Structural engineering — a specialty within the field of civil engineering — focuses on the framework of structures, and on designing those structures to withstand the stresses and pressures of their environment and remain safe, stable and secure throughout their use. In other words, structural engineers make sure that buildings don’t fall down and bridges don’t collapse.
Structural engineering is among the oldest types of engineering, dating back to the first instance of tree branches being lashed together with vines to make a shelter. Throughout recorded history, people have been designing and building increasingly larger and more sophisticated structures, from primitive huts to the International Space Station.
The names of the earliest practitioners of structural engineering are lost to antiquity. We will never know who designed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Parthenon or the aqueducts of the Roman Empire. Some of the latter-day practitioners in this field are known, although often not as well as the structures they designed. Prominent structural engineers include Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty) and Eero Saarinen (Gateway Arch). However, most designs for famous modern structures such as the Large Hadron Collider and the James Webb Space Telescope are attributed to companies and government organizations.
What does a structural engineer do?
Structural engineers often work alongside civil engineers and architects as part of a construction team. “In a nutshell,” according to the Institution of Structural Engineers, “if a structure was a human body, then the architect would be concerned with the body shape and appearance, and the structural engineer would be concerned with the skeleton and sinews.”
Structures must be able to deal with the conditions in which they are built. A house in Canada must have a roof that can bear the weight of heavy snow and a stadium in California must be able to withstand earthquakes, for example. When building bridges, designers must take into account the conditions of terrain, wind, and traffic volume. Structural engineers consider all of these factors and provide technical advice about the project.
Structural engineers “design roof framing (beams, rafters, joists, trusses), floor framing (floor decks, joists, beams, trusses, girders), arches, columns, braces, frames, foundations and walls,” according to the National Council of Structural Engineers Association. “In bridges, they design the deck — or riding surface, girders or stringers, and piers. The materials they use include steel, concrete, wood, masonry, and aluminum. Engineers design the structure to resist forces from gravity, earthquakes, high winds, water, soil, collisions and blast explosions.”
Most structural-engineering jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Many employers, particularly those that offer engineering consulting services, also require certification as a professional engineer. A master’s degree is often required for promotion to management, and ongoing education and training are needed to keep up with advances in technology, materials, computer hardware and software and government regulations. Additionally, many structural engineers belong to the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers.