Hiring a civil engineer or a structural engineer for a construction project

When constructing a new home, renovating an existing home or carrying out any other construction project, you will need either a Civil Engineer or a Structural Engineer or sometimes both. Civil Engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines and is a general field that encompasses numerous specialities. Structural Engineering, although classified as a sub-group or speciality of Civil Engineering, has grown so much in popularity and demand that it is now considered as a separate Engineering discipline.

The differences between a Civil Engineer and a Structural Engineer are often misunderstood. Both of these engineers start off by obtaining a Civil Engineering degree. A Structural Engineer goes a step further by going through post graduate studies in structural engineering which is a specialization that focuses on analysis of the materials used in design, construction and maintenance of man-made structures and studies how the materials and components interact with each other to provide a safe structure.

Civil Engineers design and supervise construction of homes, commercial and industrial structures, roadways, airports and other infrastructure.

A Structural Engineer is first and foremost a Civil Engineer and may perform both functions in designs, inspections and certifications. However, a Civil Engineer would be all that you would require for the actual implementation of the project.

Your Architect is mainly focused on the spatial design and final appearance of your project. Your contractor focuses on delivering the project as closely as possible to the plans and designs that were approved for construction. In between your architect and contractor, a Civil or Structural Engineer is needed to give an engineering design for the project and ensure that the design is adequate and that all building components are taken into account. 

Choosing between hiring a Civil Engineer over a Structural Engineer will depend mostly on the type of structure, geographical location of the project and other engineering project design and evaluations requirements.

Type of structure

The type of project would determine your requirements in choosing an engineer. You would choose the services of a Civil Engineer for designs and plans for site grading, retaining walls, drainage and sewer, stormwater and septic tanks.

However, Structural Engineers are typically required for new custom homes, multi-family and condominium structures, remodel or additions to existing structures, decks and patios, accessory dwelling units, ground-up commercial and mixed-use buildings. Large infrastructure projects such as dams and bridges will require a Structural Engineer. 

Geographical location of the project

The geographical location of your project will determine the responsibility of your engineering design and implementation needs. State and local ordinances will specify your requirements, depending on the type, size, use and location of your structure. California may require a Structural Engineer for a certain project and for any other state, a Civil engineer may suffice.

Different climate patterns and topography of an area also plays a part in legislation or ordinances that will either require or remove the need for a Structural Engineer. There are also ordinances that specify which engineers are required for areas near the ocean, rivers and other waterways.

Most of California is sitting on seismically active zones. A Structural Engineer is required for seismic retrofit and soft story retrofit projects and could be mandatory, voluntary or triggered (when a building is sold or undergoes a substantial renovation) with ordinances varying depending on the area covered by your project.

Some structures may not even need the services of both Civil and Structural Engineers depending on the building official that has jurisdiction, example of these are agricultural buildings of wood frame construction and interior alterations or additions to a building that does not affect the safety of the building.

Other engineering project design and evaluations requirements

A Civil Engineer will be all you need for designs and plans for projects such as traffic control, hydrology studies, erosion control and subdivision. For peer review, this would depend on what is necessary and may need either a Civil or Structural Engineer.

For construction estimates, calculations, documentation requirements, building codes research and construction administration, hiring a Civil Engineer would be a more reasonable choice.

You will need the services of a Structural Engineer for existing structures that involves load bearing wall removal and on-site structural evaluations. A structural Engineer is also required for fire rebuild, pool engineering, shoring design, foundation engineering, structural calculations, equipment anchorage and foundations, HVAC installation supports and solar installation supports.

All of the items mentioned until now involve constructing a new structure or investigating an existing structure for additions. Civil and Structural Engineers are also needed in the event of failure or collapse of a structure. When a structure collapses, a Civil Engineer will investigate if it was built according to the plans and designs and if proper and timely maintenance was performed to ensure that relevant codes were followed. A Structural Engineer, although can also perform the previous task, has the added work of determining if the concrete, steel, lumber and other materials used for the project had adequate strength and resistance to make the structure safe. All factors that may contribute to weakening and eventual failure of the structure are considered. Upon completing all investigation, a final determination of the cause of the collapse is issued. 

How we can help

There are many factors to consider before you decide if you are going to hire a Civil Engineer over a Structural Engineer. Consider the whole scope of your project from beginning to end.

As a Homeowner, Contractor or Architect, you may need the services of either a Civil Engineer or Structural Engineer at one time or another. We at Design Everest can help you choose the best and most practical option for your needs taking into account all engineering aspects that are required. Contact us now and we will provide you a FREE Consultation with a quote. We also provide virtual on-sites and virtual consultations.

Sources/References:
  • https://www.seaoc.org/page/why_need_se
  • https://www.bpelsg.ca.gov/pubs/building_design_auth.pdf
  • https://civiltoday.com/structural-engineering/348-civil-vs-structural-engineering
  • https://www.bpelsg.ca.gov/pubs/local_officials_guide.pdf
  • https://www.nspe-ca.org/licensure/inception-of-the-ca-pe-act

*Note: The content published above was made in collaboration with members of Design Everest.

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