Structural Engineers and Architects: A Crucial Partnership 
That Raises the Bar in Design and in Public Safety

This article is part 1 of a 3-part series from the Structural Engineering Certification Board. The series explores the relationship among structural engineers and architects and the challenges and opportunities inherent in green building projects.


Cutting Edge Architecture Requires Cutting Edge Structural Engineering Skill and Depth of Knowledge

In today’s world of architecture and building construction, the strength of structural engineers’ credentials is receiving greater attention. One reason is that more is expected of them by architects. The structural engineer is more important to their success.

“Architectural practice is exhilarating on many fronts,” says architect Dick Fencl, Technical Director at Chicago-based Gensler and a member of the SECB board. “The trend is for architects to be more engaged in complex, innovative projects that take sustainability, energy efficiency, weather, and terrorism, in addition to innovative design and functionality, into consideration. While technical analysis skills are crucial to design the structure, architects are increasingly seeking out structural engineers who also possess in-depth experience and insight so they can be good project partners.”

New materials are also placing more demands on structural engineers. “Many require a great deal of knowledge to handle safely,” says Dr. Gene Corley, Senior Vice President at CTL Group in Skokie, Illinois. “The knowledge required by structural engineers continues to expand exponentially.”

In today’s world of complex structures and 3D modeling, structural engineering is a partnership among architects and other designers. The structural engineer must be able to offer insightful and pragmatic suggestions, and doing that requires strong technical knowledge, depth of experience and problem-solving abilities that have been well-honed over time.

Modern design and construction methods, such as the more traditional fast-track approach or the newer Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) method, place more responsibility on the structural engineer to assist in moving the process forward. “A well-skilled and knowledgeable structural engineer knows what to look for. When engaged early in the project, he or she can contribute many good ideas to help guide the architect in the proper direction regarding materials, performance and efficiency,” says James Malley, Vice President of Engineering at Degenkolb Engineers and Immediate Past President of the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations. “He or she pinpoints potential obstacles or pitfalls which would be time-consuming or costly to fix when they are not identified early in the process.”

3D, 4D and 5D Modeling Bring the Structural Engineer and Architect Together in New, Important Ways

Today’s architects expect the structural engineer to be able to anticipate where changes in the design are likely to occur during the design process and to make sure the design is flexible enough to accommodate those changes without incurring tremendous costs. That’s where today’s advances in computer modeling—3D, 4D and even 5D—are helping to strengthen the teamwork between structural engineer, architect and other project team members.

“Having a computer-generated three dimensional model of the building, representing every piece that’s going into it, the structural engineer can more easily identify the sorts of conflicts that are going to occur during construction,” says Malley. “Together, the architect and structural engineer can then help streamline the construction process and reduce the number of unforeseen conditions or change orders that would have to occur.”

Software programs such as Revit from Autodesk, which has an architectural module and a structural module that work seamlessly together, enable the structural engineers to post their model while the architects post their model, and they can see how it all works, or doesn’t work. So there is more opportunity for coordination, and they can actually absorb a bit about each other’s disciplines. By adding the 4D aspect (time) and the 5D aspect (cost), the entire project team can virtually build the model, generate a time-sequenced plan for constructing the building, and determine the anticipated costs.

“As architects get more and more daring with the concepts they have, they need to make sure there is a good structural system that can be put in place to accomplish their vision for the structure or building,” says Malley. “Today there is a much more hand-in-glove relationship between architects and structural engineers, and it’s for good reason. It benefits everyone, including the owner of the structure and the end users.”

For more information about SECB and the SECB program for certification of engineers competent in the field of structural engineering, please contact Ms. Melissa Matarrese, SECB Coordinator, Structural Engineering Certification Board at (312) 649-4600 or by e-mail at SECB’s offices are located at 645 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 540, Chicago, IL 60611. Please visit the organization’s website at

Jon Boyd, SE, PE, SECB, NCEES, NCARB, AIA, is Chairman/CEO of Klein and Hoffman, Inc. in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a member of the Structural Engineering Certification Board.

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