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Structural Engineering Basics: A Beginner's Guide

November 09, 2023|6 min read

Who Should Know Structural Engineering Basics?

Many engineering students find themselves studying structural engineering basics, including structural analysis and the importance of structural material. This fundamental knowledge isn't just for budding engineers; it's invaluable for backyard landscapers, anyone remodeling a room of their home, or those incorporating a beam in their designs. Even those building a new skyscraper can trace back their foundational knowledge to structural engineering basics. The principles of structural engineering are evidenced in iconic structures like the great pyramids of Egypt, and traces of this knowledge can be found in even earlier constructions.

What are Structural Engineers?

Structural engineering is the study of how to design structures and non-structural elements that bear a load. Loads are anything that permanently or temporarily applies vertical or horizontal force to the structure, such as gravity, snow, wind, or occupants.

Structural engineers seek to determine the stability and longevity of a load-bearing item, and design building plans accordingly. They do this through design and analysis. Design is arranging different members together to form a frame and a structure. Analysis is reviewing what forces are active in a given member, frame, and structure, and how well it withstands the forces. Design and analysis inform each other.

What Does a Structural Engineer Do?

Overall, a structural engineer’s primary job is to ensure safety; a structure stands or falls based on their design and forethought. A structural engineer’s day-to-day duties can include creating drawings and specifications, calculating loads, writing reports and evaluations, reviewing plans from other engineers, and observing construction sites.

Structural Engineering vs Civil Engineering

Structural engineering is a subdivision of civil engineering. Civil engineering, often led by a civil engineer, involves the design and construction of roads, dams, airports, bridges, buildings, sewer systems, water systems, and more. Structural engineers, who might specialize in elements like the beam, can also work on these same types of projects. The difference between the two lies in focus. Civil engineers oversee a project as a whole, including how a structure will impact and be impacted by permanent and seasonal factors, usage, etc. Structural engineers focus on how each piece of the structure transfers and withstands loads.

Residential Structural Engineering

Within structural engineering, there is a further subdivision: residential structural engineering. As the name suggests, this subdivision focuses on residential structures, such as houses, apartments, and hotels. Homes, with their various structural components and members, are their bread and butter. The current US housing market boom has proven highly beneficial for engineers in this field, especially those adept at understanding the load dynamics and steel structure intricacies of residential buildings.

Structural Engineering vs Architecture

An architect’s job is to make a building look and feel pleasing, and to accomplish its purpose efficiently. For example, an apartment complex should maximize living space and be arranged so that the room-to-room flow makes sense in day-to-day life.

A structural engineer’s job is to determine which materials are required to create a stable and durable structure. The engineer decides what size beams and columns are needed within the apartment complex to make it safe. In short, architects determine how a structure will look. Structural engineers determine how it will stand.

The Basics of Structural Engineering

Structural engineering students study the physics of nature such as the effects of wind, water and snow on buildings, the effects of gravity and the effects of the weight of the structure itself. In addition to the physics affecting a structure, they also study the known longevity of materials and their impact on the environment, known as the life cycle assessment or LCA.

Structural Engineering Basics: Physics

The laws of physics that affect a structure, including the impact of external forces, are an important aspect of the building process. Miscalculate the stability of a structure and lives could be lost and property damage incurred. Structural engineering basics cover how common building materials such as steel, concrete, and wood behave under pressure, including shear forces. These known behaviors are used in conjunction with special equations that predict how much weight a structural design, like beams and steel structures, can withstand while remaining structurally sound.

Structural engineers also plan for safety in the event of an earthquake, flood, or other disruptive force. They design the structure to fail under these circumstances without endangering the occupants within or on the structures if possible.

Structural engineering also prepares students to inspect structures for unsafe conditions. Moisture, energy, heat, and the weight of the structure itself, in addition to the weight of the furniture and people inside the building, are all examined to help determine the safety of a structure.

Structural Engineering Basics: Life Cycle Assessment

Life cycle assessment plays an important role in structural engineering. Not only does life cycle assessment allow a builder to select the most environmentally friendly option in building materials, it also allows him to select an appropriate building material to increase the longevity of the structure in the given climate and environment.

Structural engineering basics are a wonder to behold at work. Suspension bridges, skyscrapers, and artistic buildings such as the Louvre in Paris are all terrific examples of the wonder and awe that structural engineers can evoke.

Software for Structural Engineering

Structural engineers have always used tools for their work. Today, software helps engineers tackle increasingly complex tasks in less time. We offer one such software: StruCalc. Our software excels at structural engineering design and analysis for residential and light commercial builds.

If you’re a student or professor, you can use StruCalc for free! If you’re a professional, you can sign up for a free trial here.

Basics of Structural Engineering FAQs

How do structural engineers differ from architects in their approach to building design?

Architects emphasize the visual appeal and functionality of a structure, while structural engineers prioritize its safety and durability. Essentially, architects shape the building's appearance, whereas structural engineers ensure it remains upright and secure.

How do structures remain safe during events like earthquakes or floods?

Structural engineers incorporate their deep understanding of materials and physics to devise structures resilient to natural calamities. Their designs aim to protect occupants by ensuring that, in extreme situations, the building fails in the least hazardous way possible.

What does a Life Cycle Assessment entail in the realm of structural engineering?

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) examines the environmental footprint of building materials from their origin to disposal. This analysis aids in selecting materials that are both eco-friendly and apt for specific environmental conditions.

Why is a grasp of physics essential for structural engineers?

Physics lays out the fundamental rules that dictate the behavior of structures under diverse loads. By mastering these principles, structural engineers can anticipate how different materials, from steel to wood, will react to various stresses, ensuring structures are both safe and long-lasting.

Is StruCalc suitable for my home construction project?

Absolutely! StruCalc is tailored for structural engineering tasks, especially in residential and smaller commercial projects. It's a versatile tool for students, educators, and professionals alike.