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What is Structural Engineering? What Do Structural Engineers Do?


Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering that is concerned with the structural design of man-made structures. Often described as designing the ‘bones and muscles’ of structures, these engineers need to understand the rigidity, stability and strength of both buildings and non-building structures. This includes factors such as loading and susceptibility to earthquakes.

Structural engineers work with architects, building services engineers and other professionals and may be charged with supervising construction projects. In addition, structural engineers can also be involved in the design of other assets where structural integrity impacts function and safety, such as machinery, medical equipment and vehicles.

Using mathematics, physics, materials science and empirical knowledge, these engineers need to understand the structural performance of different materials and geometries in order to apply structural engineering design concepts to build structural systems. This work needs to be completed within budgetary requirements while making sure any structural elements are suitable for purpose.

The basic principles of structural engineering date back thousands of years to the construction of structures including the pyramids in Egypt and the Acropolis in Greece. However, modern-day structural engineering has advanced to include a detailed body of knowledge for the accurate prediction of how different materials, shapes and structures will resist loads and stresses.


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What Do Structural Engineers Do?

Structural engineers use a knowledge of applied mathematics and mechanics as well as materials science to determine how structures will cope under the own weight and any imposed loads. This requires structural analysis as well as the application of empirical and theoretical design codes. Structural engineers also need to be aware of corrosion resistance.

The work of structural engineers has been made easier through the development of specialist software that can help draw, design and analyse structures with a high degree of precision.

Entry-level engineers may begin by working on particular elements of a structure, such as beams of columns, while more experienced engineers may be responsible for an entire structure. With more experience, structural engineers may specialise in certain types of structure, such as bridges or tunnels, while others will focus on particular construction materials, such as concrete, steel or wood.

This field of engineering ensures that design structures are capable of withstanding pressures and stresses including gravity loads, earthquakes and storms. Many structures, such as buildings, also need to conform to standards and building codes as well as being delivered on budget.

Structural engineers design buildings and other structures that are capable of handling different loads, able to resist environmental forces and are safe for use. This involves problem solving using maths and technologies to create structures that are fit for purpose yet use fewer materials and require less maintenance.

Structural engineers often work alongside civil engineers and architects as part of a larger team, with the Institution of Structural Engineers determining that, “if a structure was a human body, then the architect would be concerned with the body shape and appearance, and the structural engineer would be concerned with the skeleton and sinews."

Structural Engineering History

One of the oldest types of engineering, dating back thousands of years, structural engineering became a distinct profession from architecture during the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th Century. Before this, architects and structural engineers were put together under the title of master builders. 

The names of many of these earliest pioneers of structural engineering have been lost to history, but Imhotep, who oversaw the construction of Pharoah Dioser’s step pyramid in Egypt in 2700 BC, is the first structural engineer to be known by name.

Throughout ancient and medieval history, most of the work for a construction was done by stonemasons, carpenters and other artisans under the direction of a master builder, with the knowledge of how structures stood up to loads and the elements being based on experience and intuition that was often held by guilds and not widely shared.

Over the centuries, many scientists and mathematicians made contributions to the what would be the foundations of structural engineering, including names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Leonard Euler, Daniel Bernoulli, Claude-Louis Navier, and more.

Other prominent structural engineers include those whose names became synonymous with well-known structures, such as Gustave Eiffel, who famously over saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Many of today’s famous structures owe their existence to businesses or government agencies, such as the Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope.

Types of Structural Engineering Jobs

Different structural engineering jobs can be broken down by what sort of structure is being created:

1. Building Engineering

This large area of structural engineering is closely related to architecture and involves the engineering related to the design and function of all types of building. While architecture is more concerned with aesthetics, structural engineering is more focused on the functional requirements and safety of a building, ensuring that they can withstand movements or other forces that could cause failure. This area of structural engineering includes a number if specialities, including earthquake engineering, façade engineering, fire engineering, roof engineering, tower engineering and wind engineering.

2. Earthquake Engineering

This specialism of building engineering is worth considering on its own. Concerned with understanding the interaction between structures and the shaking caused by an earthquake, this type of engineering focuses on factors such as base isolation, which allows the structure’s base to move freely with the ground.

3. Civil Engineering Structures

These structures include bridges, dams, earthworks, foundations, offshore structures, pipelines, power stations, railways, retaining walls and structures, reservoirs, roads, tunnels, waterways, and more. Safety is of paramount importance here and many of these designs need to be signed off by a chartered engineer. These types of structures often need to cope with extreme variations in temperature, loading, pressure and more, as well as being constructed in corrosive environments such as the sea, underground, or at industrial facilities.

4. Mechanical Structures

Mechanical structures are those that are able to move, as opposed to being static. These structures have to be able to withstand fatigue and variations in how the load impacts the structure during motion. These forces can vary greatly and at a significant rate, so structural engineers need to ensure that they can be withstood during the structure’s entire lifetime. Mechanical structures include items such as boilers and pressure vessels, carriages and coachworks, cranes, escalators, lifts, marine vessels and more.

5. Aerospace Structures

Aerospace structures include everything from aeroplanes (both commercial and military), to spacecraft, missiles, and launch vehicles. These structures need to be able to withstand different variations in temperature, pressure and loading, while often being lightweight and stiff. Aircraft structures, for example, are frequently made using thin plates that are supported by stiffeners, bulkheads and frames that are held together with welds, rivets, screws and bolts.

6. Nanoscale Structures

Nanoscale structures are those that are of a size between molecular and microscopic. These can be nanotextured, nanotubes, or spherical. Nanoscale particles are also known as ultrafine particles (UFPs), although UFPs can be larger than nanoscale and reach up to micrometres in size.

7. Medical Equipment Structures

Structural engineering is also used in the design of medical equipment. This includes for diagnostic equipment, surgical equipment, and monitoring equipment. Again, safety is of vital importance, as is the structural integrity of these items.

Structural Elements

Although there are many different applications, when taken back to the most basic level, there are only a small number of different structural elements:

  • Arches
  • Beams
  • Catenaries
  • Columns
  • Plates
  • Shells

Where Do Structural Engineers Work?

Most structural engineers work in an office environment tworking on structural engineering designs for construction or engineering consultancies, although others will work on site to oversee the actual construction.

Structural engineers may be called to work on a new design or to help plan a change of use for an existing structure. This could include adding floors or an area of expansion to a building, ensuring that the structure is still safe and able to meet the requirements of use.

Structural engineers are also called upon if there is damage to an existing structure, whether from corrosion, fire, flooding, or even just general wear and tear. This work will require the engineer to visit the site and visually assess the structural integrity of load bearing elements and suggest repairs to return the structure to a usable state. 

How to Become a Structural Engineer

Most engineers, including structural engineers, enter the career following a relevant bachelor’s university course. Having achieved a BEng others take their studies further and attain a master’s or PhD.

However, the academic route is not the only way into this career as it is also possible to take an apprenticeship which takes away the tuition fees and couples study with time at work gaining on-the-job experience with an employer. Many apprentices end up working with the organisation they are apprenticed to.

Others may access this career through work itself, working their way up through professional development.

Professional development is important for any engineering career as it allows you to progress in experience and expertise, accessing better-paid opportunities.

Whichever route you choose into structural engineering, certification is important for your career development to become recognised as a professional engineer. 


Certification is an important part of a career in engineering as it allows you to prove your knowledge and experience to employers. Depending on where you work, you may require certification as a structural engineer.

You can gain support with your career progression through membership of a professional institute such as the IStructE, which can also help open the door to different job opportunities.

Knowledge and Skills

Structural engineers work to combat factors such as wind, snow, rain and the effects of gravity on a range of different structures. Whether building bridges or homes, these structures need to be able to cope with the conditions where they are built. This may be the weight of snow on the roof of a home in Canada or the potential for earthquakes in California. Working with different materials, engineers will analyse data and reports, consult maps and plans, estimate costs based on materials, equipment and labour, determine stress factors on a structure, monitor construction progress at a site, and even assess environmental conditions, traffic patterns, the flow of people and other changeable factors to identify potential problems.

All of this work requires a particular skillset, including an in-depth knowledge of physics and mathematics. In addition, these engineers need to understand the properties of different materials – including density, hardness, bulk modulus, and their bending and tensile strengths. This allows engineers to calculate how a material will perform under different conditions, loads and stresses, often over an extended period of time.

Much of this work is made easier through the use of computer systems including computer aided design (CAD) systems that allow for faster designing and modifications as well as virtual 3D visualisations of completed parts, assembles and structures. 

Structural Engineer Job Salary

The salary level for structural engineers increases with experience and qualifications. While a bachelor’s degree is fine to get a role as a structural engineer, promotion to management may require a master’s degree, while ongoing training and education will help you keep up with the latest technological advances.

Salaries will also differ according to where and for whom you work. However, the average salary for structural engineers in the UK is somewhere between £30,000 and £40,000 per year. As of 29 November 2022, note an average annual salary of £32,312, while note an average salary of £39,978 as of 9 December 2022.


Structural engineering is a special field within civil engineering that focuses on the framework of structures both large and small. Working with everything from the largest buildings and bridges to nanoscale structures, structural engineers often specialise in different materials or structures.

Structural engineering is important for societies around the world to ensure that the structures around us are safe and fit for purpose. This is a big responsibility for structural engineers who design structures to withstand the stresses and environmental impacts they are subjected to daily. 


Is Structural Engineering Hard?

Structural engineering, like other engineering professions, requires the right knowledge and qualifications to enter and progress through. This includes a knowledge of physics and mathematics and, usually, a university degree. However, these courses are comparable with other engineering disciplines when it comes to entry requirements. It may take years to gain the right qualifications, skills and experience to reach the top of the profession, but the work can be rewarding and makes an impact on the world around us.

Is Structural Engineering a Good Career?

Structural engineering will continue to be in demand as a profession and, as a branch of civil engineering, the demand looks set to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that civil engineering (including structural engineering) is expected to continue to grow as a profession. However, staying ahead in this career requires you to stay abreast of the latest developments and technologies in the field.

Is Structural Engineering Worth It?

Structural engineering is worth it for anyone who wants to use their skills and knowledge to make a positive difference to the world. As a career, it is ideal for those with an interest in physics, mathematics and art or design.

Are Structural Engineers Expensive?

Hiring the services of a structural engineer can be expensive, with rates as of 2022 coming in at around £100 per hour in the UK. Some engineers will quote an hourly rate, while others may opt to charge a total for the job itself. The cost depends upon the complexity of the project and your location. The more they are required to visit a site, the higher the costs will tend to be.

Is Structural Engineering Stressful?

Physically-speaking, structural engineering is not a demanding career. However, the deadlines, budgets and responsibilities can be stressful if not managed properly.

Can Structural Engineers Design Houses?

As civil engineers, structural engineers are capable of designing houses, however it is not their area of expertise. Structural engineers are concerned with the design of the structural elements of buildings including houses and may even have had some training in aspects of architecture and construction.

However, houses are more than just structures as they include elements like heating and cooling, plumbing, electrics and more. In addition, structural engineers to not tend to focus on aesthetic design elements. Ideally, you should seek the services of an architect, who would then use the services of different engineers – including structural engineers – as required.

Can A Structural Engineer Become An Architect?

It is possible for structural engineers to become architects as there is a level of cross-over between the two professions. However, this would require retraining since architects are concerned with matters such as aesthetics and comfort whereas structural engineers focus on the stability and loading conditions of a structure. They are two distinct professions that serve different purposes, so are not the same despite some of the shared interests.

Can Structural Engineers Work in Aerospace?

Structural engineers do work in aerospace, where they perform structural analysis of aircraft parts. This includes the design, development and testing of a range of aerospace assets from aircraft to spacecraft and missiles.

Can Structural Engineers Work Remotely?

Structural engineers can work remotely as they plan and design structures. However, other parts of the role may require site visits and face-to-face interaction, so working remotely all of the time may not be possible. This will depend upon the exact nature of the role and employer.

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