What do structural engineers do?

Your home is a building, and like any building, it's 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.

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.

How does a structural engineer differ from a contractor or architect?

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. 

A structural engineer is different than a general contractor in that the structural engineer only inspects, evaluates and designs plans or repairs for structures, whereas the construction contractor builds or makes home structural repairs.

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.

new home

Your home needs a strong foundation to keep those inside safe. Structural engineers can help. (Photo courtesy of member Randy S.)

Why hire a structural engineer?

Most homeowners will never need to call upon a structural engineer’s services, but there are many types of improvements and repairs that make hiring a structural engineer a necessity, including:

Before building an addition

Even with blueprints in hand, getting a structural engineer’s opinion before constructing an addition is a smart bet. The engineer will be able to determine if the addition will be able to be built without compromising the original structure’s integrity.

They can also review the plans to make sure the addition’s foundation is adequately reinforced and that the new construction will meet local building codes.

When significantly altering a home’s layout

How many times have you heard a homeowner or TV personality say “We’ll just knock out this wall and it will totally open up the entire space?" If you’re even considering knocking down a wall during a remodeling project, think twice.

While it may not be apparent to the average homeowner, or even some contractors, removing or altering a load-bearing wall could cause significant structural damage to a home.

A structural engineer can accurately determine which walls carry the weight of the home’s structure and how any planned renovations or improvements would affect the overall integrity of a home.

When structural damage is apparent

In many homes, the soil beneath its foundation may naturally settle or become displaced by inadequate drainage, drought or root growth. This can result in the home’s foundation shifting, causing leaning, cracked or bowing walls, door frames that no longer work properly and cracks around windows.

Before you hire a foundation company to repair the damage, it may be a good idea to call a structural engineer instead.

Rather than trying to sell a certain foundation repair system or product, a structural engineer will be able to provide an objective analysis of the problem and recommend the most effective and economical repair, which could save significant money.

Other structural damage that may require a structural engineer’s expertise include termite damage to load-bearing wood elements within a home, damage to retaining walls or home foundations from the lateral soil movement produce by hillsides or damage from major weather events or other natural disasters.

When an independent project manager is needed

If a major home construction project is underway or about to be underway, as a homeowner and the party responsible for funding the project, you may want to be extra sure the project goes to plan and is built exactly to your specifications.

Although it may cost an additional sum of money, overall, hiring a structural engineer to inspect and approve a construction can potentially save you money.     

When purchasing or selling home

If you suspect structural damage when buying or selling a home, a structural engineer would be able to assess the issue, its seriousness, and the best possible repair.

Are structural engineers licensed?

To obtain work as a structural engineer, even at the entry level, almost all professionals need a bachelor’s degree in engineering at a minimum. Most engineering degrees prepare students for their future specialties.

For instance, a chemical engineer would have little of the advanced knowledge or experience required to complete a structural engineer’s work.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require that professional engineers, including structural engineers, hold licenses to be permitted to offer their services to the public.

To be able to qualify for the license, most states require that a candidate graduate from an accredited engineering program, have four years of working experience and complete a state licensing exam.

Once licensed, professional engineers are often assigned an identification number that must be stamped or embossed on any plans they approve. Many state license boards also require that a professional engineer take a minimum number of hours of continuing education each year.

Tips for hiring a structural engineer

Here are a few questions you should ask when interviewing potential hires:

How many years have you been in practice as an engineer? Is this project your specialty?

It’s usually the case that the more years a professional has under their belt, the more experience they have. Because there are many disciplines in engineering, and even in structural engineering itself, make sure to hire an engineer who specializes in and has experience with residential projects.

How will you charge for the work?    

Structural engineers may work as independent owners or within the scope of an engineering practice. Depending on the type of work, a structural engineer may charge a fixed fee or a percentage of the overall cost of a project.

Before you make a commitment to having work performed, make sure the payment arrangements – including when the service will be delivered - are clearly defined.

Are you licensed? Can you provide your license number?

Although licensing is required for professional engineers in every state of the country, state regulations may vary. Make sure the professional engineer you hire is licensed to work in your state. A reputable engineer should have no problem providing his or her license number.

Can I see some of your recent projects?

One aspect of structural engineering that’s unlike other professions is extensive documentation. A structural engineer should be able to show you a portfolio of photos or drawings of recently completed work.

Do you have references?

Checking references is a must before hiring any professional to handle a large home improvement, repair or investment. Call on some of their recent customers and ask about the engineer’s communication and services. Did they explain the issue in laymen’s terms? Did they deliver their services on time?

Leave a Comment - 7


Kelly & Ellen Cooper (520) 551-8418

Subject: Our 9 year old home!!

Hello- I will TRY to be brief. We purchased a NEW home and closed 3/06. By 2008, we were noticing tiles snapping and our walls having cracks. Today, we are on our 3rd set of tile, a foundation crack running completely from one end of my house to the other. The crack in many areas ranges 1 to two inches in width. I have spiders coming up the foundation. My front door receives the evening sun and the sun shines completely through. Lizards, frogs, bugs, oh... the latest, YES! a snake got in the house and is down in the foundation. I can't get him out. He hides. All of my door frames are cracked above the doors. The cracking I believe is just to far gone. Everyone that has seen it, their eyes look like they just saw something that was bad. At this point even Short Sale is not an option. I would love someone to come and look and advise on the situation. This builder will not walk away taking a dream from me and my family. My husband and myself are in our late fifty's, and we really were hoping to make this our last.. Your help and recommendation would be very respected. My husband and I purchased our first home 3/1980. We stayed there until our boys moved on. We then sold that one and wanted a home out where it was very quiet and beautiful in Tucson. Well ... we are now feeling that we really should of, could of... and OMG we think we have issues. BIG ONES. Your help and advise would be great. Just to let you know , This builder built this home himself. NO SUB BUILDERS!

Andrew Kester

Subject: Professional Engineer vs Structural Engineer

This is complicated but I will try to keep it simple. It depends on the state if you are talking about the USA. Where I live, Florida, there is only a Professional Engineer (PE) license, though you may take an exam in your discipline (structural, civil, electrical, mechanical, etc) your license title and seal does not reflect this. My seal only says "Professional Engineer" with a number, and if you look it up online it will not tell you what I practice.

It is up to the individual engineer to decide which areas they are competent to practice. As I understand it, most states do it this way. However, some states have a separate Structural Engineer (SE) license and designation through exams, which I personally support. Illinois and the west coast states I believe require an SE license on certain types of buildings based on size and importance, and allow someone with a PE license to design all other buildings and structures that do not fall under this restriction.

In Florida all licensed engineers are Professional Engineers (PEs), and titles such as structural engineer or geotechnical engineer are self appointed. But if you are ever called out by the board, you better be able to back it up. This is why you ask for references and portfolios if you are in doubt! Also, it is not easy to get insurance as an engineer (and it is not cheap), so if you hire a licensed and insured engineer, and you check their references, you have done about all you can do, and I sure hope you have a good experience!

I am a PE and have practiced structural engineering design and forensic investigations of structures and buildings during my 15 year career, so I call myself a "structural and forensic engineer". My degree was in Civil Engineering, which has many specialty areas such as geotechnical and structural under its umbrella.


Subject: structural engineering

The below information should clear things up.
24. Who can practice structural engineering?
(B&P Code §§ 460, 6736; Health & Safety Code § 129805;
Education Code § 17302)
All civil engineers are legally authorized to practice structural engineering under the
Professional Engineers Act. However, only structural engineers may design hospitals
or public schools, pursuant to the Health and Safety Code and the Education Code.
Structural engineers are civil engineers who have obtained an additional license which
authorizes them to use the title “Structural Engineer.”
Local agencies cannot require a structural engineer to prepare structural engineering
documents rather than a civil engineer

Jerald Scheider

Subject: Structural Engineers

Structural Engineers require 8 hrs fundimentals examination, 4 years internship experience, (8 hrs Civil Engineering Examination in some states), and an additional 16 hrs of Structural Engineering Examination in many states and jurisdictions.

The states that specifically recognize Structural Engineering seperatly from Civil Engineering almost unanimously require 16 hrs. of structural engineering examination.

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