The role of the structural engineer is a key component in the construction process. Part of the wider discipline of civil engineering, structural engineering is concerned with the design and physical integrity of buildings and other large structures, like tunnels and bridges. Structural engineers have wide range of responsibilities – not least a duty to ensure the safety and durability of the project on which they are working.
Unlike architects, who must focus on the appearance, shape, size and use of the building, structural engineers must solve technical problems – and help the architect achieve his or her vision for the project.
What do structural engineers do?
Structural engineers work in offices and on construction sites – or may split their time between both contexts. Locations can be varied, including work in metropolitan and rural environments. Depending on the size of the project, structural engineers may also be required to work long hours – in teams consisting of professional, skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Structural engineers must have a strong grasp of physics, three-dimensional conceptual skills and creative problem solving. Outside of an ability to apply principles of mechanics, mathematics and physics to construct safe, sustainable buildings, the roles and responsibilities of structural engineers include:
Design: Many structural engineers deal primarily in the design of structures – calculating the loads and stresses the construction will have to safely withstand. Structural engineers should be able to factor in the different qualities and strengths delivered by a range of building materials, and understand how to incorporate support beams, columns and foundations.
Investigation: Before work can begin, structural engineers are involved in the investigation and survey of build sites to determine the suitability of the earth for the requirements of the upcoming project.
Communication: Structural engineers will be required to co-ordinate and consult with other members of their projects, including engineers, environmental scientists, architects and landscape architects. They may also be required to assist government bodies in their own inspections relating to the project.
Management: Structural engineers are often responsible for the organisation and delivery of materials and equipment for the needs of the construction project. The supervision and management of on-site labour may also be a necessity.
Because of the safety issues involved in their work, structural engineers must be trained to strict standards. Most structural engineering courses require a related undergraduate degree in an engineering discipline. After graduation, structural engineers work towards professional qualifications – becoming Associated and then Chartered Members with the Institution of Structural Engineers.
Structural engineering courses can be very competitive and prospective candidates should look for practical experience to bolster their applications. After qualification, work experience placements are useful for getting a foot in the door of the industry – and developing network contacts.
Becoming a structural engineer takes a substantial amount of time and dedication – including a focus on professional development. Once qualified however, the learning process continues – as new methods and materials are introduced into the construction industry. Structural engineering jobs can take place across national and international contexts and involve work on some of the most exciting construction projects in the world.