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Structural Engineering

What is a Structural Engineer?

In short, we are the profession that make sure you buildings, bridges and other structures don't fall down.


"Structural engineers analyze, design, plan, and research structural components and structural systems to achieve design goals and ensure the safety and comfort of users or occupants. Their work takes account mainly of safety, technical, economic, and environmental concerns, but they may also consider aesthetic and social factors." -Wikipedia


What type of projects do Structural Engineers do?

This depends on what type of Structural Engineering firm you work at. There are so many specializations within structural engineering, such as Residential, Commercial, Industrial, Aeronautical, Nautical, Bridges, Oil and Gas, etc. In my three years as an EIT, I have worked at consulting firms. At consulting firms, you work on commercial, industrial or residential projects. These are some of the types of projects I have worked on:

  • Foundations for Residential houses. (Designing slabs, footings, grade beams, reinforcement, retaining walls, etc.)

  • Roof framing for Residential houses. (wood joists, rafters, outriggers, etc.)

  • Concrete Design for tanks for wastewater and water treatment plants. (Concrete thickness, reinforcement, and footings.)

  • Retaining walls (Keystone Walls) that you see sometimes see on highways or in neighborhoods.

  • Wood trusses that are popular in the new builds.

  • Steel platform and mezzanines for industrial buildings.

  • Steel framing (monorails that carry cranes, framing for buildings, steel beams and columns.)

  • Steel replacements and reinforcements in beams and columns. (Replacing deteriorated steel, or reinforcing steel that is under designed.)

  • Steel wall framing for schools and hospitals (cold formed steel framing)

  • Assessment/Load Rating Reports (load ratings (how much more load a space can handle), historic reports, residential reports.)

  • And so much more.

These are some examples of the types of projects you will expect to work on in structural engineering. *These are photos from google for privacy reasons.*


What type of programs do Structural Engineers use?


The most common programs I have used are:

  • AutoCAD (Drafting Plans, Sections, and Details.)

  • Risa2D (Designing Simple framing, i.e. Wood Trusses.)

  • Risa3D (Designing three dimensional steel framing (or wood).)

  • Risa Sections (Designing Steel Reinforcement)

  • Enercalc (Concrete grade beams, footings, retaining walls.) (Steel beams and columns.)

  • LG Beamer (Designing cold formed steel framing.)

  • Microsoft Excel (Most firms will have their own spreadsheets to design various things (i.e. wind loads, cold formed steel framing, concrete tanks, welding calcs, etc.))

  • Hilti Profis (Anchor Bolt Design)

  • Microsoft Word (Reports)

Some programs that Structural Engineers use that I have not personally worked with are REVIT, Risa Floor and Foundations, SAP2000, ETABS, SAFE, STAAD.Pro, RAM, and so on.


My First Two Years.

My first year as an EIT was a blur. I feel like a lot of engineers can feel the same about that statement. The transition from college to an engineering career is too much, too fast. I felt like I was thrown in the deep end and expected to know how to do it. Which I did not, so I just faked it and googled it until I started to learn. If you take anything from this post, let it be this. Get a small journal and write notes, things you learn, and repetitive calculations. Also, write what projects you work on and what you did in those projects. These notes have helped me remember how things are calculated/designed, what a good goby job is to look at, and so much more.

My first project was a foundation design with a brick ledge, footings, retaining walls, the whole nine yards. Did I pay attention in foundation design in college? Absolutely not. I didn't even know Structural Engineers had to design theses types of things. I knew that Structural Engineers had concrete designs, but I thought we just designed the steel inside the concrete (#5 @ 16"), shear in concrete, or if the steel inside the concrete yielded. Come to find out we design the size footings, thickness of retaining walls, footing and keys of the retaining wall. Also keep in mind that I had never even heard of the program (enercalc) that the company used to design retaining walls. Needless to say, that project really shook me.


There was also a lot of drafting. Which can really help a new EIT. Although it can be mindless, it will help you build your knowledge of what things are and how things work together. You learn, the terms being used, standard details used throughout your career, what needs to go into each project, etc. It is always better to be a drafter first and foremost. Most engineers feel like they are above drafting, and that is for lower positions. You can crunch numbers all day, but if you are a 10 year PE and turn your nose up to drafting you, might be in for a rude awakening if you are required to draft in the future.


In my second year as an EIT, I was working, planning a wedding, planning a wedding during a pandemic, house hunting, buying a house, and my father had passed. Needless to say, when all my friends were studying for their PE, I was going through some big life changes. During my second year as an EIT I started to get comfortable with designing and had mastered drafting. But I hated my company, and I really just put my job on the backburner. I eventually got settled in my personal life and changed companies. The main thing I have learned as an EIT, is that every project is different.


My Current Day-to-Day.

In the third year of my career, there are some projects I have been able to work on by myself from start to finish. Unless it is something I have never designed before, I can be pretty self-sufficient in the design process. When I am assigned to a project, I will get an overview of what the project is and then told what the client needs or wants. From there, I will design it accordingly.


For example, a water treatment plant needs a 20'x40' platform extension to access the top of a tank. The first step is to gather all the information from the plant. If there is no existing plan provided, someone will go on a site visit to gather information about the beam/column sizes of the existing structure. After that information is collected, I will start drafting the existing platform in CAD. When the existing structure is laid out in CAD, I can come up with the placements of the columns, beams, and bracing. Then, I will go to RISA to model it. Risa is where I will be putting in design loads and column/beam/bracing sizes. Once you are happy with the design in RISA, you will then be able to draft that design in CAD. This is where you draw a plan/elevation/sections and are able to label the sizes you have designed in RISA. Then, you will come up with connections, and Anchor Bolt design, and so forth.


Site Visits.

Site visits in Structural Engineering usually depend on what company you work for and the types of projects they do. But usually, a Structural Engineers' (in the residential/industrial area) site visit is to gather information, dimensions, and photos of the existing building. At my old company, I went on maybe 10 site visits (I was there two and a half years), and it was always with a superior. Most of my time as an EIT was spent at the office behind the desk.


Pros and Cons.

If you were excited about your structural classes (Structural Analysis, Mechanics of Materials, Codes and Specs, Concrete and Steel), then you will be excited to learn how to design structures. After a project is over, you will feel like you have achieved something, and something you have designed will eventually be built. It is very cool to drive by something and say that you designed that. But it does come with its downfalls. Like any job, it can be very stressful. You are designing structures, that if failed, could hurt someone. It can also be SO challenging at the beginning of your career. There are so many types of projects that structural engineers design. This can feel so overwhelming and daunting. But if you take one project at a time, eventually your knowledge will expand tenfold. This profession comes with its challenges, but it can be rewarding when you see it come to life with your own eyes.

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