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So what exactly does a structural engineer do?

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

A professional structural engineer qualifies by being a Chartered Engineer. Worldwide some countries require registration and others do not. In Australia the registration requirements also vary across the states and territories.


The National Engineering Register (NER) has been created by Engineers Australia to provide a means of presenting registered engineers and their services to the public. It also provides assurance to consumers that engineers engaged from the NER meet the high standards of professionalism expected in the engineering profession. The NER is available to allow consumers to search for a qualified engineering practitioner by name, area of practice and geographic location.


While a structural engineer may practice across many industries, in this blog we will focus on the structural engineering practitioner in the residential industry in Perth, Western Australia. Before we go any further it is important that we make a distinction between architects and structural engineers.


Architects design the way the structure appears – its aesthetics, what its spaces look and feel like, how the building looks in the landscape, how the structure functions with people or vehicles, etc., moving between or around the spaces.


Structural engineers focus on how the structure holds together, its strength, its ability to resist movement within and the effects of manmade, geographical, and natural stress on it. Structural engineers make sure that the solid parts of the structure (the walls, floors, roofs, etc.) will do the job of keeping it intact and functional. After the architect creates the design of the project, the structural engineer examines the design to ensure of its integrity, safety and compliance with various Australian Standards.


In answering the question in the title of this article, some of the typical services that a structural engineer can assist with include:


LOAD BEARING WALL REMOVAL, BEAMS & COLUMNS

Do you want more open spaces, or to remove portions of walls? Are you wondering if a certain wall is load bearing? Then you require the services of a structural engineer, an impartial expert with solid practical experience who will correctly inform you, firstly on all the steps and the stages and deadlines and who will even monitor and advise the general contractor you will choose.


HOUSE EXTENSIONS – ADDING ANOTHER FLOOR

Before adding a floor to your house or an extension on the side, a structural engineer would be required to assess the existing structure. This is to ensure that a floor can be added or to verify the type of foundations needed for your proposed addition or extension.

Once this stage has been completed, an architect or building designer will take care of the survey of your dwelling, drawing the existing plans and of future expansion that will serve as the foundation for the structural engineer to add to this the dimensioning of beams, columns, foundations and other relevant engineering details. The structural engineer upon prior engagement can also follow up the work to ensure that the contractor you have chosen is doing his job properly.


CORRECTION OF BULGING BRICK WALLS

Bulging of the face of a stone or brick wall can result from separation of the two sides of the construction. In stonework, the outer layer of masonry can shear away from the soft core, and with brick cavity construction the corrosion failure of the internal wire ties can have a similar effect. The consequences for the structural stability of the wall are serious. The progressive degradation of brick walls by bulging brick walls often requires the rapid intervention of a building expert such as a structural engineer to assess whether the wall presents a danger to the environment and its occupants.


ROOF TERRACE DESIGN

Rooftop terraces are becoming more and more popular, especially in large cities such as Perth. If you are the owner of a house with a flat roof, the idea of adding a roof terrace to your building may be very appealing. How do you go about building an additional structure on the roof that will not cause damage to the existing roof or building? A structural engineer should be engaged, to visit your roof, inspect the structure, inform you accurately in an unbiased way and he will take care of all the engineering drawings to assist with the building permit application.


STRUCTURAL INSPECTIONS

Whether you are buying a new building and want an evaluation before you make your big purchase, or you are concerned about cracks, sloping, settlement or any other structural issues in your existing building, a structural engineer can perform an onsite structural evaluation to address your questions and concerns. A structural engineer can also help you determine if the remodel or addition you are planning is feasible given the current state of your structure.


During an onsite structural evaluation, a structural engineer will inspect structural aspects of your building such as the foundation, framing, shear walls and load-bearing walls and building envelope. Through careful evaluation of the building, the structural engineer will report on structural issues and present options to remediate the issues. If you would like to continue with any repair work a structural engineer can prepare your onsite structural engineering plans and calculations to bring your building up to code and successfully get you your building permit to do the construction work.


PATIOS AND DECKS

Whether you are looking to enjoy the sun in your backyard and sip coffee or give your little ones an area to play outside, decks are adaptable and give you many useful options. You can turn them into an extension of your house to serve as a lounge area with the right furniture, or you can decorate them with plants to add to your backyard scenery. If you love to have people over, decks are a great place to socialize while keeping the inside of your home clean. Furthermore, decks are a lot easier to clean, so cleaning up after your party is that much easier!


A structural engineer can help you end-to-end with your new deck or patio or existing deck or patio remodel. A structural engineer can prepare your deck structural plans to ensure your building permit will be approved and your deck will be code compliant so that you can commence with construction.


PRE-PURCHASE BUILDING INSPECTIONS

By engaging a structural engineer you can avoid spending money on a Perth home that needs extensive work due to structural deficiencies. A structural engineer can identify many issues such as

structural cracks, topography or slope issues near ground foundations, splits in wooden joists and beams, deflection in metal/timber/concrete support beams and columns and issues with retaining walls. That "bargain" home may obscure expensive repairs to every part, from the rooftop down to the footings.


In choosing a structural engineer in Perth you may like to consider the following important attributes:


1. Holistic approach to structural engineering

The approach a structural engineering firm takes on a project is a good indicator of what results you should expect. If the firm sees an isolated problem, it will simply fix the problem without taking into account the overall environment. But if the philosophy of the structural engineering firm is to take a more holistic approach to understanding the structure and its purpose, it will likely result in a structure that is one part of an entire system. The firm’s approach should take into consideration a practical structural concept, a suitable and economical design that results in a structure that takes into account ease of constructability and the operations within the structure. For example, the structural engineer designing a plant should research what equipment will be located there, how operators will move within the structure, and how the equipment fits into the overall process being conducted within the structure. Based on that analysis, the structural engineer will make decisions that maximize the potential of the equipment, keep workers comfortable and safe, and make the plant operate as efficiently as possible.


2. Well-defined Scope of Work

The Scope of Work is the most pivotal document to consider during the selection of a structural engineer as it provides a similar foundation on which to make comparisons. The Scope of Work is created by the client and sometimes enhanced by the engineer. The purpose of this document is to translate client ideas into working designs and to ultimately create a proposal. If the Scope of Work is not thorough, the cost estimate is not likely to be accurate as issues will likely arise during construction that will require additional fees to overcome. If the Scope of Work is not consistent across the firms being evaluated, the cost estimates cannot be fairly compared because the work is different.


3. Technical competency of the structural engineer

In structural engineering, competence comes from education, skills, the ability to apply those skills to specific situations, and previous experience. Education is acquired through as a minimum through a degree from an accredited university and a Chartered Structural Engineer status is achieved after passing a formal rigorous process. Through their education, engineers collect a “toolbox” of skills. As they move along in their careers and gain experience, they enhance their ability to understand how and when to use those tools. A good measuring stick for an engineer’s competence is to ask them what difficult problems they have faced in their careers and what solutions they applied to solve them.


4. Construction knowledge

Although the structural engineer’s job does not include physically building the structure, it is imperative that they understand construction processes. A good engineer will ensure “constructability” meaning that the structure will not be unnecessarily difficult to build and will be built properly. Understanding construction means and methods ensures that (a) the design will be buildable, (b) the engineer can effectively oversee the project and (c) cost will be controlled.


5. Innovation

Given a degree and some experience, most structural engineers can be somewhat effective. However, every project is unique and most projects involve complexities that require solutions that go beyond basic knowledge. It is important to select a structural engineering firm that can demonstrate creative, out-of-the-box thinking. To truly understand if the firm has this capability, request examples of previous projects that presented challenges that were unique and find out what innovative solution they utilized and how successful the results were.


6. Up-to-date technology

Although most firms utilize technology, it is important to confirm that the firm you choose uses software applications to handle highly complex design and analysis. Many of these applications add value by offering visualization, modeling, or 3D technology to better understand the process and avoid pitfalls.


At Rotaru Building Consultant, we provide comprehensive design and consulting services in the Perth Metro Area including:

  • Civil engineering, structural engineering and consulting services to both private and public sectors;

  • We also work with architects, developers, contractors and surveyors, as well as with the owners of various buildings and projects;

  • We work on all types of projects, from small, domestic ones to large, commercial ones;

  • Our partner network of contractors can also help with making your project a reality.

Our mission is to inform you in an impartial way and to accompany you in all the stages of design, inspection, evaluations and corrective works on your building. Consulting one of our experienced structural and building engineers will increase your chances of making your building safe, increase its life expectancy, preserve your investment and make the most of your building. Contact us to discuss your specific requirements and to obtain a quote (blog image courtesy of bigonion.com).

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