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.
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?