Do I need a structural engineer?

Whether you’re undergoing a large project, such as constructing a property from the ground up or making a few small changes to an existing home, you’ll need professional help. But knowing who you need to …

Whether you’re undergoing a large project, such as constructing a property from the ground up or making a few small changes to an existing home, you’ll need professional help.

But knowing who you need to hire and why can be confusing. Of course, you’ll need contractors to do the work, but who else should you add to that list?

One of the biggest question marks is around structural engineers. They’re considered an important part of the construction process, but not many people understand why.

That’s why this article will explain all things structural engineering related, such as what a structural engineer is, what they do, whether you need one for your project and more.

What is a structural engineer?

A structural engineer is responsible for ensuring the structural integrity of a building, whether that be its safety, stability, or durability. They are specialists in their field and can manage all steps of construction, from the design and planning phase all the way up to the actual construction itself, ensuring it is done safely.

Structural engineers look at details such as whether the structure’s foundations are adequate for your renovation project, whether the materials are capable for their use, and providing technical advice on a building’s safety.

What does a structural engineer do?

A structural engineer will ensure that all buildings and structures are designed and constructed in a manner that’s safe and structurally sound. Therefore, there’s a large overlap between their role and a civil engineer’s. To get a better idea of what they do, let’s look at some of their job roles:

  • Prepare structural reports, drawings, and designs
  • Choose construction materials
  • Obtain planning permission on behalf of their client
  • Work closely with architects and contractors to ensure they meet building regulations
  • Manage projects
  • Inspect structures for problems
  • Make calculations about loads and stresses
  • Provide expert advice

Do I need a structural engineer?

A structural engineer will likely be necessary for the following circumstances:

  • Renovations and structural modifications
  • Structural inspections
  • Expert witness

Renovations and structural modifications

Structural engineers will be essential if you make changes to the building’s structure. This involves all kinds of work, whether it’s a full renovation of your property or something smaller such as the removal of internal walls.

For example, suppose you want to remove the wall between two bedrooms to make it into one big bedroom. You’ll likely need a structural engineer to examine whether it’s possible and, if so, what sort of beams need to be added to the ceiling to ensure it doesn’t collapse.

A structural engineer will also provide structural calculations to ensure that all changes are done in line with building regulations. Additionally, they provide structural drawings that guide the builders, informing them of what materials to use and where they need to be placed.

These structural calculations are a key part of a structural engineer’s job. They must be considered, regardless if you’re building something new from the ground up or making changes to an existing property. As such, structural engineers will often work closely with the building contractor and architect over the entire project to ensure everything goes smoothly.

These structural drawings and calculations are particularly vital for any work that requires planning permission and building control approval – especially if you live in a listed building. This is because your local building control department must assess and approve the drawings before you can begin your work.

Examples of projects that may need a structural engineer are as follows:

  • Building an extension
  • Underpinning floors
  • Removing or modifying internal walls
  • Removing a chimney breast
  • Installing solar panels
  • Modifying doors and windows
  • Loft conversion
  • Garage conversion

Structural inspection

When you need to conduct a property survey, a structural engineer will come in handy. They’ll check the property for signs of subsidence, cracking, flood damage, etc., to ensure your property is in good condition.

Whilst a chartered surveyor is typically hired for this task, a structural engineer has more specialised and in-depth knowledge and may be able to find problem areas that the surveyor cannot. That’s why in some cases where a surveyor needs an expert opinion, they will call on a good structural engineer to have a second look.

Expert witness

An expert witness will be required when you disagree with another party over a structural matter. For instance, using the example above of a chartered surveyor inspecting a property. Suppose they claim to find nothing wrong with your property, but you are adamant there is. You can call upon a structural engineer to be an expert witness that provides an independent and unbiased report.

How much does a structural engineer cost?

A good structural engineer can cost anywhere between £200 and £3,000. It’s a wide range, but that’s because the exact cost will depend on the type of project, the size of the project, your location, and whether they charge a flat fee or an hourly rate.

For instance, hiring the services of an engineer may cost you anywhere between £100 and £200 an hour (expect to pay on the higher end if you’re in London). On the other hand, you may be quoted a flat fee for the project, regardless of how long it takes.

Also, a full report from an engineer in the capital will cost considerably more than a simple beam design from an engineer in the Midlands. Suppose you’re also factoring in site visits, structural calculations, drawings, plans, and repeat consultations. In that case, the cost may rise to between £700 and £2,750.

The following table presents a rough estimate of how much a structural engineer costs:

Average hourly rate£100 – £200
Simple and small project£200 – £550
Large-scale and complex project£3,000 – £10,000
Calculations for steel beams£50 – £1,000
Inspection£150 – £450
Report£300 – £2,000
Consultation for projects£500 – £2,500

Whilst these are ballpark figures, you may find structural engineers that are cheaper or more expensive in your area. It’s important to note that you should never go with the first engineer you find. It’s always best to shop around and get three of four quotes so you can make an informed decision.

How to find a structural engineer?

You can find the right structural engineer by searching the Institution of Structural Engineers or Institution of Civil Engineers databases, an online directory, or via word of mouth.

Institution of Structural Engineers (IstructE) and Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)

IstructE and ICE are great places to look because most structural engineers are registered as members of one – or sometimes both – of these professional bodies. You can recognise their members since they will have ‘C.Eng’ at the end of their name, which stands for ‘Chartered Engineer’.

These organisations provide accreditation and recognition for the profession, allowing structural engineers to improve their career prospects. They even provide training so that members can gain further skills. As such, these bodies are considered prestigious in their field, and have a stringent application process, accepting only those who can prove they are qualified for their job.

Depending on the membership level, engineers will need a relevant degree – such as Civil Engineering – and a few years of experience to be accepted. This means that if you’re looking for a good structural engineer, these organisations are a great place to start, as their members have proven themselves to be competent in their roles.

It’s important to note that there are many types of structural engineers. For instance, some specialise in large-scale commercial buildings or bridges and tunnels, whereas others specialise in residential properties. Therefore, you will need to find an engineer that is best suited to your project.

Online directory

There are various online directories where you can find skilled structural engineers. Examples include websites such as FindanEngineer, TrustATrader, and LocalSurveyorsDirect. These websites allow you to filter by location or specialisation, making it easy for you to find the right person for the job.

Word of mouth

Lastly, you have the option of word of mouth. Word of mouth is a great way to find a structural engineer because you’ll have an immediate endorsement for their work. So if you know someone who’s made alterations to the structure of their home, it’s worth asking them first.

If not, you can go to known architects or building contractors in your area. Both often work closely with structural engineers; in some cases, architects have structural engineers working in-house. This means that if you’ve hired an architect to help you with a project, they should be able to recommend a structural engineer to you.

Regardless of which avenue you choose to find an engineer, it’s important to understand what services they will provide so you know exactly what you’re paying for. For example, some engineers may create structural drawings and submit them to your local council at no extra cost. In contrast, others will charge you a hefty fee for the submission. So be sure to get a full rundown of the costs and services provided beforehand.

What’s the difference between a structural engineer and an architect?

The main difference between architects and structural engineers is that architects focus more on the design and functionality of a building, whereas structural engineers focus on keeping that building upright.

Of course, there is overlap between both professions. For instance, both can help you create technical drawings to submit to your local building’s control for approval. Both will also help manage the project and visit the site to ensure it’s all going to plan. However, there are some stark differences.

Architects are known to create drawings and 3D models to ensure a building is designed exactly how their client wants whilst retaining as much of the functionality of the building as possible. They aim to ensure the overall structure is aesthetically pleasing and practical.

They also tend to have good working relationships with contractors and can therefore recommend you the best ones for the job at hand. This gives you the comfort of knowing that the contractor will be able to transfer the image and design you see on the piece of paper or computer to real life.

On the other hand, structural engineers are only concerned with how stable and durable the building is, whether it is being constructed from materials that will be able to keep it upright in all weather conditions and whether any changes to the structure put this in jeopardy.

Final thoughts

Structural engineers will be required for any changes to a building that affect its structural integrity, whether it be the removal of walls, underpinning floors, or building an extension. They ensure that these changes are done without sacrificing the stability and safety of the structure.

They also help with inspecting properties for things such as subsidence and flood damage and can be expert witnesses in cases of disagreements. They are a vital part of a construction process and can therefore demand high fees. However, it may be a small price to pay when it comes to securing the safety of a building.

Also read:
How to spot signs of damp in your house
Subsidence: How to spot it and what to do
Is the landlord or tenant responsible for buildings insurance?