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Below is in article written by our staff to better explain What is Structural Engineering. Enjoy! And please, ask us questions if you have any.
We have noticed that one of the most popular sites of the Internet, Wikipedia, has an amount of incorrect information about the world of Structural Engineering, Structural Engineers, and Structures… not to mention that Wikipedia makes everything seem is so complicated (and by the way, Wikipedia quotes United Kingdom requirements for being a Structural Engineer, which are completely different from the requirements in the USA).
So in this article we’ll try in a very clear, concise, and simple way to answer most common questions and basic topics of Structural Engineering in the USA (especially in San Antonio and Austin, Texas) and we’ll also give you some good pointers on when and how to hire a Structural Engineer for any type of Structure.
We won’t get too much into the History, but originally there was no such thing as Engineering as a title or profession. In the beginning, the Architect was in charge of the Engineering, but mind you, there was not a lot of science behind building huge columns and arches, and there was no air conditioning, no pipes, no sewer, etc. As civilization and people started to evolve, so did technology. It eventually became too difficult to master all the sciences and Engineering became its own science.
In terms of Structural Engineering, building Structures became taller given greater consideration to wind loads and earthquake loads, the spans between columns became longer thus using arches was not longer economical (and sometimes not even buildable), and as the new materials started to get discovered and utilized, spans kept on getting longer and buildings kept of getting taller.
Eventually, an Architect had to have a Engineering knowledge of the behavior of different materials and Structures, such as concrete, iron, steel, wood, etc. The Structural behavior of materials, Structural components of buildings, and the overall Structural stability became a science – buildings and bridges were not simple any longer. Architects could no longer keep up with the advances in the area of Structural engineering.
But that’s not how Structural Engineering became its own profession. When the architects couldn’t keep up with learning the sciences of the various trades (Structural, Mechanical, etc.), then various “general” Engineering professions came to live, such as Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, etc.
So, Civil Engineering became the Engineering in charge of Structures and Structural design. Civil Engineering also became in charge of highway design, hydraulics and hydrology, surveying, geotechnical analysis, environmental engineering, etc.
Fast forward to today and… it all gets a bit complicated. You see, if you want to become a Structural Engineer, then you go to college to get a Bachelor’s of Science in Civil Engineering. The same is true if you want to become an Environmental Engineer, Geotechnical Engineer, Transportation Engineer, and… also a Civil Engineer.
As time as gone by, even Civil Engineers couldn’t keep up with the advances in science regarding materials, building techniques, engineering practices, changing Structures, dynamic Structures, etc.
So in a construction project nowadays, there are different trades other than a Building Engineer. If you’re constructing a building, then the first thing will be to figure out where to put the parking, how big to make it, where to place the drive ways, where take the rain water, and sewers, and determine the grading of the property for proper drainage and for that you hire a civil engineer.
Then you’ll need to know how good the soils are so that you can Engineer your foundation, and for that you get a Geotechnical Engineer. Engineering must be done to determine the size of Structural pieces within the Structure such as beams, columns, foundations, retaining walls, etc., and for that you’ll need to hire a structural engineer.
So, as far as building structures, the professionals have divided themselves into experts that are very knowledgeable in a specific area, Structural Engineers being one of those areas.
Education of a Structural Engineer
In terms of education nowadays you get a bachelor’s of science in civil engineering, but, most Engineering schools offer classes within civil Engineering that are purely geotechnical, or environmental, etc. In fact, even the Master’s and Ph.D degree programs offer classes specifically in the area of one’s choice, and Structural Engineering is one of those choices.
Once you graduate from an Accredited Engineering school, such as for example the University of Texas, then you must take an exam called the Fundamental of Engineering exam (FE Exam). This is a standard exam throughout all of the states in the United States, which tests a recent engineering graduate “book” knowledge. This exam is broken into two halves and only a half is specific to the bachelors, not the profession the recent graduate will choose. So, Civil Engineers will be tested on all sorts of engineering matters including hydrology, geotechnical, bridge design, etc. Passing this exam will give you the title “Engineer-in-training” (EIT).
After 4 years of experience following passing the FE exam (or 3 years of experience after a Master’s or 2 years of experience after a Ph.D), then the candidate can apply to take the license exam. There are 2 different types of licenses that you can get if you’re a Structural engineer. One is the Professional Engineer (PE) license; when taking the exam for the PE license, you can choose the specific exam you’d like to take, you can still take the Civil Engineering exam which will question you on general topics of all civil engineering, including a more concentrated structural engineering version.
Within the PE license exam you can also choose to take the Structural I exam, which is nothing but Structural questions. The pass rate in Texas for the Civil Engineering PE exam is usually about 65% whereas the pass rate for the Structural I exam is usually about 20% (not a typo). Since the state of Texas (and many other states) do not require a specific type of license, then many Structural Engineers who cannot pass the Structural Exam will take the Civil Exam, with the structural concentration in the second half of the exam.
The Structural I exam is no longer being offered as of April 2011. So, if you want to get a PE license by taking nothing but structural questions, then you’re required to take the Structural PE exam, which is a 2-day (16-hr) exam. In states where there are specific licensing requirements, Passing the Structural Exam will give you the second type of license which is S.E., Structural Engineer. Some states don’t let you take the Structural Exam unless you’ve passed the PE exam first.
The questions in either the PE or SE exams will be regarding either building Structures or bridge Structures. So, when Wikipedia says that a Structural Engineer designs planes it must be completely not true because the exams that license you to practice structural engineering do not ask you any questions about airplanes.
People always ask what is the difference between Architects and Structural Engineers. As we have previously pointed out, Architects no longer do Engineering (they haven’t done Engineering for over 100 years). The short answer is, the Architect makes the building look pretty and functional, while the structural engineer makes it stand up. Architects and Engineers are completely different, Architects being very artistic while the Structural Engineers are very mathematical. An inside joke is that Architects make the building nice and expensive while the Engineers make the building ugly but economical.
Now we come to the end of this article, where we will try give you advice on when to generally involve a Structural Engineer and how to know which Structural Engineer to use
Like any other type of Engineering, Structural Engineers do a lot of number crunching. First, they try to find a solution that is safe but also economical, which many times means is must be buildable. The main subject is physics, specifically Statics (not to be confused with statistics), but there is some dynamics as well (for example, in determining impact loads, or vehicle loads). The study of physics is also complemented by the study of behavior of materials, such as steel, concrete, wood, etc.
In a building, the Structural Engineer would design the structural components of the building as well as the overall stability of the Building. Some of these components are beams, columns, floors, roof, walls, footings/piers. Structural Engineers also design bridges, retaining walls, houses, etc. and they of course inspect everything they design.
From what you’ve read within this article, I think it’s clear to know the difference between those who claim to be Structural Engineers and those who actually are licensed to practice structural engineering. If you check a structural engineering firm or company, make sure that at least one person in that engineering company has a license to practice Structural Engineering. It would be normal for many people within a Structural Engineering company to be licensed as civil engineers but be knowledgeable in Structural engineering, but it would be not normal to find nobody licensed to practice Structural engineering in an engineering firm or company.
In other words, if you don’t find any licensed Structural Engineers in a company, chances are that company’s primary business and area of expertise is not structural engineering. In Texas, you can go to the Texas Board of professional engineers and look up any professional engineer within a company and find out what kind of license a claimed Structural Engineer has. Here in San Antonio and Austin, Texas, you will be surprised to find out that there are many licensed mechanical engineers who claim to be Structural Engineers! Both types of trades have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
You should also be careful about engineering firms that offer services in several areas of Engineering. San Antonio and Austin are those towns where some companies that primarily do civil engineering and even mechanical engineering claim to be doing also Structural Engineering. In San Antonio and Austin, many of the civil engineering firms who do residential work and claim to be Structural Engineers are in fact not Structural Engineers. Don’t take our word for it, look them up in the TBPE and find out how many Structural Engineers they have on board, then call these companies and ask them how many of their staff do Structural Engineering and how many do civil engineering. If they tell you that all engineers do both Structural and civil, then run! If they tell you that 80% does civil and 20% does structural then that’s usually bad sign as well.
Don’t think because someone claims having 30 years of experience in Structural Engineering that they are better than the Engineering firms who only have 15 years of experience. Imagine that you paint your house every year, and you always do a terrible job at it, and you’ve been doing it for 20 years; would you say that having 20 years of terrible experience as a painter makes you a better painter? No, if you have been doing something wrong for the last 20 years, you cannot claim experience as something positive. The same is true for Structural Engineering firms.
Structural Engineers who come from a commercial design background will usually have a better grasp at residential side of business because they are more familiar with all the codes and requirements. The reason is because Structural Engineering for commercial work is almost always required by the government and strict quality control is made during construction, whereas in the residential work no body will check that the designer is abiding by the codes (and that is why you get a lot of Engineers not licensed in Structural Engineering doing houses and residential work, because no one can say that they are not abiding by the building code).
Structural Engineers in San Antonio and Austin are an interesting breed because San Antonio and Austin, unlike other towns in Texas, is at the forefront of tilt-up wall panel construction. While most structural engineers in San Antonio do not design wall panels, there’s a good number who do and have become experts in the field, even across Texas and the United States. San Antonio and Austin probably have more wall panel buildings per capita than any other town in Texas and maybe the United States.
Another thing that makes Structural Engineers in San Antonio and Austin different than in other places is the unique types of soils native to the region. San Antonio and Austin are famous among geotechnical engineers for the very bad type of soils: expansive fat clays. Expansive clay soils present a unique kind of problems for foundations and structural engineers not familiar with these soils in San Antonio or Austin could potentially design the wrong foundation (although we should say, many structural engineers in San Antonio and Austin still don’t know how to design an acceptable foundation).
Structural Engineers in San Antonio and Austin (as well as across Texas) are also very well versed in the design of concrete buildings, especially pre-cast concrete. In San Antonio, with so many quarries, concrete is a very inexpensive construction material.
Many Austin and San Antonio Structural Engineers are also knowledgeable in high wind speed designs because San Antonio and Austin are close enough to the coast of Texas which makes hiring Austin and San Antonio Engineers a feasible possibility.
To be fair, there are some things that Austin and San Antonio Structural Engineers aren’t very familiar with. One such thing is seismic (earthquake) design. The reason is that Most of Texas, and especially San Antonio has almost zero probability of having even the least of the earthquakes.
When do you get a Structural Engineer? Many contractors, home builders, and especially foundation repair companies will have you believe that you don’t need a Structural Engineer. This is because many dishonest companies will more than likely try to sell you something you don’t need and the structural engineer (if hired by you) will more than likely disagree with them. Many foundation repair companies out there will have you believe that you have Structural Foundation problems in every crack of your house and will try to sell you something you don’t need. The truth is, the Structural Engineer is on your side, he is your consultant. If you’re trying to save the few hundred bucks for a consulting fee, consider that the he may save you thousands of dollars in products you didn’t need to buy in the first place.
And for more on where do you need a Structural Engineer in San Antonio, just click Structural Engineer San Antonio.
We hope this article was very helpful to you, and if you have any more questions or need help on your next project, please do not hesitate to