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Fascinated by structures

When you are walking down the high street are you the sort of person who looks beyond the shop window to try and understand the building beyond?

Then perhaps a career in structural engineering is for you - a job that looks beyond the faŤade to understand the bones of a building.

Most structural engineers design buildings or bridges, but you could find yourself working on anything from a funky suspended staircase to a wind turbine or even a football stadium. The job can also involve strengthening or refurbishing older structures. How does gutting a nineteenth century building and re-framing it to accommodate modern open floor layouts take your fancy?

"The best thing about structural engineering is being able to see what you've done. Unlike the work of ground or water engineers, anyone walking down the high street can see your work," says Chris, a chartered structural engineer from Leeds.

Structural engineers can also get involved in designing temporary structures to support excavations or even plan demolition sequences for main contractors.

Chris believes that being able to visualise how structures work is key to becoming a successful engineer – not necessarily something you learn from a university degree.

"The job is interesting and exciting for all levels of experience. Fresh graduates can get stuck into the nitty-gritty of detailed design, moving on to developing structural schemes at conceptual stage when they have more experience," says Chris.

One of the first tasks a graduate structural engineer will be responsible for is carrying out a "load path analysis". This involves working out all the loads in a structure – the weight of the structure, the inhabitants, furniture, wind and snow loads among others. From this the main elements in the structure can be designed.

A structural engineer's normal day will involve lots of liaison with architects, developing and detailing structural elements. The structural engineer will also have one eye on working out how the structure will be built, taking into account health, safety, environmental and archaeological factors which might affect the design.Picture a 20-storey hotel. While architects work closely with the property developer to design room layouts and dictate the overall appearance of the building, the structural engineer does the sums to work out whether it is structurally feasible.

Perhaps the double height lobby area is only possible with a clumsy big column in the centre to support the weight of the upper floors. To maintain the architect's vision for the lobby, the structural engineer would have either to change the floor layout or introduce a transfer structure.

The design process usually involves months of ironing out these sorts of problems before construction begins on site. The structural engineer also works with mechanical and electrical engineers to ensure pipes and cables can be accommodated through walls and floors without affecting the strength of the structure. When the building is being constructed, the structural engineer checks that everything is being built to plan and deals with any unforeseen problems. "You can often find yourself at the centre of a project trying to make order out of chaos to meet the architect's, services engineer's and client's needs," says Chris.

Finding the right company to work for depends on which strand of structural engineering interests you. Keep up to date with projects through NCE and make a note of the structural engineers involved to contact for work placements or jobs.

You do not have to do a structural engineering degree to become a structural engineer. Most civil engineering degrees meet the requirements for becoming a chartered structural engineer – but check with your course administrator. Becoming a chartered involves working for a number of years gaining enough experience after a degree and then sitting the Institution of Structural Engineers exam and interview.

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