As computing power enables increasingly complex infrastructure and construction methods, structural engineering has been pushed hard to keep up. Technology is fundamentally redefining the profession.
Beset on one side by those who think algorithmic engineering techniques can replace engineers, and on the other by architects and owners who seem to believe that anything is now possible, structural engineers are being called to innovate and evolve, not only for their own professional survival but also for the good of the world.
But unlike disciplines like law or medicine, there is no prescribed postdegree approach to continuing education and professional development for practicing structural engineers—either in university-based programs or through mentoring or internship opportunities. And this need for career-long learning is more pressing than ever.
“For decades, structural engineers have been taught to focus in large part on hazard mitigation and to work primarily with prospective design codes,” says Jerome F. Hajjar, PhD, PE, CDM Smith professor and department chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Boston’s Northeastern University. “But new opportunities are beginning to arise; for example, the world is beginning to value resilience and sustainability in buildings in addition to hazard mitigation, and codes are not yet fully addressing this.
“The extent to which new technologies will be used, and should be used, is critical for our profession, and structural engineers are increasingly asking and answering those questions,” Hajjar says.
So what are effective strategies for developing and distributing innovation, and how can engineers evolve to be better innovators? For Hajjar, it comes down to research and education—and both should integrate the knowledge of practicing engineers as much as possible.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes. Innovation in building is a subject close to Hajjar’s heart. He’s spent much of his career researching and developing new technologies and practices, and he passionately believes that innovation in infrastructure can make dramatic differences in the field. To harness new opportunities, engineers need to embrace changes—some of which are automating formerly arduous tasks—and tap into the potential for creativity.
Consider Hajjar’s work with his Design for Deconstruction research project: “We’ve been developing a system to deconstruct buildings—that is, build them in such a way that they can be taken apart relatively easily with components that can be reused. Floors in big buildings, for example, are usually monolithic slabs. If we use concrete planks instead, clamped to the supporting steel structure, we’re making components that can be reused two to four times over a 100-year period. So there’s potential to save energy—construction and building operations represent about 40 percent of energy and material use.”
Another area of interest for Hajjar is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for infrastructure inspections. “Systems have already been demonstrated that can fly through a building or around dams, bridges, or other infrastructure and capture full sets of geometric data,” he explains. “That data can be used for finite element analysis to find damage and to build complex models. There’s great opportunity in this; the question is how quickly this technology becomes viable and widespread.”
These seismic shifts in technology require engineers to solve increasingly interdisciplinary problems, such as addressing concerns about sustainability and environmental impact. And it goes both ways: When engineers creatively update their approach, it can be reflected in the codes themselves. Hajjar says an excellent recent example of innovation adoption is buckling-restrained braces. “Fifteen years ago, they felt new,” he says. “And now they’re already in the national codes. So we are having some success at incorporating new components and systems.”
Researching and the Real World. One large area for improvement is bridging the gap among university systems, their research teams, and practicing engineers working in the field.
“The United States relies on universities for much of its innovation, and that doesn’t just mean we should be always focusing on the next generation,” Hajjar says. “To be effective, we also need to involve those engineers who are working on tough problems now. Practitioners can tell us what’s really needed and identify the new ideas that are both practical and cost effective. So the orientation is not to do research for them, but rather with them.”
To that end, Hajjar uses his national and international work to network with leading practitioners and involve them in research projects. A good example is his coinvestigator, Mark D. Webster, PE, on Design for Deconstruction. In addition to being a senior structural engineer in the Boston-area office of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., Webster has nearly 25 years of experience in the design, analysis, and investigation of concrete, steel, masonry, and wood structures, and he is a founding member and former secretary of the Structural Engineering Institute’s Sustainability Committee.
“Construction and use of buildings and infrastructure accounts for nearly half our country’s climate change and other environmental impacts,” Webster says. “And the production and construction of structural systems, which we design, accounts for about 10 percent of total building impacts. So what we do is highly relevant to the quality of our natural environment and the maintenance of the natural systems that sustain life.”
Webster’s real-world experience obviously makes him valuable on a structural-engineering research team, and Hajjar was quick to partner with him. “Mark is a leader in this field,” he says. “And I hope more universities will continue to look for ways to tap into the wealth of existing professional knowledge.”
Institutional Progress in Education. Traditional education and degree programs also have their place. In the Structural Engineering Institute’s (SEI) Vision for the Future, the aim is to improve continuing education by “develop[ing] a national, standardized framework to launch the careers of young professionals, and create a meaningful platform for lifelong learning and constant professional growth.” But how do engineers integrate ongoing learning into their already busy lives?
“Here at Northeastern, we design courses to attract working professionals, and one advantage of structural engineering as a profession is that there are many ways to stay current,” Hajjar says. “All of our graduate master’s degree programs, for example, are structured so that they can be taken either full-time or part-time by practitioners.”
And continuing education extends well beyond degrees and certifications. Conferences, organizations, and publications offer content structural engineers can digest on a regular basis. For example, SEI offers webinars, on-demand learning, on-site training, seminars, and other continuing-education opportunities. And the National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE) offers free courses to its members.
One area of continuing education Webster says structural engineers should focus on is sustainability and resilience. “Climate change, for example, is an urgent concern,” he says. “We need to understand what we can to do to mitigate its impacts—such as reduce emissions to avoid the most serious potential outcomes—and adapt to the changes already underway, including sea-level rise, higher-intensity storms, and increased flooding.”
But for structural engineers who want to stay relevant in the profession, there’s more to learn beyond technology and practices to sustain the environment. Problem solving and “soft skills” (such as communication, critical thinking, and leadership) are just as important.
“Ultimately,” Hajjar says, “I hope we’re teaching everyone—students and practitioners—how to think, not just what to think.”