Structural engineering is a field of engineering dealing with the analysis and design of structures that support or resist loads economically. Structural engineering is usually considered a specialty within civil engineering, but it can also be studied in its own right.
Structural engineers are most commonly involved in the design of buildings and large nonbuilding structures but they can also be involved in the design of machinery, medical equipment, vehicles or any item where structural integrity affects the item’s function or safety. Structural engineers must ensure their designs satisfy given design criteria, predicated on safety (e.g. structures must not collapse without due warning) or serviceability and performance (e.g. building sway must not cause discomfort to the occupants).
Structural engineering theory is based upon physical laws and empirical knowledge of the structural performance of different geometries and materials. Structural engineering design utilises a relatively small number of basic structural elements to build up structural systems that can be very complex. Structural engineers are responsible for making creative and efficient use of funds, structural elements and materials to achieve these goals.Structural engineers are responsible for engineering design and analysis. Entry-level structural engineers may design the individual structural elements of a structure, for example the beams, columns, and floors of a building. More experienced engineers would be responsible for the structural design and integrity of an entire system, such as a building.
Structural engineers often specialise in particular fields, such as bridge engineering, building engineering, pipeline engineering, industrial structures or special structures such as vehicles or aircraft.
Structural engineering has existed since humans first started to construct their own structures. It became a more defined and formalised profession with the emergence of the architecture profession as distinct from the engineering profession during the industrial revolution in the late 19th Century. Until then, the architect and the structural engineer were often one and the same – the master builder. Only with the understanding of structural theories that emerged during the 19th and 20th century did the professional structural engineer come into existence.
The role of a structural engineer today involves a significant understanding of both static and dynamic loading, and the structures that are available to resist them. The complexity of modern structures often requires a great deal of creativity from the engineer in order to ensure the structures support and resist the loads they are subjected to. A structural engineer will typically have a four or five year undergraduate degree, followed by a minimum of three years of professional practice before being considered fully qualified.
Structural engineers are licensed or accredited by different learned societies and regulatory bodies around the world (for example, the Institution of Structural Engineers in the UK). Depending on the degree course they have studied and/or the jurisdiction they are seeking licensure in, they may be accredited (or licensed) as just structural engineers, or as civil engineers, or as both civil and structural engineers.