Your home is a building, and like any building, its constructed to counteract natural forces such as gravity, wind and the pressure exerted upon it by the surrounding earth. When a home cannot withstand these forces, or the weight and structural load a house exerts upon itself, serious consequences can result – and you’ll likely need to call a structural engineer.
Structural engineers are licensed professionals who are trained to analyze the elemental factors that exert force upon a home and its attached components (such as retaining walls, garages and building additions) and make the call about whether or not the structure can hold up and resist those forces.
Like any professional engineer, structural engineers have a thorough understanding of how the fundamentals of physics and calculus come into play when dealing with the internal and external forces that are applied to a structure.
A structural engineer is different than a construction contractor in that the structural engineer only inspects, evaluates and designs plans or repairs for structures, whereas the construction contractor builds or makes repairs to the structure. Although a contractor may have experience in diagnosing and correcting the problems associated with a structure, an engineer focuses on analyzing the cause of the problem and determining the most efficient and appropriate solution.
Homeowners may find they need the expertise of structural engineer for many reasons. If they’re planning a significant structural alteration, constructing a new addition or trying to remedy a structural defect, it’s often beneficial to call a structural engineer to evaluate and recommend the most appropriate design or repair first.
People are sometimes confused about the differences between architects, structural engineers and contractors. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, architects actually handled engineering duties, but as structures became taller and spans between columns became longer, more consideration had to be given to loads and stresses. The development of structural theories, coupled with the use of new materials, led to the profession of structural engineering.
While architects concentrate on the aesthetics and functionality of a building, the structural engineer makes sure structures support and resist the loads to which they are subjected without excessive movement. Structural engineers also ensure that the design is suitable for the manufacturing tolerances of the building materials used. While contractors have experience in constructing and repairing buildings and can detect warning signs, they cannot analyze the severity of the problem or detect causes and present solutions. Those issues are areas for the structural engineer to address.