What is structural engineering? Engineering is usually a discipline that is hard for many of us to fully comprehend. Not because we aren’t smart enough, but because is not something we take the time to educate ourselves with. In my case, if anyone would even mention the word I would literally imagine random equations that I didn’t understand 😂. When I started getting involved in the industry, I realized it was much more than just math and it became a really interesting subject for me. Now everything I see makes me try to imagine the engineering behind it.
The first thing to know is that there are several branches to this discipline. Engineering is simply the use of science and math to design things or solve problems. A very broad definition, right? Let’s make it a little bit more simple. If you have ever thought of a way to re-organize your office or room and made it more efficient for you to find things, you have solved a problem by “engineering” the set up of this hypothetical scene.
Of course, the job that engineers do is much more complicated than this. Engineers find ways that require the least amount of resources to make operations or designs efficient and effective. This becomes very specific depending on the branch they specialize in. For that reason, this article will specifically explain structural engineering and why it is so important for the functionality of a city. So to answer our original question, What is structural engineering? Read on and you’ll find out 😉.
There is no Place Like Home
We have heard this expression several times, and it has a lot of meanings depending on the situation each of us is living. The feeling of having a place where you can finally unwind after a long day of work. Somewhere you are excited to arrive after a trip that made you miss your routine. A setting where you can build a family and share memories with them. Among other different situations that involve having a place to call home.
However, have you ever wondered what your life would be like without a home? What if the place where you go to work suddenly didn’t exist. Imagine you have nowhere to go when you need to find shelter because it started to rain. Every day we interact with structures that we take for granted because they have existed since we have consciousness. The reason we emphasize this is to make you aware of the fact that architects along with structural engineers and other disciplines have been responsible for creating functional cities. Thanks to them we have places to live, generate businesses, and even recreate and educate our minds, among many other things. Basically without them, we would still be living in caverns.
Death (of Caves) is Only the Beginning
Some say that the bases of structural engineering began when there were no longer enough caves to inhabit. The story goes that in 2700 B.C., the wise Imhotep was the first engineer known by name. If you are like me, and you’ve seen the multiple movies of The Mummy, you know Imhotep as a priest who was mummified alive and who will wake up at any moment to take revenge on humankind. Thank you, Hollywood 😂 ! However, Imhotep actually recorded the first vestiges of structural engineering for humanity in the construction of the stepped pyramid for Pharaoh Zoser. Today, the pyramids are a living and reliable example of the application of this science in the structures built by ancient civilizations.
It is mind-blowing to think that such magnificent and durable structures were built so many years ago, isn’t it? Especially knowing they did not have the technology we have today. These times represented a milestone in the development of this branch of science. However, the applied techniques were invented in later civilizations such as the Greek and Roman. Moreover, their genesis goes back to even more remote ones such as Babylon, Phoenician and Egyptian.
By the VIII century B.C., the Greeks built majestic buildings by borrowing many ideas from previous civilizations. This was the time when Greece had the City of Alexandria as its epicenter of constructive progress with included rich Museums and Libraries. It is there that construction engineering began to be professionalized and several specialties appeared with it such as architecture, machinery for construction and therefore structural engineering.
The Foundation, Safety, and Guarantee of a Construction
The concept of structural engineering is a classic branch of civil engineering. This discipline deals with the design and calculation of structural elements and systems such as buildings, bridges, tunnels, dams, and other construction works. It is the application of mechanics to design structures that support their own weight and the summation of loads produced by constant use, natural and climatological events.
Rui Wamba, the founder of the Society of Engineers of Esteyco, gives a less technical but at the same time philosophical definition: “Structural Engineering is the art of modeling materials that we do not fully understand so that we can analyze a way to withstand efforts that we cannot evaluate… so that the general public has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance”. However, do not panic. This is not to say that Structural Engineers don’t know what they’re doing. It simply means that we are ignorant when it comes to predicting absolutely every possibility that can happen. And for this reason, they rely on the laws of physics (among many others) to calculate structures so that they can withstand all the circumstances we already know. But if a meteorite drops tomorrow, your neighborhood may not survive 🙄.
So, What is Structural Engineering?
Structural engineering is a set of operations and estimates based on the laws of physics. These sets lead to a result of the particularities of a structure, ensuring that the maximum loads are well distributed. Consequently, the structure is able to support its own weight or external forces. Did you know that structural engineering ensures that materials are used efficiently? Structural engineers are able to determine the optimum strength of the materials that will be used. They ensure that their designs meet a standard to achieve established safety or service level objectives. Therefore, the structure does not collapse without giving notice and the vibration of a building does not disturb its occupants.
It is important for the safety and functionality of building a structure to specify the loads it can withstand. For example, the force of the wind on a bridge, the impact of earthquakes on a building, and even how much water a dam can endure. In addition, it is the responsibility of this discipline to make efficient use of the money and materials necessary to achieve these objectives. No big deal 💁♀️. In the end, structural engineering is the fundamental piece of the infrastructure of buildings; it travels through time and tells us its story.
Where there is good development, there was a better start. This is where the mathematical calculations of the external forces acting on the structure begin. Structural Loads are classified depending on the type of force that occurs:
Dead loads are the ones that don’t vary. They act unchanged because they belong to the very weight of the structure. On the other hand, live loads vary their strength over time by exposure to the structure. For example the circulation of vehicles on bridges or loads that are produced by external actions such as seismic events.
Therefore, for a structure to work well it must be able to withstand the type of load it will receive. For instance, the Eiffel Tower in Paris made of iron with a height of 300 meters. This touristic icon receives around 60 million people each year. Crazy, right? Therefore, to withstand these live loads safely it is important to keep the structure of this monument in shape.
Two Brains Think Better Than One, Four Eyes See Better Than Two
There are many names that could thicken the ranks of structural engineers who have left their imprint and legacy to humanity. Within these people is Gustave Eiffel. Who would have thought, right? During the construction of the Eiffel Tower, several artists and architects criticized his work. Believe it or not, they expressed outrage towards this project because they believed it was an “iron monster” that did not match the city’s beautiful aesthetic. Can you imagine if Gustave hadn’t fought for his dream? We wouldn’t be able to experience the charm that this magical structure radiates today. Heberto Castillo, Stephen Timoshenko, James Buchanan among others, are names of some brilliant minds in the structural engineering world.
However, it is important to mention the importance of teamwork when it comes to infrastructures that work for humanity. To ensure a structure works within a specific space it requires multiple revisions and points of view. Many assembled minds are able to calculate safe structures while maintaining a wonderful aesthetic. Just like our team at Eastern Engineering Group 😉.
Our Lives in Good Hands,…and Better Minds!
All the beauty and architectural wisdom accumulated through time would amaze most aliens’ if they made a curious visit to our beloved blue planet 🌎. It is amazing the commitment of engineers to achieve an everlasting legacy for the future while ensuring well-being, safety, and harmony with the environment. We can say that this is the responsible path that structural engineering follows. Day to day the safety of the structures we interact with confirm we are in good hands. Next time you drive through a bridge or visit a famous monument, think about the brilliant minds that completed this structure. You will most certainly start noticing the details that make these places safe and functional.
“Can one think that because we are engineers, beauty does not preoccupy us or that we do not try to build beautiful, as well as solid and long-lasting structures? Aren’t the genuine functions of strength always in keeping with unwritten conditions of harmony? Besides, there is an attraction, a special charm in the colossal to which ordinary theories of art do not apply.” -Gustave Eiffel