What Structural Engineers Want Architects to Know

Chris Hofheins

There is a famous African proverb that reads “It takes a village to raise a child.” It also takes a village to design and construct a building. The goal for all project team members is to work together to deliver a successful building for our clients. Here are four items architects can do to help their structural engineer deliver a winning project.

  • Engage the structural engineer early
  • Communicate what is important to you and the client
  • Establish clear lines of communication
  • Develop a schedule that maximizes design time and minimizes design changes

Engage the structural engineer early

Best practice would be to consult with a structural engineer at project conception. When consulted from the beginning, your structural engineer can provide different building material options and cost-effective ways to structurally frame the building. Creating floor plans and building concepts prior to consulting with a structural engineer will limit the options a structural engineer can provide. Due to product lead times, many cost-effective solutions may no longer be an option for the project, which will increase project costs.

Communicate what is important to you and the client

Structural engineers want architects to be successful in delivering their vision to clients. Occasionally a structural engineer’s nature to please is mis-guided when we do not understand what is most important to the architect, contractor, and owner. Take column placement as an example. Without additional input from the architect, the structural engineer will provide a column layout that is most efficient for the building structure. This efficiency may be in contradiction with the architect’s goals. Frequent communication and feedback to your structural engineer will enable them to provide structural options that meet your vision, are cost effective, and builder friendly.

Establish clear lines of communication

Structural engineers are problem solvers by nature. Communication comes fast and from all directions. Sometimes structural engineers unintentionally get the proverbial cart in front of the horse. A common example is when a contractor contacts the engineer directly looking for a solution to a problem. If your structural engineer knows the architect’s communication preferences, engineers can be more responsive to needs and questions without creating confusion in the process.

Develop a schedule that maximizes design time and minimizes design changes

The most notable change in the industry I have seen over my career is the acceleration of the design process. Structural engineers are typically on the critical path to complete our design and deliver permit documents so the contractor can get in the ground as soon as possible. The need to start construction quickly is at odds with the structural engineer’s need for time to develop the most cost-effective design. The two most notable things architects can do to help structural engineers successfully overcome this challenge is to build a schedule that maximizes our design time and minimize changes. Go to bat for your structural engineer to help them establish a design timeline that both enables the contractor to deliver the project on time while maximizing the structural engineer’s design timeline. Establish intermediate design deliverables, then hold owners and design team members accountable for hitting deliverables and making decisions. Late information and late changes raise the hurdle and will make it more difficult for your structural engineer to deliver a complete and cost-effective design on an accelerated schedule.

Nothing is more satisfying than being part of an effective team that works together to deliver a successful project despite the obstacles along the way. Engaging with your structural engineer early, sharing project goals with clear lines of communication, and developing a schedule that enables all team members to be successful are the necessary ingredients to a successful project.