What Is a Structural Engineer?

What Is a Structural Engineer?

Additions and Remodels
By Ani Mouradian April 16, 2021

And When You Might Need One


Most of us don’t go about our days thinking about how we might one day need a structural engineer, just like how we don’t think we might need a lawyer or surgeon in the near future. We especially don’t think we might need a structural engineer seeing as the places we live in are already structured and built. But a little insight on what a structural engineer is might prepare you to notice when and if you might need one, even if you’re not building a new home from the ground up. And if you find you have a project for a structural engineer, it’s best not to DIY that one. 

In this series, we try to take the curtain back and shed some light on the kind of professionals who might work on your home improvement projects. Some of these trades you may not have heard of and some you’ve heard of but probably don’t know exactly what they do. Well, here is a breakdown of what a structural engineer is when you might need one, what they do and how to choose one.

What is a Structural Engineer?

Structural engineering is one of the branches of engineering that dates back the furthest. While the world of construction presents itself with a slew of trades and professionals you’re not often aware of, structural engineers are at the base of it all. Without them, it’ll all fall apart - literally - because it’s a structural engineer’s job to design a home, building, or bridge that will stay standing. 

highest bridge in Europe

highest bridge in Europe

Under the umbrella of civil engineering, structural engineers are highly trained professionals skilled in physics, mathematics, and also have a very good understanding of the materials they might work with. Their grasp of the properties of materials like steel, aluminum, concrete, wood, and masonry is necessary for them to calculate how those materials will perform over time in various designs and environments.

engineer helmet and project designs

engineer helmet and project designs

What Does a Structural Engineer Do?

It is a structural engineer’s job to create plans for your home remodel or new construction that will assure the building’s structural integrity. Structural engineers work together with civil engineers and architects to complete the design of your building. They focus on designing a framework that is sturdy and safe. It is also their job to determine which kind of framework works best for a given structure in different environments.

Specifically, a structural engineer’s responsibilities include:

  • calculating and problem solving to determine the strongest and safest structure for a building,
  • analyzing blueprints, maps, and geological and topographic data,
  • estimating the cost of labor and materials,
  • discerning design specifications based on calculations of water flow rate and material duress factors,
  • foresee and analyze potential problems that may be caused by environmental conditions and pose a threat to the structure’s integrity.
engineer and architect at construction site

engineer and architect at construction site

On a home inspection call, structural engineer’s will check for “structural issues like dry rot, infestation, shifting foundations, erosion, and more. They may examine the integrity of the load-bearing walls, joists, beams, roofing, and foundations.” (Hire a Structural Engineer, HomeAdvisor)

When Might You Need a Structural Engineer?

Naturally, if you’re building from the ground up you’ll want a contractor with a background in structural engineering to take the lead in determining the framework for a sturdy and reliable skeleton for your home that will stand the test of time.

You will also know if you’re in need of a structural engineer if your realtor, house inspector, or architect tells you so. Generally, if you are planning home renovations that involve changes to weight-bearing or functional parts of your home then you should have one on board. Some home improvement projects that entail a structural engineer’s skills and insight are: any foundation work (especially in earthquake, flood, or landslide zones); installing or modifying doors, windows, or skylights; repairing natural disaster damage; and adding a floor to your home.

3d illustration of architecture design

3d illustration of architecture design

How do They Fit in With the Larger Project?

A structural engineer is involved in a construction project from start to finish. They work closely with architects and contractors to implement the building plans at every stage. You may hire a structural engineer to simply design and submit the building plan to you or your general contractor, however, for larger projects they will need to be there to monitor progress and make sure things are going according to design specifications.

contractors working on blueprints

contractors working on blueprints

How Much do Structural Engineers Charge?

According to salary reports by Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest job and recruiting sites, the average salary for structural engineers in the US is $71,198 per year. Surveys from homeowners who’ve already worked with structural engineers place the hourly cost between $100 and $200, and the national average cost to hire a structural engineer for a particular project is $475.

Of course, it does vary based on the breadth of your endeavor.

How to Choose the Best Structural Engineer for You

When choosing a structural engineer the first and most important credential is their certification. Like any professional working on your home, structural engineers should be licensed and whether they are or not should be your first question. All 50 states require civil engineers who hope to be called structural engineers to be licensed, because “Protection of the public shall be the highest priority for the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists (Professional Engineers Act, 2020, Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists). 

You should also find out the kind of work they’ve done before - whether they’ve designed structures in conditions like your own (soil type, climate, seismicity, etc). All of these conditions immediately affect both the structural design and the calculations necessary for your structure to be sustainable and durable.

Most directories will allow you to review the past work of registered engineers. You should also read other’s reviews.

Other Considerations

If your structural engineer is also a member of professional organizations, institutes, and committees, it is absolutely a plus. Such organizations like the National Council of Structural Engineers Association have a mission to improve the standard level of practice of structural engineers. It’s within their scope to fund continued education, provide resources and updated findings in the field. Therefore, an engineer’s affiliation with similar professional groups is an indicator of passion towards their profession and integrity towards the people they serve with their trade.

house with solar panels and wind turbines

house with solar panels and wind turbines

Other specialties you may want to consider are sustainability and eco-friendliness. If you are planning to make your home greener or more sustainable, make sure to look for the respective experience from your engineer. As the team at PSE Consulting Engineers puts it, “ In the burgeoning field of sustainable design, technologies and techniques are constantly changing and being introduced, and local construction codes are sometimes slow to change along with them.” Therefore, green engineers and residential structural engineers who have experience in sustainable construction will better guide and anticipate material selection, construction techniques, building cost estimation, and potential issues for that kind of home renovation project. 

There you have it. A pivotal role in design and construction, the structural engineer. Next time you find yourself in need of one, we hope you consider that their creativity, and ability to communicate and work in a team are just as important as their trade-specific knowledge and skills.

Written by
Ani Mouradian

Written by Ani Mouradian