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Structural engineer: Job description

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Structural engineers design structures to withstand stresses and pressures imposed through environmental conditions and human use. They ensure buildings and other structures do not deflect, rotate, vibrate excessively or collapse and that they remain stable and secure throughout their use.

Structural engineers help to design most structures including:

  • houses;
  • theatres;
  • sports venues;
  • hospitals;
  • office blocks;
  • bridges;
  • oil rigs;
  • space satellites;
  • ships;
  • aircraft.

They work in close partnership with architects and other professional engineers.

Structural engineers have to choose appropriate materials, such as concrete, steel, timber and masonry, to meet design specifications. When construction has begun, they are often involved in inspecting the work and advising contractors.

They also examine existing buildings and structures to test if they are structurally sound and still fit for purpose. Structural engineers have to make efficient use of funds and materials in order to achieve structural goals.

Typical work activities

Tasks may vary depending on the structure being worked on and size of the team, but can include:

  • analysing configurations of the basic structural components of a building or other structure;
  • calculating the pressures, stresses and strains that each component, such as a beam or lintel, will experience from other parts of the structure due to human use or environmental pressures such as weather or earthquakes;
  • considering the strength of various materials, e.g. timber, concrete, steel and brick, to see how their inclusion may necessitate a change of structural design;
  • liaising with other designers, including architects, to agree on safe designs and their fit with the aesthetic concept of the construction;
  • examining structures at risk of collapse and advising how to improve their structural integrity, such as recommending removal or repair of defective parts or rebuilding the entire structure;
  • making drawings, specifications and computer models of structures for building contractors;
  • working with geotechnical engineers to investigate ground conditions and analyse results of soil sample and in situ tests;
  • liaising with construction contractors to ensure that newly erected buildings are structurally sound;
  • applying expert knowledge of the forces that act on various structures;
  • using computers and computer-aided design (CAD) technology for simulation purposes.

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Written by Cheryl Cairns, Edinburgh Napier University
March 2014

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