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How to Select a Structural Engineer or Structural Engineering Firm

The selection of a structural engineer is a critical component to the construction, operational efficiency and overall cost of the structure. Not all structural engineers are the same. Just because an engineer has a degree does not mean that they have the right skills and the ability to apply them in a way that not only results in a structurally sound building, but also meets code, supports the purpose of the structure, enhances operational efficiency and adds value to the overall project. A thorough examination of both the structural engineering firm as well as its engineers is a good practice.

Although the process varies, three critical stages of selection most structural engineering evaluations should include are a statement of qualifications, a scope of work, and either a pre-proposal interview or a proposal presentation. Even though fees are an important consideration, first you must determine the true value each firm provides in order to make a valid comparison. In this article, we will discuss some guidelines to help you assess the true value of a structural engineering firm.

Guidelines

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 a four-year degree from an accredited university and a chartered Structural Engineer status is achieved after passing a formal examination. 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. Access to a variety of engineering talent

The structural engineers within the firm should have working knowledge in a variety of different aspects of engineering to meet the various needs of a project. Specialties can be defined in many ways including:

  • Materials: brick, concrete, steel, etc.
  • Structure types: shopping centers, pipelines, industrial plants, material handling, storage facilities, chemical plants, roofs, towers, churches, etc.
  • External influences: earthquake, fire, wind, etc.

Look for firms that have experience that relates specifically to your project.

5. 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:

  • The design will be buildable
  • The engineer can effectively oversee the project
  • Cost will be controlled

6. 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.

7. Project specific experience

Even if a structural engineer has been practicing for decades, sometimes general structural engineering experience is not enough. Experience should be measured by how many projects have been done in the specific area in which your project requires expertise. Much like the specialties described above in the talent section (#3), look for familiarity with specific materials, structure types or external influences that will impact your project.

8. Registered Professional Engineer

Each state requires licenses to be obtained by structural engineers so they become eligible to seal engineering drawings and take legal responsibility for the engineering work and calculations, which then allows them to submit the proper documents to apply for a building permit. In the United States, a Professional Engineer status is granted after graduating from an accredited university, passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination, accumulating a set amount of experience and completing the Principles and Practice in Engineering (PE) exam.

9. Familiarity with building codes

Every jurisdiction has published building codes that set the minimum acceptable level of safety for constructed buildings. Structural engineers are legally bound to understand, design and build according to the guidelines of the code. Due to the cost and complexity of creating their own, most states and local jurisdictions have adopted a version of the International Building Code, a model building code developed by the International Code Council.

10. 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.

The Importance of Money and Time

We have reviewed many of the intangible traits to look for when selecting a structural engineering firm. However, two of the most important considerations are money and time. After determining the value factors described above, evaluate the fees attached to the proposals you’ve gathered and ensure that references can vouch for timeliness of the engineer’s work. With this compilation of information, the selection of your structural engineer should be straightforward and will likely result in a success.

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