Being an Indian Engineer in United States, I am often presumed to be a Software engineer. Some people are relieved to hear something different but people outside my industry are still lost when I introduce myself as a Structural Engineer. I have to step back and state that I am a Civil Engineer. Then people can imagine me walking on a construction site with all the safety gears — a hard had, vest and a pair of steel toe boots, lifting something heavy, muddied in the concrete dust. Or they could relate me to the people surveying on the street with some camera looking thing on tripods, or others would confuse me with an architect. It is not their fault. Those ‘are’ some faces of construction industry. Structural Engineering works behind the camera. So let’s look at some ‘behind the scenes’ and find out little bit more.
Back in India, when I chose Civil Engineering for my undergrad, there were mixed reactions from people around me. Civil Engineering, just like mechanical engineering is a male dominated field and was not considered suitable for girls, over computer science or other less laborious trades. In my undergrad class only 20% of population were girls, which is not so much when compared to the other trades of engineering where girls would outnumber guys. However, no one knew that Civil Engineering could also offer an office job and not require walking on the site 24x7 and Structural Engineering is one of them.
Now, if I do produce drawings but I am not an architect, what do I do exactly? And if not couches, tables, partitions and doors, what do my drawings bear? There are many facets of both these roles but to begin with, take an example of your house. Plan-work of your house as to where all the rooms would go, where the bathrooms and kitchen sink will be so all the plumbing stays together, how do all rooms get ventilated or how does all the ductwork route and then how to hide all these items behind a nice interior, what color and pattern of exterior facade should be and what slope of roof will shade the water off of roof and also beautify your roof ..these and many other coordination items are part of architecture. But is it possible to imagine our body full of flesh decorated with all the ornaments and fancy garments but no skeleton inside?
Structural Engineers provide this skeleton — the framework to the structure, which is hidden inside but without that, the structure would just crawl, rather never stand up. It is our job to build a structure which will bear all the day to day loads generated by us walking, our furniture, machines or vehicles etc and would withstand occasional loads due to high winds, earthquakes etc and ensure maximum safety by being in service as long as possible. Architecture and Structural Engineering is nothing but a combination of the Beauty and the Beast.
A table is the simplest analogy to our work. A table is composed of a plank with beams along four edges and four columns at the corners. Depending on the purpose, you choose the sturdiness of the table, thickness or grade of the material, sizes of posts, quality of binding material, size, number and spacing of screws or nails. You don’t want the plank to fracture when you step on it, don’t want a table post to be crooked. You need all the members of the table to be strong to withhold your weight. You also don’t want the table to be shaky when you step on it or you won’t be comfortable stepping on it. You consider the flatness of the surface this table is standing on, that is the stability of the table. And you also don’t want the nails connecting the parts to be loose, so the table would collapses. Not only individual members but you need entire table as a whole to be strong and stable that is you need the integrity.
Now imagine a bigger structure — a wooden house or a church, a hospital or a warehouse with steel structure, a reinforced concrete multistory parking garage, or a freeway which is a combination of all these. There is no scope for trial and errors on the field unlike a table. Construction of any structure involve many moving parts — many trades, contractors and subcontractors. But everything has to be on drawings.
And you can not even wait until entire structure sees its limit and collapses. Everything has to have estimation, calculations, planning, set of drawings and specifications beforehand. We all are familiar with Newton’s law ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Our job is to provide this reaction. Not literally. But we make the structure do it itself. There are number of publications, codes and standards — International/State or local Building Code which are based on years of experiences, tests, studies which provide guidelines and set standards and minimum requirements that a structure needs to fulfill. We need to make sure those requirements are met and the structure is able to withstand those loads.
But if that is the case, isn’t it easy? Why not just make everything sturdy and be done with it? That is where the challenge comes in. You as a customer, you don’t want to see a big 2'x’2' column sitting in your living room, you want your walls to be thinner so you get more carpet area. All the members floors, beams, columns have to be just big enough to serve the purpose and eat less into the usable space as possible. Also all the material and the labor to put these parts together costs money and it is our job to save this money, to produce not only strong and serviceable but an efficient structure. Structural engineers do all these calculations beforehand and to convey our calculations to the contractors executing the construction, produce drawings that show framework, specify the sizes, location of these members and how all these are connected together, what grade of engineered material to use. Our drawings are reverse of taking X-rays, which tell contractor how to build this skeleton.
Of course, the architects, contractors and we engineers are on the same team but I want people outside construction industry to recognize my profession. I want them to value it and not only remember it when there is a lawsuits filed after a structural collapse. Structural Engineers do bear a lot of responsibility of the safety, is it too much to ask for a bit of recognition for the profession? This blog is my little effort to at least reach out to the readers of this blog, spread some awareness about this magical field. I have barely scratched the surface but it will avoid me starting to introduce from scratch so people recognize ‘S’ as in ‘Structural Engineer’ too!