WHAT DOES A STRUCTURAL ENGINEER DO DAY TO DAY

The recent changes to work habits due to lockdowns from COVID-19 has caused me to think about how the day to day life of a Structural Engineer has evolved over the last couple of years. Its also caused me to ponder how my 9am to 5pm routine and what I do day to day has evolved since being a graduate Structural Engineer compared to now being a Technical Director managing a team. So what exactly does a Structural Engineer do day to day?

Azadi Tower, Iran
Azadi Tower, Iran

A Day in the Life of a Structural Engineer

The best part about Structural Engineering is that every day is different. There are a huge range of different elements to the job which mean that you get exposure to different stimuli to keep your days interesting. Here is a quick summary which answers the question “what does a structural engineer do day to day”:

  • Technical Design. This is obviously the bread and butter of a Structural Engineer and our core expertise.
  • Away from desk work. This can include visiting construction sites to perform structural inspections on buildings I may have designed or managed the design of.
  • Negotiations and problem solving. Being a Structural Engineer on buildings requires you to collaborate and coordinate with other disciplines (this includes other Engineers from different backgrounds, Architects, clients and builders). Buildings are an incredibly complex arrangement of systems which range from structural support, lighting, electrical, climate control, air quality, security, fire suppression, smoke suppression, people movement (lift/stair/escalator) and water (both clean and waste). The list goes on and on… These systems all require space and sometimes different systems want to occupy the same volume in space. This requires collaboration, negotiation and problem solving skills within the design team to ensure that the systems can work together to produce the best outcome for the buildings occupants.
  • Project Management. Just like project management is required for the construction of a building, the task of completing the design for that building is a project in its own right! This requires planning, resource allocation and preparation for dead-lines.
  • Finance and accounting. Structural Engineers can also be exposed to basic finance and accounting tasks. The project you are designing as a Structural Engineer requires monthly invoicing. It also requires financial tracking to ensure that it is on track to make the desired profit. After all, Structural Engineering firms are created to be a viable business and make some kind of profit.

How a day in the Life of a Structural Engineer Changes with Time

During the pandemic, I have taken the opportunity to clean out my old diaries and calendars and tidy up my home office. It has been fascinating to see what I used to do day to day as a Structural Engineer Graduate compared to today as a Technical Manager.

While there are some tasks I still perform today, there are others which I simply no longer do. Equally there are new elements to my role now which I was never exposed to as a less experienced Structural Engineer.

I often am asked what a day in the life of a Structural Engineer is like from university students studying Engineering or even high school students thinking about starting their journey to becoming a Structural Engineer. With the help of my old work diaries, I will show you a typical day as a Graduate Engineer, Mid-level Engineer and Technical Manager…

From my experience the answer to "What does a Structural Engineer do Day to Day" has evolved and changed since I was a graduate Engineer compared to now as a Technical Director
From my experience, the answer to “What does a Structural Engineer do Day to Day” has evolved and changed since I was a graduate Engineer compared to now as a Technical Manager

What does a Graduate Structural Engineer do Day to Day

7:00am

  • Wake up to start the day
  • Iron shirt and pants if needed
  • Breakfast
  • Pack lunch and work related items

7:45am

  • Commute to work. Often as a Structural Engineer you will work in central locations (where the action is!). This often means working in the city. In Melbourne, Australia (where I have worked my whole career) the commute in and out of the city can take a while…

9:00am

  • Arrive at desk switch on computer and let it boot up
  • Say hello to work colleagues and get desk set-up

9:05am

  • Prepare Coffee Number 1. Any good Structural Engineering firm needs to have a great coffee machine. In fact you should probably check the coffee facilities as part of your interview process before accepting any role.

9:10am

  • Check emails. Main source of emails are from my line manager either delegating me tasks or checking in to see how I am progressing with my work.

9:20am

  • Design tasks. As a graduate Structural Engineer these include:
    – Column Load takedowns (also called run downs). A hand based assessment of the applied load to columns within a building.
    – Simple beam design
    – Purlin and girt design in warehouse structures
    Isolated footing design

10:30am

  • Prepare Coffee Number 2

10:35am

  • Continue design tasks

12:30pm

  • Lunch time

1:00pm

  • Review shop drawings. This is the standard initiation of a graduate Structural Engineer. Shop drawings are produced by the structural fabricator (either structural steel or pre-cast concrete). The shop drawing review process involves checking these drawings against the Structural documentation that your design firm has produced.

3:00pm

  • Perform more design tasks (similar to those performed at 9:20am)

3:55pm

  • Prepare coffee number 3. I would later learn that any coffee after 12noon would be a bad idea and something I would stop doing in the future. The transition from university to working life was tricky. The days were full on and coffee definitely helped me get through the first few years of my career.

4:00pm

  • Attend a site inspection accompanied by a more senior engineer to learn what to expect onsite, how to check the structure and things to look out for. Take a look at THIS article to see a list of other things all structural Engineers should know.

5:00pm

  • Commute home from work. As a graduate Structural Engineer I would often catch the bus or train to and from work. This would allow me to read the design codes I was learning at the time. The most frequently used codes in Melbourne as a Structural Engineer are the concrete and steel codes along with the wind and Earthquake codes. To help me better understand what I was learning during the day, I would refer to these codes and read them cover to cover several times during my commutes (nerdy I know!!)
In the early stages of my career as a Structural Engineer, I found that Coffee was a great tool to help me get through the long days.
In the early stages of my career as a Structural Engineer, I found that Coffee was a great tool to help me get through the long days.

What does a Mid-Level Engineer do Day to Day

7:00am

  • Wake up to start the day
  • Iron shirt and pants if needed
  • Breakfast
  • Pack lunch and work related items

7:45am

  • Commute to work.

8:30am

  • Receive phone call from a construction manager on a project I am working on which is in construction phase. Usually an issue has come up which requires urgent Structural Engineers input to solve. Usually these calls come early morning on the way to work. I would generally take notes on the issue so I can solve it when I arrive at the office.

9:00am

  • Arrive at desk switch on computer and let it boot up
  • Say hello to work colleagues and get desk set-up

9:05am

  • Prepare Coffee Number 1.

9:10am

  • Address urgent site query and provide response to construction manager

10:00am

  • Check emails with the intent to find the most critical emails which require my immediate attention. Main source of emails are from architects on the projects I am working on, project managers and builders for projects I have which are in construction phase.

10:20am

  • Respond to most critical emails, these would usually include:
    – Other less critical site issues (often called an RFI, or a “Request for Information” which come directly from the builder)
    – Coordination items associated with projects which are still in design phase. These may come from the project architect or other Engineering disciplines.

9:20am

  • Design tasks. As a mid-level Structural Engineer these may include:
    – Seismic and Wind analysis on a building, with associated shear wall design (or other associated stability system design… take a look at THIS article for more on stability systems in buildings)
    – Concrete column design
    – Post-tensioned slab design (for more on PT slabs, take a look at THIS article).
    – Basement wall design (for more on basement wall construction, take a look at THIS article)

10:30am

  • Prepare Coffee Number 2

10:35am

  • Continue design tasks

12:30pm

  • Lunch time

1:00pm

  • Attend project coordination meeting (sometimes called design consultant meetings). These are usually performed on projects which are still in design phase and are intended to solve design coordination issues between the different disciplines of building design. They are usually held at the project architects office, client or project manager.

3:00pm

  • Return to office and check emails again for any critical issues which may have arisen

3:55pm

  • Prepare coffee number 3. (still having the afternoon coffee, not good!)

4:00pm

  • Attend a pre-pour site inspection on a project being constructed. Return to office to write inspection report and issue to builder.

5:00-7:00pm

  • Commute home from work. Official finish to the day can vary depending on workload and projects. If a deadline is approaching, sometimes overtime needs to be done in order to meet critical dates. If a significant issue was evident during the pre-pour site inspection, a Structural re-design may be required and subsequent advice given to site to allow the concrete pour to go ahead for the following morning.

A Day in the Life of a Technical Director (or Technical Manager)

7:00am

  • Wake up to start the day
  • Iron shirt and pants if needed
  • Breakfast
  • Pack lunch and work related items

7:45am

  • Commute to work.

8:55am

  • Prepare Coffee Number 1

9:00am

  • Chair team meeting to check in with the group and go through updates on the projects that the team is working on.

10:00am

  • One-on-one meetings with my direct reports to go through any issues they may be having (from technical to resourcing to other issues) and a general check in.

11:00am

  • Review financials on various projects this may include resourcing, invoicing, cost controls and cost to complete for each project.

11:30am

  • Senior leadership team meeting. This is an inter-disciplinary, inter sector and/or inter region/state catch up to go through resourcing requirements across the group within the organisation.

12:30pm

  • Lunch. This may either be a half our lunch or a longer lunch if it is taken with a client, project manager or architect for business development purposes.
  • Have Coffee Number 2 with lunch.

1:00pm

  • Technical review of projects. This may be one or several projects, and involves a peer review of the proposed designs that the team have been producing. Usually carried out before major milestone deadlines to ensure quality and technical accuracy.

2:30pm

  • Project Consultant Team meeting 1 . At early stages of design, it is important that the Structural scheme is robust and well thought out. For this reason it is important for hands on involvement at Technical Director level while the Structural solution is being generated and coordinated.

3:30pm

  • Project Consultant Team meeting 2.

4:30pm

  • This block may be filled by either one of the following tasks depending on what projects bids are around and what new projects have been won:
    – Calculate fees/quotes for new projects.
    – Assist with the development of fee proposal material and content.
    – Develop concept Structural Schemes for new projects which have just started

6:00 or 7:00pm

  • Commute home from work. If I am using public transport I will take this opportunity to check emails.
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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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