What’s one of the best ways to tell if a system is running smoothly and efficiently? Ironically, it’s when you don’t notice it running at all. The benefits of effective structural engineering are embedded in the safety and efficiency of our daily lives. Often unnoticed, this rapidly changing field of engineering is constantly evolving via the influence of everything from artificial intelligence to exotic materials.
Structural engineers (SEs) help governments, institutions, developers and architects analyze the natural and man-made factors that impact a structure’s integrity and longevity. SEs design the elements that hold up buildings, tunnels, bridges, and more. They focus on maximizing safety and stability within the constraints of the construction project and the physical environment.
Their work is essential – a licensed structural engineer is required for every construction project. As a result, SEs play a role in a variety of projects that touch on every aspect of our lives.
How Structural Engineering Affects Your Daily Life
Withstanding The Forces Of Nature
Every building — from your local supermarket to the towering skyscrapers in your favorite city — requires a structural engineer’s input in the design and analysis stage. To do this, SEs use their expertise to overcome environmental obstacles.
Structural engineers must take into account the amount of snowfall and ice a building will encounter and choose materials and construction techniques that will create the most supportive structure. As snow piles up on a rooftop, its weight exerts pressure on a building. Too much pressure from this type of load can cause the roof to cave in or the entire building to give out. To combat this, SEs calculate the snow load per square foot that a building will experience and design with this in mind. Each state sets its own minimum standards; for example in New Jersey, roofs must withstand snow loads of 21 pounds per square foot. This is the equivalent of a storm that occurs once every 50 years.
Several aspects of a building can detract from its safety in extremely cold weather such as the building’s orientation, the slope of the roof, different roof elevations. SEs will minimize the risks the building’s features pose while paying attention to features like roof drainage. In 2017, snowstorms caused $2.2 billion in property damage across the United States (source). Devastating statistics like this show how critical structural engineers are to maintaining normality. Effective structural engineers can save both lives and money by designing buildings to withstand ice and snowstorms.
High winds can be destructive as they generate pressure against structures on a frequent basis. Skyscrapers can even be swayed from an especially strong gust! Hurricanes are one example of extremely of high winds, but structural engineers must also reinforce buildings against regular thunderstorms and windy days as these pose a constant threat to the long-term stability of a building. The intensity of this pressure is known as the wind load. Structural engineers use this load to design safer, more wind resistant buildings. The speed of potential winds, the height of the building, proximity to water, and proximity to other structures are key factors in the analysis. SEs also consult historical records and building codes to determine the level of support and strengthening required for a given project. Using predictive models, structural engineers can anticipate potential challenges and prevent life-threatening situations posed by high winds.
In general, there is at least 1 earthquake per day with a magnitude between 4.0 and 4.9. And twice a month an earthquake occurs with a magnitude between 5.0 and 5.9. Strong earthquakes (6.0+) rose in frequency in 2016 across the United States. Earthquakes can cause visible, extreme damage when the magnitude is high enough but even smaller seismic shifts can cause damage to architectural finishes over time. Structural engineers design to minimize seismic risk and maximize seismic performance. In other words, they seek to create structures that perform well during and after an earthquake, over long periods of time. An SE may assess seismic risk by testing a scale model of the building on a table that shakes to simulate earthquakes. Structural analysis software is also used to model how a building will hold up during an earthquake; it can also provide more detail on the safety of specific internal structures (beams, columns, etc.).
Structural Engineers anticipate the various ways a building can fail as a result of an earthquake, and implement structures that have the necessary strength, stiffness, and ductility to withstand the most likely sources of failure. States famous for earthquakes aren’t the only areas focusing on this type of protection. Earthquake patterns are changing each year due to natural developments and human activities. Now more than ever structural engineers are needed to ensure buildings can withstand earthquakes of any magnitude.
Transportation — Safe Bridges & Tunnels
From the famous Brooklyn Bridge of NYC to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, bridges represent some of the most incredible feats of engineering that we encounter in our daily lives. The Golden Gate Bridge – along with its anchorages – weighs 894,500 tons. Its unique structure means that it can safely move up and down by 16 feet while remaining structurally sound.
Approximately 120,000 vehicles traverse the Golden Gate Bridge every single day. Across the world, millions of vehicles make use of bridges and tunnels that are fine-tuned to accommodate incredible traffic while withstanding even the most extreme weather conditions. SEs play a pivotal role in ensuring that bridges and tunnels can support these forces and provide safe transportation for all.
In addition to safety, two major benefits these well-engineered structures provide are freedom and flexibility. Efficient and safe transportation routes allow individuals to choose where they live, work, and socialize based on a variety of preferences. People have access to resources from a distance and don’t need to live within a certain mile radius to benefit from modernization. Travel between and within suburbs, cities, and states is not only possible, it’s effortless. Large trucks can carry resources long distances without creating damage due to heavy loads. Ships can pass through bridges designed to raise and lower with ease – meaning trade routes don’t interfere with day to day life. These conveniences are enjoyed daily but go unnoticed precisely because the systems are effectively engineered.
Environmental: Soil, Water & Sustainability
Before construction begins, a structural engineer analyzes the area to make sure it is suitable for the proposed building, tunnel or other structure. They’ll make sure that the soil conditions are supportive and manage any unusual soil conditions. The result? Anything built on top of the land will remain level, stable, and have greater longevity.
Structural engineers work to ensure that groundwater sources aren’t adversely impacted by structures. They also work with an eye towards sustainability in the future by analyzing materials’ efficiency, ability to be recycled, and environmental impact. For example, concrete is a strong, durable material that plays a major role in many construction projects due to its versatility. An SE focusing on sustainability could use recycled concrete to reduce the strain human activity places on the environment, contributing to a safer future.
Structural engineers continuously strive for innovative and effective ways to create structures that will last while supporting environmental best practices.
Surprising Roles for Structural Engineers
Structural engineers are trained in ensuring that buildings stand up to blast forces. The events of 9/11 have brought this aspect of engineering to the forefront of building design. Any building considered a potential target for terrorism – government facilities, monuments, military installations – must be resistant to progressive collapse and reinforced against blasts. SEs can also identify weak points in existing buildings and help strengthen the structures that present the greatest risks. When terrorists plan an attack, they assess the potential damage they can cause. Buildings without structural weak points require more effort and resources to destroy, so these targets are less attractive.
In times of disaster or infrastructure collapse, structural engineers are at the forefront of analyzing the stability of the impacted buildings and structures. SEs often work with humanitarian organizations and the government to provide relief to developing or recently devastated areas. Their input helps coordinators make effective decisions to keep populations safe. If an area was struck by a natural disaster, an SE can also help with the rebuilding efforts, ensuring all renovations and new constructions will not just replace the destroyed building but instead improve on its structural elements so that it can withstand similar situations in the future.
Structural engineers make sure that buildings are demolished safely and efficiently. Even though demolition is the “reverse” of construction, many of the same principles and safety concerns apply. The order in which a building is dismantled matters. If the wrong structural elements are removed or weakened at the wrong time it poses a safety risk. Structural engineers help to maintain an optimal demolition process by coordinating the process and techniques used.
Structural engineers aren’t just necessary here on earth, their work helps us explore the entire universe. At NASA, engineers are responsible for ensuring the safety of shuttles, space stations, and astronaut crews. SEs are part of the process from the beginning, identifying risks and making suggestions to protect structures and the people in them. Their skills help NASA navigate outer space hazards.
As a team of engineers who truly appreciates a job well done, we can’t help but see beauty and ingenuity in the feats of engineering all around us. The next time you’re out and about, consider the role a structural engineer played in creating both the simple and amazing things you see around you.