The Need for Structural Perfection – Safe and Soundly Avoiding Disaster

“Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.”  Within this previous phrase, are principles that apply to understanding the importance of structural engineering. Do you know who said it? If you guessed right, we can agree that Confucius left us with many brilliant quotes to interpret. But why can we apply this specific quote to structural engineering? Throughout this discipline, engineers require more than the machine learning of a theory. Therefore, common sense and experience become as important as the knowledge they learned in school. What do we mean by all this? Keep reading to find out!

Reason and Being of Structural Types

“It is too common a mistake to start calculating beam number 1, without having previously considering whether the construction should have beams or not”. This previous phrase stated by Eduardo Torroja carries a lot of wisdom behind it. The theory will give our professionals the knowledge required to calculate this beam. However, the experience added to this theory will give them judgment to decide whether or not this beam is necessary.

Why would we want to eliminate structural elements? The answer is Experience! Experience is what gives engineers the skills to work within a budget, under the pressure of clients. This said, structural engineers are not only responsible for the calculations of a structure. They must also accomplish structural soundness with the least amount of resources possible. Below, we will discuss structural engineering from Torroja’s point of view in his book “Reason and Being of Structural Types”.


When beginning to sow the planning-seeds of structural work, one should not only think about the structure’s purpose. You must also take into consideration variables that go beyond just cranking out calculations and dimensions. You know what they say about the P-rule; “Proper planning prevents poor performance!” Well, the same applies to structural engineering. Important factors to plan ahead include, deciding what materials will be used and their quality of resistance, external agents that may either affect or enhance a structure, and the detailed thought-out design and aesthetics of the project – which can turn a plain ole building into an artistic masterpiece leaving witnesses in awe! (Think Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World – immediate butterflies!) Not to mention, a well-thought-out budget based on a detailed financial study may also be a bit more than necessary as well, ensuring every dollar is put to good use.

Gathering these elements and planning accordingly (remember our P rule!), speaks to the integrating character that must exist in the conception of a structure. Consider an average person sitting at a piano with all the keys before them, but still unable to play a tune. It takes a skilled pianist to know how to pick the proper notes that will flow together seamlessly in order to create a working, enjoyable melody. Like the pianist, achieving a solid, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing structure will depend on the ability and skill of the designer to put all the properly planned and working variables into practice.

From the view of the Structural Engineer

From the Structural Engineer’s point of view, all work must have a purpose. Just as nature creates natural structures, men create artificial structures. These include buildings, bridges, walls, dams, and tunnels. The intention of the project will depend on the relationship between the developer’s needs and the surrounding environment.

Dams, walls of tanks and silos, retaining walls, and shelter dams are created to contain and absorb horizontal thrusts of pressure from the water, liquid, or similar substances and act as a protective wall. Other structures, such as buildings, have the design to support fixed or mobile loads. Enclosed walls and roofs are made to isolate a certain volume of the area from the outside. For the structural engineer, there is a rhyme and a reason for the structures they design and the elements they choose to use within them to turn their conceptualized structure into a successful and sustainable reality.

Although the purpose of structures is not only to resist and persist over time, resistance is a fundamental condition. (Ask the 3 Little Pigs!)

Strength of Materials – HEFTY! HEFTY! HEFTY!

Considering the strength and resistance of materials they want to use, is a necessity before the conceptualization of any structure. Resistance is a cardinal condition for any construction project. Ignoring such an important variable as resistance?! You guessed it. – A cardinal sin! Achieving static maintenance of structures over time depends on many variables. The materials, composition, and shape, and points of attachment will determine the immobility of the structure.

Identification and selection of materials are vital to achieving much-needed resistance. Whether using stone, metal, wood, or reinforced or pre-stressed concrete, it is essential to know the capacity of each one to resist applied forces without breaking, acquiring permanent deformations, or deteriorating in some way. Let’s take it back to the 3 Little Pigs, and our childhood nursery rhyme days! If they had properly planned for their houses to handle all the outside environmental factors, (the Big Bad Wolf), they would have realized the quality of resistance and strength of building materials, was pivotal to their success in not having their little homes blown down. The poor little pigs would have never wanted their homes built out of straw or sticks if they considered the strength and resistance of these not-so-strong or long-lasting materials.

Each and every material used in assembling a structure must have a common characteristic: to be durable!  They must satisfy requirements such as hardness and mechanical resistance; resisting external elements such as fire, wind, water, temperature variations, big bad wolves, etc. Design professionals should also consider the ease of cleaning, as well as a material’s ability to maintain thermal or sound insulating properties, along with sustainable color and mass.

Financial Study. Budget Matters!

Having all the techniques available from the moment work is conceived does not always guarantee success. The quality of the work will also depend on the economic status of the company that undertakes the project. Although “all work must be profitable from an economic stand-point”, as Torroja explains, “the cost is conditioned by the price of materials, wages and labor performance, general expenses, as well as the construction process chosen”. Behind every project, there are financial interests, costs, and established times. These variables can make a project feasible, delayed, or even stop the engineering work altogether. Carrying out a surgical analysis of these and other variables will mean creating an accurate, viable budget, in accordance with the real needs of the work.

Aesthetic & Appearance of Construction – Wow ‘Em!

The fusion of technology with art, of ingenuity with study, of imagination with sensitivity; are the exact words to define the aesthetic aspect of structural engineering work. Entering the secret frontiers of inspiration should be a goal for every designer. They always seek to create a masterpiece to be proud of.

“The aesthetic condition”, comments Torroja, “must always be included as one of the many essential or accessory conditions of the aim being sought.”. Certainly, aesthetics are sometimes overlooked by economic factors, which is not always healthy. A structure is going to have a cultural impact and influence on the place it will stand on. Hence, the designer must achieve a revolution of sensations and perceptions in the end-user that grabs their attention and appeals to their imagination. As you may have experienced, there is something about witnessing the power of human creation that produces bliss and inspiration. Again, think of Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World, and the millions of magical impressions it has left within people’s hearts for decades! Talk about being able to Wow ‘Em!

“Thus, the functional, durable, economical and safe, merge creativity and curiosity with the subjective”, Ramon Oro Quixal mentions, in his work “Aesthetics in Civil Engineering”.

The Structural Project as a Whole

A good designer should not neglect any of them. Proper planning  (our P-Rule!), as well as a selection of materials, the definition of structures, and financial and aesthetic analysis will all determine the success of a sustainable, durable, economical, and aesthetically pleasing structure in which a designer aspires to create. Each of the elements discussed hold value individually, as well as combined as a whole, within the conception and construction of structural work. When speaking about structural engineering, not only does the framing need to be calculated. All of the different components go through analyses and calculations, taking into consideration the project as a whole.

If you have visited our firm, you know we have different departments that are the perfect example of this concept. Our structural engineering department takes care of the framing; while our specialty engineering departments take care of the structural attachments. This is why we take such pride in our internship program. We want students to be able to materialize some of the concepts they learn in school while experiencing life as an engineer. Being able to combine real-life engineering with theoretical analyses enhances what you are currently learning in school. We hope by nurturing this initiative we can help create an inspirational generation of future engineers. Ask us about our internship program and other student initiatives we host!

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