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What does a Structural Engineer do?

What led me to changing my degree from maths and potentially working in finance to studying structural engineering, what excited me about this field?

A little about me

When it came to University choices, choosing a maths degree seemed like a no brainer for me. I was convinced of this; throughout high school I had loved maths and physics and right up until a month before the application deadline, it seemed like the best choice. However, it was when I started to think about the career I’d be going into after, that I realised a problem: the world of finance and accounting didn’t appeal to me, and I wanted to apply what I’d learn at University to real world problems. I therefore last minute, decided to change to pursue Engineering.

5 years on from that decision I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I’ve ended up with a master’s degree and a graduate job in Structural Engineering and I’ve loved every moment of it. I think I got exceptionally lucky; Structural Engineering wasn’t at all on my radar during school, but it turned out to embody all the things I loved about STEM subjects growing up. My hope is that this article will help shed some light on structural engineering as a career and show off some of the exciting opportunities it brings with it, so that you’ll be able to make your decisions with a bit more information that I made mine!

The Analysis: STEM principles to blooming structures

This is the crux of structural engineering; the things you’ll be taught during a degree and the backbone of what a structural engineer does. To (over)simplify into one line: structural engineers use maths and physics to calculate the amount of material (in the form of beams, columns, etc) required to resist the forces that will be applied to a structure. For example, if a building is five storeys tall, how wide do the columns on the ground floor need to be? How does this change if it goes up to six?

The structural engineer has three tools in their box:

  • Equilibrium: all the forces and moments in the system must balance each other out.
  • Compatibility: things need to fit together; for example, the ends of two beams that are connected can’t deflect different amounts.
  • Material Law: different materials have different limits on the amount of force they can take and the amount those forces makes them deflect.

By combining these three tools together, structural engineers can use basic principles to analyse complex structures- and it all starts with STEM!

The Design: thinking outside, and redesigning, the box

This (in my opinion) is the exciting part; the part that separates an engineer from a scientist and where creativity comes into play. There are hundreds of solutions to any problem; hundreds of arrangements of walls and columns that would hold up a building; hundreds of forms of bridge that could span a river. The real skill of an engineer comes in working closely with architects to pin down exactly what is important to the specific projects goals and finding the solution most suitable for the situation.

A great example of this are the bridges in Newcastle. The River Tyne has many bridges spanning its banks but they are connected by one common issue: large ships require regular access down the Tyne. This meant that there were two possible approaches when designing the bridges: build high enough so that boats can pass underneath the bridges, or design them as a ‘draw bridge’ and open to let ships through. Not much room for creativity and architectural flare? That’s what many people thought, and indeed most of these bridges adhere to these two designs. However, the Engineering consultants Ramboll came up with a novel third solution.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge – Ramboll  

A bridge suspended from an arch, all connected through a single axis allowing the whole structure to rotate up above the required height for ships to pass. A perfect example of thinking outside the box; and an engineer utilising both STEM principles and creativity to find a better solution.

Arguably even more impactful, structural engineers have the ability to make huge differences in the battle against climate change. Over 8% of global C02 production comes from cement (a main component of concrete), the total for the construction industry even higher. By designing intelligently and sustainably, this number can be reduced substantially. In fact, some timber construction technologies sequester enough carbon during their production to make their projects carbon negative.

The Impact: local to global

So why should you care? With 70% of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, structural engineers are poised in a unique and exciting way to help shape and define the built environments that will affect so many. Never before has there been such a surge in population and, thus, demand for construction; What’s more, due to the challenges facing a growing population it is likely that population growth will eventually slow and such a demand will never again be seen. The industry will likely never be so dynamic – there has literally never been such an exciting time to enter the field!

Perhaps the biggest impact structural engineers can have is when they get the opportunity to help change lives for the better. My firm, Ramboll, has had the chance to work on multiple projects like this recently. Amongst other projects, we have:

  • Built a spherical timber outdoor classroom in Frendsbury Park to allow local primary schools use of the space during winter.
  • Built a cross laminated timber sculpture on London’s south bank that illuminates based on tweets to raise awareness of mental health.
  • Built a bridge across a river prone to floods in Uganda to allow a village more reliable access to jobs and education.

These are the real life impacts that structural engineering can bring.

I hope I’ve managed to get across not only ideas of what a structural engineer does, but also how genuinely exciting it is to work in this field. I find I’m using science and maths on a daily basis for analysis, but also creativity and problem solving to come up with intelligent designs. I would thoroughly recommend anyone interested by a combination like that to consider structural engineering as a career: your passion for STEM could one day lead to real life structures that you designed!

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