All jobs have their challenges and triumphs. Equally, all jobs have elements which are either boring, stressful or annoying. This article explores the common problems encountered by a Structural Engineer during their working day…

A problem is a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with, solved or overcome.

Depending on how you look at things, “problems” can actually reveal themselves in the long term as opportunities. Each problem I’ve encountered as a practicing Structural Engineer has generally ended up in me learning more about myself and/or the profession of Structural Engineering.

With this in mind, the topics in this article can easily be viewed as “challenges” or “opportunities”. As such, many are coupled with a potential “solution” to the “problem”. So lets take a closer look at common problems encountered by practicing Structural Engineers (and some solutions which can help solve them)…

Azadi Tower, Iran
Azadi Tower, Iran

The Problem of Coordinating Between Disciplines

Structural Engineers don’t operate in siloes. Buildings are complex arrangement of systems ranging from:

  • Electrical systems
  • Air quality and temperature systems
  • Occupant transportation systems (such as vertical transport or lifts)
  • Safety systems such as fire arrest, smoke arrest and security systems
  • Supply and waste water systems
  • And the list goes on!

The problem with Structural Engineering in this regard is that your structural elements, more often than not, get in the way of all these systems. This requires coordination and collaboration between your own design and that of other Engineers and professionals.

You will find structure almost everywhere within a building, this means that Structural Engineers are required to know a little about almost all other Engineering disciplines to be an effective designer.

Projects can run significantly over time and budget due to poor coordination. At worst, poor coordination can later result in a realisation that the project is no longer viable (due to building height issues or similar!).

I have seen many Structural Engineers struggle in a multi-disciplinary environment. Being able to effectively coordinate with other disciplines within a building design is a skill that needs to be continuously improved as you take on more and more responsibility.

The Possible Solution

I’ve found the best way to learn more about other elements of building design is to pay as much attention as possible during design consultant meetings for any given project.

Many Structural Engineers fall into the trap of checking emails and daydreaming for the majority of the meeting except for the portion which is focused solely on the Structural Design.

If you are a younger Structural Engineer, I would recommend asking your line manager or project Engineer to take you along to consultant meetings. You may not be able to contribute if you are less experienced, but you will pick up a lot of vocabulary and concepts which you can reflect on and learn from.

For all levels of Structural Engineering, I believe it is important to build connections with other practicing Engineers and building designers. This can help you form trusted advisors who you can ask questions from. Don’t be afraid to ask what you think may be a “stupid question” if it is related to a discipline outside of Structural Engineering. You can always return the favour if they need to ask you Structural Engineering related questions.

Pre-pour concrete inspection of a post-tensioned concrete slab before concrete placement.
Pre-pour concrete inspection of a post-tensioned concrete slab before concrete placement.

The Problem of Scope Creep

This problem is not isolated to the world of Structural Engineering. In fact, this problem exists with any trade or profession.

Scope creep is a incremental and progressive increase in your work responsibilities (in effort and/or deliverables) after an original agreement on scope and fee has been established and agreed upon.

In theory, this “problem” shouldn’t exist… You agree to what work you will complete and what your deliverables are, you complete those deliverables, then you are paid… Happy client, happy Structural Engineer…

Unfortunately reality is far different to theory on this occasion. The biggest cause for scope creep is how it is caused in small increments and over an extended period of time.

The usual thought process is “its only a small change, it will cost more for us in administration work to update our invoicing and agreement with the client for a few extra dollars, lets just do the work and move on”

This may be fine if it were to happen once. However due to the complex nature of building projects and the matter that the projects are often quoted on limited information, this can be a regular ongoing occurrence.

It usually eventuates in the Engineering firm realising that the project is no longer performing well financially then make a decision to start billing the client for additional work. Often firms will try this retrospectively, which is not a good look and will often be met with rejection by the client.

The Possible Solution

The best solution for this problem is communication, communication, communication. Doing favours for clients is great and should be used as a tool to build strong relationships with repeat clients.

If you are running a project however, I believe it is important to conduct an open, honest dialog with your client on scope and expectations. This is not a once-off conversation but rather an ongoing discussion which should be had through the life of a project.

This is assuming that you have a well established contractual agreement and scope of works set up with your client for that particular project. If these are not in place, you are going to have a bad time. This is because your negotiations will be reliant upon good will and the relationship you have with the client.

Even a strong relationship with a client may not prevent significant scope creep if they realise you have no contractual grounds to request additional fee. This is the nature of the game of business, if you have inadvertently signed up to design everything from the concrete slabs to the kitchen bench tops, the client is within their rights to expect the work that they signed you up for.

With ongoing dialog and a solid contract and scope agreement in place with your client, another tool at your disposal is to run your projects with a healthy contingency allowance. This can be used to smooth out the bumps in the road when it comes to scope because there will always be some items which are open to interpretation when it comes to scope.

Poor contractual agreements and scope outline can cause a scope creep problem on your projects.
Poor contractual agreements and scope outline can cause a scope creep problem on your projects.

Explaining Complex Systems and Principals to Those without a Structural Engineering Background

I’ve seen brilliant Structural Engineers look inexperienced in consultant meetings. This is due to a lack of ability in effectively vocalising Engineering principles in a manner which others less-informed can understand.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” which perfectly sums this up.

Structural Engineering does contain some complex principles and topics. However even complex ideas can be simplified and delivered in easy to understand terms.

The Possible Solution

Like most things, practice makes perfect. If an opportunity presents itself where you can show or explain your work to colleagues, family or friends, go out of your way to grab those opportunities.

To really enhance your demonstration skills, tutoring is a really great way to rehearse. University tutoring not only provides you with great practice opportunity, it also crystallises your own understanding as you explain concepts you already know to others.

Also, don’t be afraid to use metaphors to explain abstract ideas and principles, this can go a long way in explaining a topic from a different angle.

The Problem of the Feast or Famine Workload

The workload in the construction industry can be quite lumpy. This is true whether your working as part of a larger firm or you are running your own Engineering consultancy.

It is very difficult to perfectly align the completion of one project with the commencement of another, especially if they are with different clients and are running their own separate time lines.

This can result in periods of high work volume mixed with periods of relatively less workload. If this gets out of control, it can quickly lead to burnout in Structural Engineers.

The Possible Solution

This is possibly the most common problem in Structural Engineering (or most professions associated with the construction industry for that matter). The best way to manage this is through a combined approach of the following:

  • Learn Time Management Skills: This may be cliché but I’ve seen many Structural Engineers work very long hours without producing much work in comparison to the hours invested. This is simply because they are not effective at managing their time appropriately. There are online courses for time management which can help with this such as THIS one.
  • Speak Up and Ask for Help: If you have a good understanding of your workload and time commitments through effective time management and are still overwhelmed, the next thing to do is speak up and ask for help. The good news is that if your organised with your time you will be able to identify when and where you need help well in advance of things getting too out of hand. Its much easier to help out when there is enough time, I’ve often been required to stay back many late nights to assist other Engineers with completing their work the night before it is due due to poor time management!!
  • Make the Most of the “Famine” Periods: If you have come off of a stretch of high workload and things get quiet, make sure you make the most of the quieter times. Talk to your manager about taking time off work either through full days of leave or leaving a few hours before 5 o’clock for a few days. If you have just completed a lot of over-time on a recent project you will most likely be able to negotiate “time off in lieu” with your employer.
Feast and Famine Workload in Structural Engineering can be a cause for Problem
Feast and Famine Workload in Structural Engineering can be a cause for Problem

Over-Reliance on Technology to Solve Structural Systems

Technology can be a wonderful thing. Structural Engineering has seen great advancements in the complexity of buildings which we can design accurately. A lot of this is owed to the assistance of cutting edge design software and automation tools.

This can however result in an over-reliance on these tools to do the job that Structural Engineers have previously done without the necessary checks and balances being put into place.

Anyone can model a structure in an FEA software and apply some loading to it. The job of the Structural Engineer is to approve and check the results which are coming out of the software (no matter the complexity of the structure).

The Possible Solution

Quite simply, I would never trust the results coming out of an FEA analysis without first verifying through either a hand check, span to depth ratio sanity check or a benchmark against a previous project.

There are two reference articles on this website which can help you out in this department:

  • For an in-depth article on how to ensure that your ETABS results are correct and give you the confidence that your model is not a “black box”, take a look at THIS article
  • For span-to-depth ratios for concrete and steel members take a look at THIS article.

Being Overtaken by The Advancements in Technology

Ok, this is more on the other end of the spectrum to the previous section of this article. Some Structural Engineers are simply too hands-off when it comes to technology.

I’ve seen very senior Structural Engineers without the first clue of how to navigate a three dimensional environment (whether it be an analysis model or a documentation model). While it is not mandatory to know the ins and outs of all the latest technology, at least a working ability and general understanding is best to have at a minimum.

The Possible Solution

The best thing to do with ongoing learing is to chip away at it bit by bit.

The worst thing you can do is wait for years and years until you decide to catch up on things.

This can be said not only for technology but also design codes which are constantly changing and having updates and revisions released regularly.

With the technology of today from a learning perspective there are countless resources and short courses online to assist in learning new technology and software.

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Quentin Suckling is a full time practicing Structural Engineer based in Melbourne Australia. He has been practicing in the local market at tier 1 engineering consulting firms over the last 16 years.

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