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What Is Structural Engineering

What is structural engineering? Structural engineering goes back thousands of years, with examples ranging from the Egyptian pyramids to the Greek Acropolis. Since then, its role in our lives has developed even further, covering everything from bridges, small and big, to tall skyscrapers in metropolitan areas.

Despite the numerous applications of this discipline, the structural engineering definition is quite simple. A civil structural engineer combines his knowledge of math, physics, and empirical knowledge to design safe and stable structures. It involves the determination of what materials and shapes are best used under varying loads and stresses.

Structural Analysis

Structural analysis in engineering is a crucial aspect of the industry. Impact analysis analyzes not only the integrity of the infrastructure plans but also how the new structures will affect the surrounding environment, whether it be a new road or a new building. For example, if building a skyscraper will cause a nearby building to fall, changes must be made.

Structural Engineering Design

Structural engineering design is a combination of physics and material science. It deals with the evaluation and inspection of construction materials to ensure they can support the design created by the architects and civil engineers. A structural design engineer may, for example, determine cross-sectional dimensions, evaluate material grade, and analyze required reinforcement.

Structural Elements

Structures are composed of different elements, like beams, shells, arches, and more, and are often classified according to these forms. A structure can either be one-dimensional or two-dimensional.  


A structural engineer resume isn’t complete without first mentioning columns. They serve to carry out compression or axial force, transferring the weight of the above structure to the one beneath it. When designing a column, a structural engineer must consider the axial and buckling capacity of the structure to ensure its integrity.


what is structural engineering

Structural engineering plans very often include beams, an element that carries loads perpendicular to their longitudinal direction. Most often, they are horizontal and serve to hold up ceilings, floors, and roofs. In a structure model, they are represented by simple lines, just like columns.

There are a few different kinds of beams, including:

  • Transfer Beams.
  • Cantilevered Beams.
  • Fixed Beams.
  • Continuous Beam.


Trusses are support structures commonly used by a structural project engineer looking to offer stability and support in a wide space. Trusses are made up of intersecting beams connected by nodes to form a rigid structure.


Plates are made up of two parallel planes, also known as faces, and a cylindrical surface that is referred to as an edge or boundary. They are characterized by a thickness that is less than the other dimensions.


One of the most innovative structural engineer inventions, a shell is lightweight in build, curved, and most often used to assemble a larger structure like a boat hull or aircraft fuselage.


An arch serves to carry forces in compression in a single direction. It is a curved structure that is most often used for aesthetic/decorative and design purposes. However, it can also be utilized for supporting horizontal loads from above. 


Catenaries are structural elements supported at two ends and form a curve with their weight. Common examples include a hanging bridge that dips as people walk across it, power lines, and even St. Louis Arch.  

Benefits of Structural Engineering

what does a structural engineer do

The importance of structural engineering is obvious — they are responsible for every structure we enter or walk on, from your office building to the bridge you cross on your commute.

Below are some of the primary benefits of structural engineering:

Pinpoint Potential Issues

A structural professional engineer can be a huge asset, as they can identify any potential problems that can arise in a design. While home renovators and designers can make a house look good, a structural engineer can ensure that there won’t be any costly issues in the future with efficient and innovative solutions.

Promote Structural and Fire Safety

Building a structure with little to no experience is a recipe for disaster — a project that can turn into a potential risk. With structural fire engineering, safety is prioritized. Fire protection engineers can make sure that your home has structural integrity, as well as all of the components that make it safer in the event of an emergency.

Ensure Your Home Is Up to Code

A structural house engineer is also well versed in the rules, regulations, and codes that have been set by your local government. They can identify if your home is not in compliance with building codes and get you the proper necessary permits, saving you money on the fines and renovations that would result.

Material Selection

Materials for a building can’t just be chosen based on how they look. Every material has properties that make it less or more appropriate for certain purposes. A structural engineer can ensure that you have chosen materials that are safe, durable, and long-lasting, as well as aesthetically pleasing.

Create an Efficient and Cost-Effective Design

One of the most basic structural engineering questions is whether the new structure has been designed and built efficiently and cost-effectively. As well as coming up with thoughtful solutions and designs for your project, structural engineers can do thorough analyses to ascertain if you have invested your time and money correctly.

Conduct a Thorough Final Inspection

After completing the build, a structural inspection engineer will act as a second opinion and go through the entire structure to determine if any issues require addressing before it is deemed usable. With this comprehensive inspection, you can feel confident that the building is safe and ready for use.

What Does a Structural Engineer Do?

So what does a structural engineer do? As we’ve mentioned, structural engineers have quite a few possible focuses. Overall, their general duty is to ensure that every building and structure we use daily is stable.

They apply their accumulated technical knowledge to determine how well bridges, buildings, and the like, can handle applied loads and various environmental factors, including storms and earthquakes. They work with designers and architects to find the right materials, the right elements, and the right designs to keep the structure standing and functioning as needed.

Are Architects and Engineers The Same Thing?

No! There is a big difference between architect and structural engineer roles. It’s best explained with an example. If a building’s structure is aesthetically pleasing and has the qualities you were searching for, then the architect has done their job well, while the structural engineer’s job is done well when the building is stable under varying conditions and loads.

Types of Projects Structural Engineers Work on

civil structural engineer

There is a wide array of services provided by structural engineer consultants. They work on industrial, commercial, and residential projects, and with clients like businesses, realtors, designers, contractors, architects, homeowners, and many more.

Residential Building Projects

Structural engineer services often include residential buildings and they jump into these projects when:

  • Structural changes are needed for an existing building: This typically includes minor renovations like removing a wall that is load-bearing between a kitchen and family room, where they would design a column and beam system to support the load above. 
  • A new structure is being built: a structural engineer for homes is brought in from the beginning to help design the new home with designers and architects. 

Engineering for Commercial Buildings

Commercial and industrial buildings cannot be properly built without structural engineers. They play a series of vital roles in the process, including:

  • Site investigation: Before work begins, a structural engineer must first determine if the surrounding environment, like the soil, is conducive to the project. 
  • Construction plans: Aspects like materials, sizing, loads, and stresses must all be considered and planned carefully by an engineer.
  • Project management: Having an engineer oversee the project will ensure codes are followed and the construction is done properly. 

Engineering Inspections for Home Purchase Transactions

Common structural engineer tasks also include doing a comprehensive inspection before the purchase of a new home. They are called in to find any possible problems with the foundation, like cracks or bowing. If something is found, they create a structural engineer report which can then be used to get bids or permits.

Construction Defect

Structural engineers can be called in to find construction defects like defective materials, poor craftsmanship, and simply poor design, as well as failure to comply with the proper building codes. Their findings are often used in lawsuits, with the engineers appearing as expert witnesses if the case goes to trial. 

Storm Damage

Structural engineering principles can also be utilized to assess structures for any storm damage. After an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or any other natural disaster, if a property owner believes they have property damage, they will file an insurance claim. Structural engineers are called in to assess this damage and determine if insurance should cover it.

Additional Structural Needs

structural engineer boulder

If you’re looking for questions to ask your structural engineer, there are quite a few elements to inquire about to ensure your build is ready for use. Structural engineers are trained to find issues in relation to:

  • Potential Structural Component Fail. 
  • Solar Panel Install.
  • Decks. 
  • Increasing loads.  
  • Accidental Structural Modifications (example: someone ruining a structural system while installing an HVAC system).
  • Moisture Issues/Sump Pump Running Constantly.  

Bridge Construction

For years, innovative structural engineering has included the construction of brides. Structural engineers consider loads like the weight of the structure (dead load), loads that change (dynamic load), and other outside forces that can impact the integrity of the bridge. They’ll analyze vibration limits, torsion, and fatigue to make informed design decisions for bridges.

City Infrastructure

Of all structural engineering basics, city infrastructure is one of the most important. City infrastructure is a common area of focus for structural engineers who work hand in hand with civil engineers to design and implement solutions for roads, highways, tunnels, sewers, water, and other engineered structural systems using their knowledge of physics, math, and engineering.

Structural Engineering Future

The structural engineering future depends on different factors, but primarily the advancement of technology. As technology becomes more and more prevalent, some of the work of structural engineers could potentially be replaced. That is why in many universities, structural engineers are being taught to utilize tech to their advantage, using it to do more complex and comprehensive analyses and make smarter, more informed design choices. As our cities and industries grow, the future of structural engineers remains quite steady.


The work of structural engineers in our society is wide, and their skills and expertise can be utilized in some settings and methods. From building renovation optimization to new and improved infrastructure, structural engineers continue to play a vital role. 

If you’re looking for expert structural engineers, contact our experienced team at MNA Quality Consulting!

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