Structural engineering is, mostly, considered as a subset of civil engineering dealing with the design and analysis of buildings and large non-building structures to withstand both the gravity and wind loads as well as natural disasters. Besides, it may also cover design of machinery, medical equipment, vehicles or any other objects where structural functionality or safety are involved. Structural engineers must ensure their designs satisfy building codes.
Structural engineering came to existence when the humans first started to construct their own structures. It became a more defined profession with the emergence of the architecture profession during the industrial revolution in the late 19th Century .
In a practical sense, structural engineering is largely the application of Newtonian mechanics to the design of structural elements and systems that support buildings, bridges, walls (including retaining walls), dams, tunnels, etc.
Structural engineers ensure that their designs satisfy a given design intent predicated on safety (i.e. structures do not collapse without due warning) and on serviceability (i.e. floor vibration and building sway do not result in occupants criteria discomfort). In addition, structural engineers are responsible for making efficient use of funds and materials to achieve these goals. Typically, entry-level structural engineers may design simple beams, columns, and floors of a new building, including calculating the loads on each member and the load capacity of various building materials (steel , timber, masonry, concrete). An experienced engineer would tend to render more difficult structures, considering physics of moisture, heat and energy inside the building components.
Structural loads on structures are generally classified as: live loads such as the weight of occupants and furniture in a building, the forces of wind or weights of water, the forces due to seismic activity such as an earthquake, dead loads including the weight of the structure itself and all major architectural components and live roof loads such as material and manpower loading the structure during construction. Structural engineers mainly fight against the forces of nature like winds, earthquakes and tsunamis. In recent years, however, reinforcing structures against sabotage has taken on increased importance.
The education of structural engineers is usually through a civil or architectural engineering degree with structural emphasis or through a structural engineering degree. The fundamental core subjects for structural engineering are strength of materials or solid mechanics, statics, dynamics, material science, numerical analysis and conceptual structural design. Reinforced concrete, composite structure, timber, masonry and structural steel designs are the general structural design courses that will be introduce in the next level of the education of structural engineering. The structural analysis courses which include structural mechanics, structural dynamics and structural failure analyses are designed to build up the fundamental analysis skills and theories for structural engineering students. At the senior year level or higher, prestressed concrete design, space frame design for building and aircraft, bridge engineering, civil and aerospace structure rehabilitation and other advanced structural engineering specializations are usually introduced.
Recently in the United States, there have been discussions in the structural engineering community about the competency of structural engineering graduates. Some have called for a master's degree to be the minimum standard for professional licensing. There is also growing support to establish a structural engineering undergraduate degree; some existed in the past, and one still exists at the University of California-San Diego. Many students who later become structural engineers major in civil, mechanical, or aerospace engineering degree programs, which typically do not emphasize structural engineering. Architectural engineering programs do offer structural emphases, and are often in combined academic departments with civil engineering.
In the United States, structural engineers are licensed at the State level. In many States a Structural Engineering license is conferred after several years experience, and the passage of multiple exams. In some states, including California, a Civil Engineering (CE or PE for Professional Engineer) license is usually the first step, which in itself requires at least two years, and in most states four, practical experience and the passage of an exam. After that milestone, two to three more years of specialized structural experience is necessary, then the passage of a multiple day exam focusing solely on structures. In New York State, a Fundamentals of Engineering exam is taken first, with no experience required. After a minimum four years of experience (including up to 1 year of graduate education) the Professional Engineer's (PE) licensing exam is taken. This exam is geared specifically for structural engineers, however the license is valid for all engineering disciplines.
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