Five things you might not know about Structural Engineers

Five things you might not know about Structural Engineers

If you’re in the construction industry then, at some point or in some form, you’re going to encounter a structural engineer. Architects, builders, project managers, tradies, specifiers, designers, draftees, fabricators, schedulers, quantity surveyors, and all the many other consultants involved in putting a building or structure together will either deal with or have their work influenced by a structural engineer. (And/or a civil engineer, but we’ll clear up that confusion in a moment).  Each of the abovementioned professions and roles have well-earned reputations and stereotypes, and structural engineers are no different – although, like any stereotype, the labels applied to us aren’t always fair or accurate. We are often tagged as being conservative. Guilty of over-design. Stubborn/argumentative. Risk-averse. Safe. Even dull!

And, yet, that’s not been my experience or observation at all. Maybe it’s just the sector of the industry I work in or the company I keep, but the engineers I’ve worked with and associate with rarely reflect those attributes. They are daring. Creative. Collaborative. Innovative.

An architectural colleague of mine who’s been in the game for over 30 years once made a fascinating observation about engineers, noting that, at university, the engineering students were the ones that got up to the most mischief; had the wildest parties; drank the most beer; they were always the loudest, most raucous, and most visible larrikins on campus. Then, suddenly, they would graduate, put on business attire, and become the most conservative players in the construction industry. Is this ironic state of affairs nature or nurture?

As a profession, what shapes us, and what contributes to the stereotype we carry? Does the profession only attract and “self-select” people who are naturally conservative? Of course not. The profession is populated with the same diverse and widespread cross-section of personality traits as most other careers.

So, all stereotypes aside, what are five things you might not know about structural engineers?

1. Structural engineers are civil engineers

Have your wondered what’s the difference between a civil engineer and a structural engineer?  The distinction is pretty simple:  All structural engineers are civil engineers, but not all civil engineers are structural engineers!  Structural engineering is a sub-branch of civil engineering, and so degree-qualified structural engineers – in Australia, at least – do a minimum four year Civil Engineering bachelor’s degree. This means that, in addition to studying all the ins and outs involved with designing structures, we also study hydraulic engineering subjects (fluids, flows, drainage, etc); project management subjects (planning, construction, budgeting); geotechnical subjects (soils, geology, mining); materials; mechanics; surveying; drawing; computing; design; analysis; and how to use a red pen. And all of that is after also doing a fair whack of science subjects in the early years of the degree, i.e. maths, physics, chemistry, etc. Those wanting to work in the “Design & Construct” sector for developers can also do the elective where you learn to sharpen the pencil.

Structural engineers

2. Structural engineers are a rare breed

The civil engineering degree is obviously a broad field of study that gives its graduates a wide and diverse range of jobs and careers to explore – and some of those aren’t even in the construction industry!  Graduates leave university and proceed into roles in construction or project management, stormwater engineering, estimating, mining, property development, product sales and technical support, and so on.  With every graduating class, there’s only a small number who choose to go down the structural path, and an even smaller number that go on to become design engineers, i.e. the ones that analyse and design structures such as buildings, towers, houses, bridges, etc.

Structural engineers on a construction site

3. What’s a structural engineer’s true objective and purpose?

When designing a structure, an engineer typically has to account for three things: Strength, Serviceability, and Durability. In layman’s terms, it must be strong enough (not fail or collapse), it must be serviceable (not excessively deflect, sag, bend, sway, or vibrate), and it must be durable (not deteriorate, corrode, rot, or suffer fatigue).

In very crude terms, ultimately, a structural engineer’s objective is to design the structure or member to be as thin, small, efficient, and as economical as it can possibly be, whilst still being able to do its job and satisfying the above three requirements.

This objective is the very seed that can cultivate (friendly) conflict on a building project, given that the engineer’s solutions might not always fall in line with the other stakeholders’ expectations. There are plenty of examples: The developer will want the concrete slabs to be thinner. The architect will want the supporting column to be less visible. (Or not be there at all!) The builder will want the work required to be faster and easier to construct.   The engineer is forever under pressure to meet the expectations of the project’s other players and stakeholders, whilst – usually – being the only entity amongst them who actually knows (i) the forces being applied, (ii) the strength and capacity of the element in question, and (iii) the margin for error.

How the engineer goes about delivering this objective – how and whether they apply creativity, innovation, ingenuity, and judgement to the task – is what makes an effective engineer. The application of these skills separates the good engineers from those that merely crunch the numbers.

Calculator and scale rule

4. Structural engineers take on the risk

If an accountant makes an arithmetic or judgement error, their balance sheet might not tally up. If an architect makes an arithmetic or judgement error, their stairs might not fit into the available space. If a lawyer makes an arithmetic or judgement error, they might accidentally undercharge you. If a structural engineer makes an arithmetic or judgement error, their building might fall down and kill people.”  Weren’t they just inspiring words to hear on my first day at university?

The fact of the matter is that structural engineers fight gravity. We make things stand up, resisting the forces of nature and the forces imposed by people using the structure. In simple terms, the building shouldn’t topple over under strong winds; the floor shouldn’t sag or collapse while people stand on it; and the retained earth shouldn’t collapse into the hole in the ground whilst you’re excavating in the pit. Our chief weapons in this fight are a calculator, a scale ruler, experience, wisdom, and judgement.   Those last three things take years in the industry to gain, develop, and hone, and there’s a reason why good engineering consultancies have a mix of both youth and experience.

In the event of any collapse or failure – or even if a structure just underperforms in some way – it’s the structural engineer who’s in the spotlight and will face the immediate scrutiny. We assume and take on the responsibility for the structure’s behaviour and performance and thus, by extension, the safety and amenity of all those who use the structure. (As the player that often carries the most PI insurance, we’re also usually the easiest and most lucrative target once the litigants get involved, but that’s a story for another day).

Whilst it’s perhaps a stretch to universally label structural engineers as being conservative, architects and builders must appreciate that when human lives are at stake, or when the amenity/satisfaction of the structure’s end user is being considered, engineers cannot afford to be reckless or go beyond what the calculations tell us. Do not confuse conservatism with prudence.


5. Structural engineers are not a uniform commodity

My work in the luxury houses sector – that is, working with architects who design beautiful, bespoke houses for individuals, couples, families, “mums & dads”, etc – has taught me that many clients (and, occasionally, some architects) believe that engineers are a raw commodity. That is, something that is uniform, and can be swapped in or out, without any impact on the end result. There is, amongst some, a perception that if you gave three different engineers the same problem and design task, they should each come back with the identical solution and deliver the same set of specifications and drawings.  Needless to say, that’s not the case: All engineers think differently; have different skillsets and talents; receive different training and mentoring in their younger years; work for different companies that have different philosophies and business models; and we are driven by different motivators, workplace cultures, brand deliverables, and – above all else – personal experience. This diversity in background, naturally, drives and results in different outcomes at the design table.  Some will deliver better results than others.

It’s no different to other professions:  It’s commonly perceived and accepted that some school teachers are better than others; that some doctors are better than others; that some lawyers do a better job at defending or prosecuting than others. And yet, in spite of this common wisdom, there’s a perception by many that structural engineers are immune from this diversity of skill and capability?  There is surprise or questioning when clients receive three different quotes from engineering consultants and the prices all come back vastly different from one another – as though there was an expectation that they should all have been the same, like a commodity. If you’re a family wanting to build a new house, (or a project manager/architect tasked with delivering one), and your three engineering quotes come back at $10,000, $20,000, and $35,000, it will never be a case of comparing apples with apples. The engineer at $10,000 is probably not representing overall big-picture value, and the engineer at $35,000 is probably not ripping you off. Rather, their fees represent the service they provide, the experience they bring to the table, the amount of time they intend to devote to your project to give you the best outcome, and both the quantity and quality of their deliverables to you (i.e. the structural drawings, plans, details, and specifications). Most engineering consultancies are time-charge businesses. We are not widgets, commodities, or cookie cutters.

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This is not a blog piece or article on “How to choose a consultant” or “What to look for in an engineer”, nor is it a thinly-veiled, self-serving piece espousing “you get what you pay for”. It’s intended merely as a mouthpiece to hopefully pick at some stereotypes and shine light on aspects of a profession and the great people that work in it.  We all love a good stereotype – hopefully, we also know not to hang our hats on them.


PS…and what do structural engineers actually do?  This page here gives a pretty reasonable description of the job role….

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