What is Structural Engineering?

Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering. Structural engineers are involved in the design, construction and maintenance of the built environment, and its infrastructure.

Within the practice of civil or structural engineering, structural engineers are responsible for ensuring structures they design and build are:

Safe and capable of withstanding both internal and external forces, and the natural elements.

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Structural engineering essential elements

Professional engineers, alongside civil engineers, perform all types of problem solving involved in the universal components of structural engineering worldwide, such as:


Often defined as, “the lowest load-bearing part of a building, typically built below ground”. Foundations must be capable of:

  • Bearing the load of a structure built above.

  • Resist groundwater penetration.

  • Act as a barrier to water and soil moisture.

Structural engineers will inspect and survey a building’s foundations to assess:

  • Safety risk in occupying the building.

  • Movement of the foundations affect structural stability

  • Existing cracks in the concrete threaten structural integrity and how repairs are to be carried out.


A wall constructed to support other building elements in a structure is called a load-bearing wall. As a structural element, a wall carries the weight of a house from the roof and upper floor. However, load bearing walls transfer loads all the way to the foundations or support frame members. 

A structural engineer is not only crucial to calculating wall loads for new build housing and other structures. The specific problem-solving skills and experience of a structural engineer are needed whenever a wall or similar load-bearing element is removed or installed.

Structures are always carefully designed to carry a specific load. Adding weight to an existing system may require additional supports for adequate load distribution, such as a beam/column system.


A column is defined in structural engineering worldwide as an element that performs with axial force, i.e. acting on a body only along its line of axis. This means the weight of the structure above is only distributed down the column to the structure beneath. A force known as axial compression, however, will distribute the load in a sideways direction.

Structural engineers also calculate the axial capacity for a column to buckle. Typically, as a result of a sudden change in shape or form of a structure or its component caused by an incorrect load pressure.

The degree of load bearing capacity depends on its material, geometry, and effective length. All of which, also depends upon ‘restraint’ conditions that prevent free motion, above and below the column.

Beams and roof members

In structural engineering, a beam is defined as a horizontal member that bears the weight of loads set at a 90 degree right angle to itself, such as ceilings, floors and roofs.

Beams and columns are classified as line elements. One of the many essential tasks of a structural engineer is to carefully analyse and solve problems related to designing for their particular load bearing capability.

An incorporated engineer on both residential buildings and industry projects will work alongside architects, and other engineers from other disciplines, on the design of additional structural elements, including:

  • Trusses

    System often used to support structures across a wide span of space. They consist of members and connection joints acting:

  • In compression – known as strut
  • -or-
  • In tension – known as ties.A structural engineer will design each component of a truss to ensure its long-term durability and stability.
  • Plates

    Structural elements characterised by a 3D solid consisting of thin, flat plates connected by two parallel planes called faces.

  • Shells

    Lightweight structures designed for the roofs of large buildings.

  • Arches

    A curved structure which carries forces in compression, and in one direction only. Can often be created for purely aesthetic reasons, they can also be designed with the structural ability to support a horizontal load from above.

  • Catenaries

    A curved element like the letter ‘U’, formed by its own weight and supported at the two upper ends with a central lower section. These structural elements are mostly made from cables or fabric structures that deflect crosswise forces held in tension.

Existing buildings – repair, conversion and extension

A structural engineer not only plays a critical part in the design of new-build properties and developments at construction sites, they are also needed for:

  • Improving the structural integrity of existing buildings.
  • Repair, conversion and extension of existing residential and commercial buildings, and specialist period properties.

Damage assessment – subsidence, fire and flooding

Whenever the structural performance and stability of a building is affected by subsidence, fire, flooding or explosion a structural engineer will be required to carefully assess the damage and decide the necessary repair work.

Structural problem solving

Structural engineering is always involved with:

  • Structural analysis
  • Structural integrity
  • Structural stability

A detailed and thorough structural engineering design will provide the necessary knowledge to accurately predict the performance of different materials, shapes and geometries. Structural design and material research is developed to solve problems including, resisting gravity loads, imposed stresses, storm forces and extreme events such as earthquakes.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) – integrating design and construction

Professional structural engineers will also use specialist software when working on challenging connections to test whether their designs can be fabricated and used, structurally.

Building Information Modelling (BIM), and their data rich 3D models play a major role in structural design for structural engineers, which enables the highest level of production control.

BIM provides an accurate and dynamic 3D environment which is easily shared by contractor, steel detailers and fabricators, as well as concrete detailers and manufacturers. It enables greater collaboration and integrated project management and delivery, from initial design to construction.

Assessment Surveys – investigating structural condition of existing properties

Building Investigations

Among the most common defects is the current structural suitability of concrete, which can be increasingly affected by a polluted environment. Corrosion in a building’s steelwork can build up powerful forces that will crack open the surfaces of a building.

Subsidence & Movement Surveys

House movement is a common structural engineering task. Especially, in London with its ageing building stock clustered in numerous locations. Laser surveys scan the external facade of a building to provide highly accurate details of wall surface distortions, such as leaning and bowing. 

Dimension Surveys

Dimensional surveys can accurately measure 3D spaces.  The area between each point is precisely determined to create digitally mapped distances and angles.

Building Failures

Inspection of dangerous structures at short notice is not unusual. It provides a quick but reliable assessment to determine whether further detailed investigation is required and the extent of necessary repairs and renovation.

Mortgage Surveys

A structural engineering appraisal of a residential property can often be requested to support a mortgage application just days before the exchange.

A chartered engineer will complete a survey report specific to the property, which will list property defects found. Wherever possible, appropriate repairs and anticipated costs are also evaluated.

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