Structural engineering, one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees, is a specialized area in the discipline of civil engineering. Engineers in this field address and try to prevent the structural problems that can lead to dangerous collapses and failures of buildings and other structures. The types of problems a structural engineer might need to solve include analyzing structural failures that have already happened and designing safe structures and renovation plans.
The Scope of a Structural Engineer’s Work
Civil engineering encompasses the entire built environment, including man-made and natural structures, but the scope of projects a structural engineer works on is somewhat narrower. For example, a structural engineer usually won’t be involved with the planning of an average city street, because this project doesn’t include the kind of structural demands that necessitate a structural engineer’s complex calculations. However, constructing a bridge or tunnel has a much greater need for structural soundness and stability, which makes a structural engineer necessary for this work.
Structural engineers often work on projects involving large-scale structures, but this work can encompass everything from minor renovations on a single-family home to the design and planning of an international airport. Any structure that requires a stable structural frame is a type of structure that may fit into the field of structural engineering work, including commercial and residential buildings, dams, offshore structures, airplane frames, space platforms and even amusement park rides. No matter what type of structure a structural engineer is working on, their focus is on developing a design and selecting the specifications and construction materials that will give the project a stable, rigid and strong structure.
Structural engineers aren’t the only engineers who work on buildings, but they do have a unique focus. For example, architectural engineers may also work on building designs, but they focus more on placement of heating and electrical systems than structural integrity.
Structural Failure and Collapse
When a structure collapses, a structural engineer can help address multiple problems. In some cases, the failure was partial, and some part of the structure remains intact. The structural engineer responding to this collapse may first focus on preventing additional destruction or harm by evaluating the structural integrity of the remaining structure and determining what must be done to safeguard it. Structural engineers are also the ones who investigate why a building, bridge or other structure failed. They may inspect the condition of the structure and debris as well as the design plans, specifications, materials used and quality of craftsmanship.
Forensic investigations of structural failures serve purposes beyond accountability. What structural engineers learn from their analysis can prevent future tragedies by prompting tests and inspections of similarly constructed structures and changes in design planning.
Structural Design With Stability in Mind
IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain
Structural failure of a building, tunnel, bridge or other civil structure can lead to devastating costs and consequences. Structural engineers can minimize the risk of this occurring in the first place through their expertise in the properties of structural design elements and construction materials. Careful calculations help them determine the design features, building specifications and materials that will create a safer and more stable structure.
One thing that makes structural engineering so challenging is that it’s usually not possible or practical to build a full-size prototype of the project for testing purposes. Full-sized prototypes are used in some projects in other areas of engineering, such as electronics engineering and mechanical engineering. However, imagine the cost constraints and resources that would be used if a full-sized “test” bridge had to be built before the real one was attempted.
Because full-sized prototypes aren’t feasible for structural engineers, this field of engineering relies heavily on modeling, visualizations and analysis.
Construction and renovations on existing buildings and structures happen daily. Doing this work safely, in a way that doesn’t compromise the structural integrity of the buildings, requires the expertise of a structural engineer. Often, structural engineers are involved in both minor and major renovation planning, according to engineering and consulting firm Complete Building Solutions. This happens because even renovations that are considered minor, like removing a load-bearing wall, alter the structure of a building and could make it less stable and more likely to fail.
Some structural renovations are performed because a structure is deemed unsound. For example, cracks or bowing of the foundation of a building or the stress inflicted on a bridge by natural disasters may prompt testing and renovations to reduce the risk of collapse.