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.
Structural engineering is usually considered a specialty discipline within civil engineering, but it can also be studied in its own right. In the United States, most practicing structural engineers are currently licensed as civil engineers, but the situation varies from state to state. Some states have a separate license for structural engineers which is required to design special or high risk structures such as schools, hospitals, or skyscrapers. In the United Kingdom, most structural engineers in the building industry are members of the Institution of Structural Engineers rather than the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Typical structures designed by a structural engineer include buildings, towers, stadia and bridges. Other structures such as oil rigs, space satellites, aircraft and ships may also be designed by a structural engineer. Most structural engineers are employed in the construction industry, however there are also structural engineers in the aerospace, automobile and shipbuilding industries. In the construction industry, they work closely with architects, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, quantity surveyors, and construction managers.
Structural engineers ensure that buildings and bridges are built to be strong enough and stable enough to resist all appropriate structural loads (e.g., gravity, wind, snow, rain, seismic (earthquake), earth pressure, temperature, and traffic) in order to prevent or reduce loss of life or injury. They also design structures to be stiff enough to not deflect or vibrate beyond acceptable limits. Human comfort is an issue that is regularly considered in the limits. Fatigue is also an important consideration for bridges and for aircraft design or for other structures which experience a large number of stress cycles over their lifetimes. Consideration is also given to durability of materials against possible deterioration which may impair performance over the design lifetime.
The education of structural engineers is usually through a civil engineering bachelor’s degree, and often a master’s degree specializing in structural engineering. The fundamental core subjects for structural engineering are strength of materials or solid mechanics, Structural Analysis -Static & Dynamic, material science and numerical analysis. Reinforced concrete, composite structure, timber, masonry and structural steel designs are the general structural design courses that will be introduced in the next level of the education of structural engineering. The structural analysis courses which include structural mechanics, structural dynamics and structural failure analysis are designed to build up the fundamental analysis skills and theories for structural engineering students. At the senior year level or in graduate programs, prestressed concrete design, space frame design for building and aircraft, bridge engineering, civil and aerospace structure rehabilitation and other advanced structural engineering specializations are usually introduced.
Recently in the United States, there have been discussions in the structural engineering community about the knowledge base of structural engineering graduates. Some have called for a master’s degree to be the minimum standard for professional licensing as a civil engineer. There are separate structural engineering undergraduate degrees at the University of California, San Diego and at the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy, Sofia, Bulgaria. Many students who later become structural engineers major in civil, mechanical, or aerospace engineering degree programs, with emphasis in structural engineering. Architectural engineering programs do offer structural emphases, and are often in combined academic departments with civil engineering.