How Does a Structural Engineer Think? – ✎ Unraveling Engineering

The human mind is an extraordinary ocean full of magic and mysteries ✨. The thoughts that stroll around our brains are enchanting secrets that we get to share with ourselves. I remember once reading that the term “think” is affiliated with the intellectual activity of the brain. It is the interrelationship of various ideas that we organize to express and connect different concepts. And while this is true, it is important to realize that our thoughts are related to our experiences and feelings as well. The combination of these factors creates an enchanting, vaguely explored universe we carry inside our heads daily. Even though we all live on the same planet, each of us has a different vision. That said, to understand the way a structural engineer thinks, we must first understand the world they perceive.

One of my sixth-grade teachers once told me “You can’t see what you don’t understand”, and this has resonated with me ever since. By this, she meant that you really have to comprehend something in order to see what it really means. Needless to say, my eleven-year-old brain didn’t process this very well 😂. But in this article, I will share with you my vision of this statement as I have a better appreciation of this theory now that I am older. To test my teacher’s hypothesis, we will try to understand the brilliant mind of a structural engineer by exploring notions such as educational background, experience, and ethics.

Design is Not How it Looks and Feels. Design is How it Works. – Steve Jobs

The main purpose of any engineering branch is to find the best way to efficiently achieve a certain objective. In school, structural engineers will go through several math, mechanics and physics classes that will change the way they see the world. These courses will give them the formation to effectively calculate a structure. To give you a visual, we will explain the concept of “stress”, which is only one of the many notions a structural engineer will focus on.

You may know the word stress as an unbearable feeling of anxiety and emotional pressure when things aren’t going smoothly. For a structural engineer, stress is the result of internal forces that become a pressure on a member of a structure. Structural members will be all the pieces that assemble a structure, such as beams and columns. To avoid the deformation of a hypothetical building, they will learn that structural members are intended to bear loads, which cause stress.  Their objective will be to evenly spread out the weight of the structure and what it is meant to carry throughout its components. For example, a bridge will have to bear its own weight and the live weight of the cars that drive over it.

Stress Less 😜

There are four main stresses in structural engineering. Compression and Tension stress are the types of pressure that will apply force onto the axis of a structural component. Axis will be the imaginary line that crosses an element through the middle. Compression is when the roof applies its weight onto the top of a column, but the column also receives the pressure of the floor at the bottom. This stress is “pushing” the column from both sides in this case, hence a squeezing force. Tension, on the other hand, is when both ends of an element are being “pulled”. An example of this is the tension of a rope when being used for a game of tug a war.

Bending Stress and Torsion Stress happen when the forces applied to an object are parallel. Bending will be when you grab both ends of an element and pull them in the same direction. It’s as if you were to grab a ruler from both ends to bend it. On the other hand, Torsion is a type of stress that goes in different directions, like when you try to open a jar and the lid is stuck. Imagine torsion as a twisting motion. A structure will be effective when all these forces are in equilibrium, hence they are equal to zero. Just like when two people arm wrestle, but nothing moves because they are equally strong.

This knowledge, allows structural engineers to acquire an innate concept of stability. They will learn the allowable stresses that each material can take, in order to determine their efficient use and measurements. For example, they know concrete is a strong material for compression and relatively weak in tension.

Too Cool for School 😎

Without a doubt, academic formation is going to be a very significant piece in the professional life of a structural engineer. With this in mind, we can conclude that a structural engineer who has recently graduated will be closer to the way of thinking of his teachers. However, the best teacher of a recent engineer is another engineer with more experience.  Daily life teachings are relevant in a way no university institution can provide. Moreover, the formation of values does not end when you graduate from school and there must be a natural continuity between academic training and the proper vocational training that must begin when you learn directly from professionals that have more years of experience.

To give you an example of this, I was told by one of our engineers that when the construction is completed, the structure will usually shrink. The geotechnical engineer will do a soil study where he will obtain the recommendations for the foundation and he will let our engineers know how much the soil is going to give in given the weight of the structure. For this main foundation settlement, a structural engineer will hypothetically calculate the foundation of the columns an inch taller. This, however, is one of the situations structural engineers will face by gaining real-life experience. Pretty cool, right?

What we Owe to Each Other

A structural engineer, regardless of his academic knowledge, has to be a humanist in his way of thinking. The role of the profession must be understood as a service to society, which delivers safety, functionality, and durability. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. But going beyond this Wikipedia definition, ethics is our very own conscience. More than being able to determine what is right or wrong, structural engineers are human.

The main job of a structural engineer is to determine the conditions in which a structure will be safe for humans. Take a minute to take this in. The ethical responsibility will lay on them if there is a structural malfunction at a school, hospital, or even our own apartment building. Scary, huh?  This goes to show we are surrounded by heroes in every profession without even realizing it.  To learn more about the way structural engineers perform safe calculations, read our blog article Structural Design and Structural Analysis

Cause’ You’re Everywhere to Me

Do you ever get the feeling that when you like someone, everything reminds you of them? The same thing happens when you become interested in a specific subject. Being that I am surrounded by engineers every day, I thought it would be a good idea to ask them what they see. For this article, I decided to have a chat with the director of our Structural Engineering division, Alexis Martinez. One of the questions I asked him was the types of structural analyses he would do while driving on the streets of Miami. His response was priceless 😂. I wasn’t done with my questions when he told me it wasn’t just when he was driving, but also when he went to restaurants, clubs and even the gym ! Not gonna lie, I giggled a little. But then I realized, it makes so much sense !

Here is where my teacher’s theory comes into play. Imagine I go to a restaurant with a group of friends and all of them have different majors. Being that I am a Marketing graduate, I am going to notice the cool names they give their cocktails, the way they mix colors on the graphics of their menus, and even the flyers they give us with the check to advertise their future events. My friend, who is a musician, is going to notice the band that’s playing and the rhythm of the drums. My friend who was a server while going to school is going to notice that our waiter has way more tables than she can handle, so she is making us all give her a break if she takes a little longer re-filling our waters.

Is This The Real Life (of a Structural Engineer), Is This Just Fantasy ?

Now, my friend who majored in structural engineering will see a whole different world. Let’s suppose that while walking in we see a majestic chandelier hanging from the roof. The chain of the chandelier will be pulled by the roof and by the weight of the lamp, causing a tensional stress. My friend will imagine the type of connection holding this element that allowed it to be in equilibrium, hence not falling on our heads. As we continue our path towards the bar, we will sit on the stools of a high top. He will notice that what holds this chair is one vertical tube that will receive the pressure of our weight and the pressure of the floor. This vertical member will be taking a compressional stress. The material of this tube has to be strong and wide enough to distribute our weight evenly.

If our server brings two full glasses of water on both edges of a tray, the tray is going to be receiving a bending stress. Better yet, the waiter better put that tray down before taking one of the glasses off, or the weights will not be distributed evenly and the other glass will fall. Finally, torsion can be observed once our server opens our bottle of wine by twisting the cork off. Yes, I know some of these examples aren’t from the structure itself, which in this case would be the restaurant. But this is to give you an easy visual of how engineering can change our point of view. I have used very simple details to explain the structural analysis, however, the things structural engineers observe are far more technical than this.

Ojos Que no Ven, Corazón Que no Siente

Every time we learn something new, our vision of the world 🌎 becomes larger. Consequently, the more we know, the more we realize there is a lot we don’t know. “Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente” is a famous saying that every Hispanic person knows. It basically means if you are doing something that might hurt someone, as long as they don’t know, their heart won’t feel it 💔. I am a firm believer that you must first understand someone’s situation, in order to see what they are feeling. We will never be able to understand someone else’s circumstances unless we feel them in our own hearts. I think by now you were able to internalize what my teacher meant by “You can’t see what you don’t understand”.

In a nutshell, before you learned how to read, words were just blurry hieroglyphs that didn’t make sense.  Therefore, once you understand what a structural engineer sees, you can interpret why they are so passionate about their jobs. I hope this makes us realize that we are not able to fully know a situation just because we read or hear about it. We never realized what humanity experienced during the Influenza Epidemic in 1918, until we had our own COVID-19 to survive. By internalizing the effect of interpretation, we understand why there are so many different points of view in the world. In a way, we become more human. Stay safe everyone !

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