Engineering for new structures:  

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. 

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