WHAT SHOULD ALL STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS KNOW

Imposter syndrome refers to an internal belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. Your career journey in Structural Engineering can be filled with ups and downs which can knock about your confidence. Sometimes its good to take stock and reflect on exactly what you have learned and achieved in your career. If your feeling imposter syndrome creeping in, have a read of this article where we ask, what should all structural engineers know?

A quick note of clarification… this article will cover the question of what should all structural engineers know at roughly 2 or 3 years into your professional career. So if your a graduate you may or may not have full understanding for some of these topics…

All Structural Engineers Should Know Units and Conversion of Units

Units are the building blocks of Structural Engineering. Not knowing units and how to convert units can really impact your success as a Structural Engineer.

But what do I mean by units?…

In terms of length for example, standard metric units would be millimetres, centimetres, metres and kilometres. If you are still using imperial and from the united states you may be familiar with inches and feet.

Units are an important building block in Structural Engineering knowledge.  Units of measurement in particular is a simple but critical thing that all Structural Engineers should know.
Units are an important building block in Structural Engineering knowledge. Units of measurement in particular is a simple but critical thing that all Structural Engineers should know.

Design codes contain formulas which combine a combination of lengths, strength grades, section moduli and more. Inconsistency of units can result in an answer which is totally wrong and doesn’t make sense. The following tables provide some example units which are used frequently in Structural Engineering. In short, units are something that all Structural Engineers should know.

Geometry

NameNotationValue
LengthMetrem
LengthCentimetrecmm x 100
LengthMillimetremmm x 1,000
AreaMetre Squaredm2Length x Width
AreaCentimetre Squaredcm2m2 x 10,000
AreaMillimetre Squaredmm2m2 x 1,000,000
VolumeMetred Cubedm3Length x Width x Height
VolumeCentimetre Cubedcm3m3 x 1,000,000
VolumeMillimetre Cubedmm3m3 x 1,000,000,000
Section ModulusMetred Cubed m3(Width x Depth2 ) / 6
Section ModulusCentimetre Cubedcm3m3 x 1,000,000
Section ModulusMillimetre Cubedmm3m3 x 1,000,000,000
Second Moment of AreaMetre to the Fourm4(Width x Depth3 ) / 12
Second Moment of AreaCentimetre to the Fourcm4m4 x 100,000,000
Second Moment of AreaMillimetre to the Fourmm4m4 x 1,000,000,000,000

Force and Pressure

NameNotationValue
ForceNewtonNWeight (kg) x 9.81
ForceKilonewtonkNN x 1,000
ForceMeganewtonMNN x 1,000,000
Pressure (Stress)PascalPa (N/m2)Force x Area
Pressure (Stress)KilopascalkPA (kN/m2)Pa x 1000
Pressure (Stress)MegapascalMPa (N/mm2)Pa x 1,000,000

Should all Structural Engineers know Bending Moment and Shear Force Diagrams?

Bending moment diagrams and shear force diagrams are a fundamental element in understanding bending behaviour in structures.

These elements are covered at university level and a tool you frequently use as you move into your practicing career as a Structural Engineer.

When modelling a complex structure in 3D design software, it is important to be able to predict how a bending moment and shear force diagram SHOULD look so you can verify the inputs and outputs of your model. For an in-depth article on how to check if your ETABS model is correct using basic engineering principles, take a look at THIS article.

I have been involved in interviews where senior Structural Engineers struggle to produce a simple bending moment diagram upon request… its not a good look (incidentally, if you would like to know the best way to prepare for your Structural Engineering job interview take a look at THIS article)…

Simple bending moment and shear force diagrams which fall under the category of "what should all structural engineers know"
Simple bending moment and shear force diagrams which fall under the category of “what should all structural engineers know”

All Structural Engineers should Know how to Read Structural Drawings

The structural documentation (drawings) is what Structural Engineers produce as a deliverable of our work. You can have the best analysis, the neatest computations and the best design, however if you cannot translate that to what the client, builder and architect can interpret then all your efforts are wasted.

It is important that all Structural Engineers know how to read and interpret at the very least Structural Drawings. You should also be familiar with how to read Architectural, Mechanical, Electrical and Hydraulic drawing plans as well.

When I went to university, there was no specific class that covered how to read structural drawings. It’s something I needed to pick up over the first few months of my career. Some university courses cover this topic, some don’t.

If you’re interested in a beginner primer discussion on how to read Structural Drawings, take a look at THIS article.

Extract of a Structural Drawing.  Reading and interpreting Structural Drawings is a necessary skill that all Structural Engineers should have.
Extract of a Structural Drawing. Reading and interpreting Structural Drawings is a necessary skill that all Structural Engineers should have.

Should all Structural Engineers know Simple Beam Equations?

This is an interesting one. There are quite a number of combinations of loading and support conditions for simple beams. Because of this, there are a large amount of simple beam equations which can assist Structural Engineers in determining the shear, bending moment and deflection in simple beams.

The question is then, should Structural Engineers know all of them? If not, how many?

In my opinion, as a bare minimum, Structural Engineers should have the following simple beam equations committed to memory

  • Deflection, Bending and Shear for a simply supported beam supporting a uniformly distributed load
  • Deflection, Bending an Shear for a simply supported beam supporting a point load at mid-span.
All Structural Engineers should have these simple beam equations committed to memory (deflection, moment and shear for both a simple beam with uniform load and point load at mid-span)
All Structural Engineers should have these simple beam equations committed to memory (deflection, moment and shear for both a simple beam with uniform load and point load at mid-span)

All Structural Engineers Should Know Lateral Torsional Buckling and how to Prevent it

An important component of structural steel and timber design is the understanding of lateral torsional buckling.

Not accounting for the effects of lateral torsional buckling can significantly reduce the bending capacity of your spanning members.

All Structural Engineers should know what it is and how to check/design for it.

If you haven’t fully grasped this concept or would like to freshen up your understanding, fear not! The article located over HERE teaches you everything you need to know about lateral torsional buckling, what causes it and how to prevent it from occurring.

Trigonometry and Vectors

Basic trigonometry is used time to time by Structural Engineers. Considering this is a topic which is covered more in high school, it is expected that Structural Engineers know their trigonometry.

Trigonometry can come in handy for:

  • Truss design theory (for a worked example of truss design take a look at THIS article)
  • Resolving vector forces
  • Resolving components of effective reinforcement which is not running parallel to your span direction.

Where I studied at high school, we were taught to memorise the Sin, Cos and Tan functions using the SOH-CAH-TOA method as illustrated below…

Simple geometry is a must know for all Structural Engineers
Simple geometry is a must know for all Structural Engineers

Basic Algebra

Being a practicing structural engineer requires a basic understanding of algebra. Funnily enough, the mathematics for Structural Engineering gest simpler as you leave university and enter the workforce as a practicing Structural Engineer.

Algebra is required to be able to use the formulas within design codes effectively. You are always trying to find the value for an unknown constant so being able to re-arrange simple questions to solve for a given constant is extremely important to be able to run design checks on your structures.

All Structural Engineers Should Understand Concrete Cover and how it Effects Durability an Fire Rating of Structural Members

Reinforcement cover is an important element for the design of concrete structures. There are different cover requirements depending on the exposure classification and fire rating requirements of the structure.

It is unreasonable to expect to know all the cover requirements for every exposure classification or fire rating from memory. However Structural Engineers should know the principles and where the requirements are located within the relevant design code so tehy can be located and used quickly and efficiently.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some additional quick fire things that fall under the category of “what should all Structural Engineers know”:

  • All the standard concrete grades of your region (here are the standard concrete grades in Australia for example)
Concrete Grade
N20
N25
N32
N40
N50
S65
S80
S100
  • All the standard structural steel grades for your region
  • Standard reinforcing bar sizes for your region (for bonus points, have the cross-sectional area for each size committed to memory)
Standard Bar Size (mm)Cross-Sectional Area (mm2)
1079
12113
16201
20314
24452
28616
32804
361018
401257
  • How to draw a free body diagram
  • Able to read at least to a 10th-12th grade level for the language that your design codes are written in. Design codes are generally written at a Flesch reading score of 30 to 50 which is actually college level however 10th-12th grade level should be adequate to gain critical understanding of the code.
Flesch Reading ScoreEstimated Reading Grade Level
90 to 1005th grade
80 to 906th grade
70 to 807th grade
60 to 708th grade and 9th grade
50 to 6010th to 12th grade (high school) required to gain criticla understanding of design codes
30 to 50College (level at whcih most design codes are written to)
0 to 30College Graduate

Conclusion

Some of you who are Structural Engineers may have read through this article and found all of the info very elementary. However I have seen very senior engineers struggle on one or more of the topics previously discussed. What else do you think is a must know for any Structural Engineers? Feel free to share and leave a comment below…

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Quentin Suckling is our founding director.  Prior to starting Sheer Force Engineering, he spent almost 2 decades working as a practicing Structural Engineer at Tier 1 engineering consulting firms delivering multiple billions of dollars worth of projects and managing large multi-disciplinary engineering teams. View More Posts

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