What is a structural engineer and what can they do for me?

What is a structural engineer?

Everybody knows what an architect does, but mention structural engineer and there are often some blank looks staring back at you. It's ok, we’re quite used to it!

Essentially an architect, amongst many other things, decides on the overall concept, shape, and layout of the building, and it’s the structural engineer’s role to make sure that it all stands up safely. A more formal definition of this statement is that we ensure that the forces acting on the building are safely transmitted to the ground. These forces are the building’s own self-weight, the contents of the building (people, furniture, equipment, etc.), wind, and the weight of snow.


The forces that need to be resisted can vary greatly, and part of our role is to judge what is important and critical and what is not. By doing this we design the building to be not only safe but also efficient and avoid ‘over-engineering’ it.

This is a phrase that is often bandied about when structural engineers are mentioned, but it’s usually not fairly used. It is easy to see why clients might think that we brought more requirements or cost to the project, but actually we are often designing the structure that is necessary to resist forces as dictated by regulations, and that others have not considered.

When buildings, or parts of buildings, fail (and thankfully this is rare in the U.K.), it is often due to unforeseen scenarios or loads that it was not designed to resist. Examples of this might be the air-conditioning units placed on a convenient flat roof, the boundary wall that was provided with inadequate foundations, or the cutting of trusses within a roof to make that storage area more convenient.


But what can structural engineers do for me?

If a structural engineer is approached to design a flat roof, for example, not only do we ensure that it will support the roof self-weight, and the potential snow loads, we would also consider that the snow might drift into a heavier, deeper pile when against a taller building. We might also consider that the client would like somewhere to install that shiny new air-conditioning system, and then access onto the roof is needed (although these are much better placed at ground level for ease of access and therefore safe maintenance).  We also use our experience to determine what slightly more unusual things may happen to the building that others might not think of (parkour anyone?).


While we are designing elements of a building, a critical part of that structural design is to ensure that the bend or sag under the load is not too excessive. This movement is typically referred to as ‘deflection’ and we limit this to an amount that is appropriate. For example, a steel beam within new construction might be allowed to sag a proportion of its span (span/360), but one being installed within an existing building would have tighter limits (span/500) to minimise the likelihood of plaster cracking as the beam takes the loads. These deflection limits may result in a larger or heavier beam than might otherwise be needed purely for strength, but by doing so, further repair costs have been avoided.


When it comes to foundations, we are very well positioned to provide guidance on appropriate solutions and will usually be able to offer alternatives. Being structural engineers based in Cambridgeshire, we are surrounded by natural clay soils. These soils are perfectly suitable for supporting buildings but are also very susceptible to causing movements when vegetation is nearby. This is an extensive subject, and one that can be expanded on elsewhere, but it might be useful to know that since structural engineers are called to diagnose and address issues related to subsidence and heave on existing buildings, we are also very good at ensuring that new foundations are designed to avoid this inadequacy from occurring to your building in the future.


Please consider:

Structural Engineers are professionals, bound by a Code of Conduct, professional ethics, and a Duty of Care, not only to our client but also to the public. What that all means, of course, is that we strive to offer our clients a purely professional service that is independent and factual. We provide reports or designs that offer clear, concise guidance and are not swayed by commercial or market forces. I personally like to think that the service I offer my clients is the same one that I would offer my own family and friends.


 If you would like experienced civil structural engineers to conduct a building appraisal, stress or deflection analysis, or any civil and structural design, contact us on our Contact Us page or ring the phone number above.


Richard Ponter

B.Eng (Hons), C.Eng, M.I.Struct.E

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