Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, the world's tallest building, shown under construction in 2007 (since completed)

Structural engineering is a field of engineering dealing with the analysis and design of structures that support or resist loads. Structural engineering is usually considered a specialty within civil engineering, but it can also be studied in its own right.[1] Structural engineers are most commonly involved in the design of buildings and large nonbuilding structures[2] but they can also be involved in the design of machinery, medical equipment, vehicles or any item where structural integrity affects the item's function or safety. Structural engineers must ensure their designs satisfy given design criteria, predicated on safety (e.g. structures must not collapse without due warning) or serviceability and performance (e.g. building sway must not cause discomfort to the occupants). Buildings are made to endure massive loads as well as changing climate and natural disasters.

Structural engineering theory is based upon physical laws and empirical knowledge of the structural performance of different landscapes and materials. Structural engineering design utilises a relatively small number of basic structural elements to build up structural systems that can be very complex. Structural engineers are responsible for making creative and efficient use of funds, structural elements and materials to achieve these goals.[2]

Structural engineerEdit

Main article: Structural engineer

Structural engineers are responsible for engineering design and analysis. Entry-level structural engineers may design the individual structural elements of a structure, for example the beams, columns, and floors of a building. More experienced engineers would be responsible for the structural design and integrity of an entire system, such as a building.

Structural engineers often specialize in particular fields, such as bridge engineering, building engineering, pipeline engineering, industrial structures, or special mechanical structures such as vehicles or aircraft.

Structural engineering has existed since humans first started to construct their own structures. It became a more defined and formalised profession with the emergence of the architecture profession as distinct from the engineering profession during the industrial revolution in the late 19th Century. Until then, the architect and the structural engineer were usually one and the same - the master builder. Only with the development of specialised knowledge of structural theories that emerged during the 19th and early 20th centuries did the professional structural engineer come into existence.

The role of a structural engineer today involves a significant understanding of both static and dynamic loading, and the structures that are available to resist them. The complexity of modern structures often requires a great deal of creativity from the engineer in order to ensure the structures support and resist the loads they are subjected to. A structural engineer will typically have a four or five year undergraduate degree, followed by a minimum of three years of professional practice before being considered fully qualified.[3]

Structural engineers are licensed or accredited by different learned societies and regulatory bodies around the world (for example, the Institution of Structural Engineers in the UK)[3]. Depending on the degree course they have studied and/or the jurisdiction they are seeking licensure in, they may be accredited (or licensed) as just structural engineers, or as civil engineers, or as both civil and structural engineers.

History of structural engineeringEdit

Main article: History of structural engineering

Structural engineering dates back to 2700 BC when the step pyramid for Pharaoh Djoser was built by Imhotep, the first engineer in history known by name. Pyramids were the most common major structures built by ancient civilizations because the structural form of a pyramid is inherently stable and can be almost infinitely scaled (as opposed to most other structural forms, which cannot be linearly increased in size in proportion to increased loads).[4]

Throughout ancient and medieval history most architectural design and construction was carried out by artisans, such as stone masons and carpenters, rising to the role of master builder. No theory of structures existed, and understanding of how structures stood up was extremely limited, and based almost entirely on empirical evidence of 'what had worked before'. Knowledge was retained by guilds and seldom supplanted by advances. Structures were repetitive, and increases in scale were incremental.[4]

No record exists of the first calculations of the strength of structural members or the behaviour of structural material, but the profession of structural engineer only really took shape with the industrial revolution and the re-invention of concrete (see History of concrete). The physical sciences underlying structural engineering began to be understood in the Renaissance and have been developing ever since.

Structural failureEdit

Main article: Structural failure

The history of structural engineering contains many collapses and failures. Sometimes this is due to obvious negligence, as in the case of the Pétionville school collapse, in which Rev. Fortin Augustin said that "he constructed the building all by himself, saying he didn't need an engineer as he had good knowledge of construction" following a partial collapse of the three-story schoolhouse that sent neighbors fleeing.[5] The final collapse killed at least 94 people, mostly children.

In other cases structural failures require careful study, and the results of these inquiries have resulted in improved practices and greater understanding of the science of structural engineering. Some such studies are the result of Forensic engineering investigations where the original engineer seems to have done everything in accordance with the state of the profession and acceptable practice yet a failure still eventuated. A famous case of structural knowledge and practice being advanced in this manner can be found in a series of failures involving Box girders which collapsed in Australia during the 1970s.


Building structuresEdit

Sydney Opera House Sails edit02

Sydney Opera House, designed by Ove Arup & Partners, with the architect Jorn Utzon

Millennium Dome (zakgollop) version

Millennium Dome in London, UK, by Buro Happold and Richard Rogers

Structural building engineering includes all structural engineering related to the design of buildings. It is the branch of structural engineering that is close to architecture.

Structural building engineering is primarily driven by the creative manipulation of materials and forms and the underlying mathematical and scientific ideas to achieve an end which fulfills its functional requirements and is structurally safe when subjected to all the loads it could reasonably be expected to experience. This is subtly different from architectural design, which is driven by the creative manipulation of materials and forms, mass, space, volume, texture and light to achieve an end which is aesthetic, functional and often artistic.

The architect is usually the lead designer on buildings, with a structural engineer employed as a sub-consultant. The degree to which each discipline actually leads the design depends heavily on the type of structure. Many structures are structurally simple and led by architecture, such as multi-storey office buildings and housing, while other structures, such as tensile structures, shells and gridshells are heavily dependent on their form for their strength, and the engineer may have a more significant influence on the form, and hence much of the aesthetic, than the architect.

The structural design for a building must ensure that the building is able to stand up safely, able to function without excessive deflections or movements which may cause fatigue of structural elements, cracking or failure of fixtures, fittings or partitions, or discomfort for occupants. It must account for movements and forces due to temperature, creep, cracking and imposed loads. It must also ensure that the design is practically buildable within acceptable manufacturing tolerances of the materials. It must allow the architecture to work, and the building services to fit within the building and function (air conditioning, ventilation, smoke extract, electrics, lighting etc.). The structural design of a modern building can be extremely complex, and often requires a large team to complete.

Structural engineering specialties for buildings include:

Earthquake engineering structuresEdit

Main article: Earthquake engineering structures
Earthquake engineering structures are those engineered to withstand various types of hazardous earthquake exposures at the sites of their particular location.
Chichen Itza 3

Earthquake-proof and massive pyramid El Castillo, Chichen Itza

Earthquake engineering is treating its subject structures like defensive fortifications in military engineering but for the warfare on earthquakes. Both earthquake and military general design principles are similar: be ready to slow down or mitigate the advance of a possible attacker.

The main objectives of earthquake engineering are:
File:Snapshot of base isolation effect.jpg
  • Understand interaction of structures with the shaky ground.
  • Design and construct the structures to perform while being exposed to an earthquake.

Earthquake engineering or earthquake-proof structure does not, necessarily, means extremely strong and expensive one like El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza shown above.

Now, the most powerful and budgetary tool of the earthquake engineering is base isolation which pertains to the passive structural vibration control technologies.

Civil engineering structuresEdit

Civil structural engineering includes all structural engineering related to the built environment. It includes:


The structural engineer is the lead designer on these structures, and often the sole designer. In the design of structures such as these, structural safety is of paramount importance (in the UK, designs for dams, nuclear power stations and bridges must be signed off by a chartered engineer).

Civil engineering structures are often subjected to very extreme forces, such as large variations in temperature, dynamic loads such as waves or traffic, or high pressures from water or compressed gases. They are also often constructed in corrosive environments, such as at sea, in industrial facilities or below ground.

Mechanical structuresEdit

Airbus A380 blue sky

An Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger airliner

Principals of structural engineering are applied to variety of mechanical (moveable) structures. The design of static structures assumes they always have the same geometry (in fact, so-called static structures can move significantly, and structural engineering design must take this into account where necessary), but the design of moveable or moving structures must account for fatigue, variation in the method in which load is resisted and significant deflections of structures.

The forces which parts of a machine are subjected to can vary significantly, and can do so at a great rate. The forces which a boat or aircraft are subjected to vary enormously and will do so thousands of times over the structure's lifetime. The structural design must ensure that such structures are able to endure such loading for their entire design life without failing.

These works can require mechanical structural engineering:

Structural elementsEdit


A statically determinate simply supported beam, bending under an evenly distributed load.

Any structure is essentially made up of only a small number of different types of elements:

Many of these elements can be classified according to form (straight, plane / curve) and dimensionality (one-dimensional / two-dimensional):

One-dimensional Two-dimensional
straight curve plane curve
(predominantly) bending beam continuous arch plate, concrete slab lamina, dome
(predominant) tensile stress rope Catenary shell
(predominant) compression pier, column Load-bearing wall


Main article: Column

Columns are elements that carry only axial force - either tension or compression - or both axial force and bending (which is technically called a beam-column but practically, just a column). The design of a column must check the axial capacity of the element, and the buckling capacity.

The buckling capacity is the capacity of the element to withstand the propensity to buckle. Its capacity depends upon its geometry, material, and the effective length of the column, which depends upon the restraint conditions at the top and bottom of the column. The effective length is K*l where l is the real length of the column.

The capacity of a column to carry axial load depends on the degree of bending it is subjected to, and vice versa. This is represented on an interaction chart and is a complex non-linear relationship.


Main article: Beam (structure)

A beam may be defined as an element in which one dimemsion is much greater than the other two and the applied loads are usually normal to the main axis of the element. Beams and columns are called line elements and are often represented by simple lines in structural modeling.

  • cantilevered (supported at one end only with a fixed connection)
  • simply supported (supported vertically at each end; horizontally on only one to withstand friction, and able to rotate at the supports)
  • continuous (supported by three or more supports)
  • a combination of the above (ex. supported at one end and in the middle)

Beams are elements which carry pure bending only. Bending causes one part of the section of a beam (divided along its length) to go into compression and the other part into tension. The compression part must be designed to resist buckling and crushing, while the tension part must be able to adequately resist the tension.

Struts and tiesEdit

Main article: Truss
File:The Little Belt Bridge (1935).jpeg

The McDonnell Planetarium by Gyo Obata in St Louis, Missouri, USA, a concrete shell structure

Arch illustration

A masonry arch
1. Keystone 2. Voussoir 3. Extrados 4. Impost 5. Intrados 6. Rise 7. Clear span 8. Abutment

A truss is a structure comprising two types of structural elements; compression members and tension members (i.e. struts and ties). Most trusses use gusset plates to connect intersecting elements. Gusset plates are relatively flexible and minimize bending moments at the connections, thus allowing the truss members to carry primarily tension or compression.

Trusses are usually utilised in span large distances, where it would be uneconomical to use solid beams.


Plates carry bending in two directions. A concrete flat slab is an example of a plate. Plates are understood by using continuum mechanics, but due to the complexity involved they are most often designed using a codified empirical approach, or computer analysis.

They can also be designed with yield line theory, where an assumed collapse mechanism is analysed to give an upper bound on the collapse load (see Plasticity). This is rarely used in practice.


Main article: Thin-shell structure

Shells derive their strength from their form, and carry forces in compression in two directions. A dome is an example of a shell. They can be designed by making a hanging-chain model, which will act as a catenary in pure tension, and inverting the form to achieve pure compression.


Main article: Arch

Arches carry forces in compression in one direction only, which is why it is appropriate to build arches out of masonry. They are designed by ensuring that the line of thrust of the force remains within the depth of the arch.


Main article: Tensile structure

Catenaries derive their strength from their form, and carry transverse forces in pure tension by deflecting (just as a tightrope will sag when someone walks on it). They are almost always cable or fabric structures. A fabric structure acts as a catenary in two directions.

Structural engineering theoryEdit

Main article: Structural engineering theory

Figure of a bolt in shear stress. Top figure illustrates single shear, bottom figure illustrates double shear.

Structural engineering depends upon a detailed knowledge of loads, physics and materials to understand and predict how structures support and resist self-weight and imposed loads. To apply the knowledge successfully a structural engineer will need a detailed knowledge of mathematics and of relevant empirical and theoretical design codes. He will also need to know about the corrosion resistance of the materials and structures, especially when those structures are exposed to the external environment.


Main article: Structural material
Gateway arch

The 630 foot (192 m) high, stainless-clad (type 304) Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri

Structural engineering depends on the knowledge of materials and their properties, in order to understand how different materials support and resist loads.

Common structural materials are:

See alsoEdit


  • Blank, Alan; McEvoy, Michael; Plank, Roger (1993). Architecture and Construction in Steel. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0419176608.
  • Bradley, Robert E.; Sandifer, Charles Edward (2007). Leonhard Euler: Life, Work and Legacy. Elsevier. ISBN 0444527281.
  • Chapman, Allan. (2005). England's Leornardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth Century's Scientific Revolution. CRC Press. ISBN 0750309873.
  • Dugas, René (1988). A History of Mechanics. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0486656322.
  • Feld, Jacob; Carper, Kenneth L. (1997). Construction Failure. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0471574775.
  • Galilei, Galileo. (translators: Crew, Henry; de Salvio, Alfonso) (1954). Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0486600998
  • Hewson, Nigel R. (2003). Prestressed Concrete Bridges: Design and Construction. Thomas Telford. ISBN 0727727745.
  • Heyman, Jacques (1998). Structural Analysis: A Historical Approach. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521622492.
  • Heyman, Jacques (1999). The Science of Structural Engineering. Imperial College Press. ISBN 1860941893.
  • Hosford, William F. (2005). Mechanical Behavior of Materials. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521846706.
  • Hoogenboom, P.C.J. . Historical Overview of Concrete Modelling.
  • Kirby, Richard Shelton (1990). Engineering in History. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0486264122.
  • Labrum, E.A. (1994). Civil Engineering Heritage. Thomas Telford. ISBN 072771970X.
  • Lewis, Peter R. (2004). Beautiful Bridge of the Silvery Tay. Tempus.
  • Mir, Ali (2001). Art of the Skyscraper: the Genius of Fazlur Khan. Rizzoli International Publications. ISBN 0847823709.
  • Nedwell, P.J.; Swamy, R.N.(ed) (1994). Ferrocement:Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0419197001.
  • Rozhanskaya, Mariam; Levinova, I. S. (1996). "Statics" in Morelon, Régis & Rashed, Roshdi (1996). Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, vol. 2-3, Routledge. ISBN 0415020638
  • Whitbeck, Caroline (1998). Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521479444.

External linksEdit

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