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How to get better at Structural Design

How to get better at Structural Design

How to get better at Structural Design


I have a question for experienced structural engineers. I would like to know how you guys have become faster in structural design. Do you guys have any suggestions on how to get faster in structural design?
I am mostly dealing w/ wood residential buildings lower than 40 feet.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

More practice and experience along with good sound engineering judgement make for better, easier and faster. There is no magic bullet. Once you’ve seen the same problem, or similar problems, a half a dozen times, you are able to skip through some of the steps, knowing that under these circumstances, they are o.k. by inspection. You develop a quicker ability to assess a problem because you know what design info. is needed and what is superfluous, you just develop an ability to organize your design problem solving in a much more efficient way. We all went through this when we started out, and your progress is called more, and better, judgement and experience. And, we all still run into ‘head-scratchers’ when we deal with a completely new problem which we haven’t seen before, but the more experienced engineer has probably already seen some parts of the new problem. Today, there are many design guides and the like, get some of them and study them in a serious way.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Do not ever sacrifice quickness for accuracy. Remember that we are in the business of public safety.

Mike McCann, PE, SE (WA)

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Automation of design calculations is one thing that has allowed me to be faster and more efficient. I use Excel extensively for this purpose. I try to avoid hard-coding any numbers into formulas, but instead reference marked cells with input values for everything. When I reuse a spreadsheet for a new design, I can just look for my marked (shaded) cells to enter the parameters for the new design.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

After studying for the SE exam, I found myself able to better attack problems on an individual basis. As dhengr said, more experience will certainly help. I agree with Mike wholeheartedly.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Mike...excellent. Agree 100%

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Quote (M^2)

Do not ever sacrifice quickness for accuracy

and correct... a precise 'wrong answer' may not be correct... every so often you have to sit back and see it what you've done makes any sense. That comes with practice.

My spreadsheet conversion factors are to 14 or so decimal places... I realise that this accuracy is unwarranted... it comes for free and doesn't show up as a 15 or 16 digit number.


RE: How to get better at Structural Design

No easy way to become proficient except by practice, hard work, studying, reviewing drawings produced by others and asking the questions of yourself "why did they do that?". Look at other jobsites and ask the same questions. Study as many details as you can get your hands on. Find a mentor if you are able. Remember there are generally very specific reasons that engineers do stuff.....economic, technical, code mandates, architectural appearance, constructability, fire ratings, performance, longevity, etc.

I hope this helps!

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Programs, written by you and not someone else, is what makes you faster, in my opinion. It certainly helped me, and helped me prepare for my test. It helps you develop the skill set to calculate quickly, especially when preparing for the exam. Also, after seeing the same problems over and over again, you'll get a good feel of what works and what doesn't right away, experience only fixes that. I have visited buildings where I broke out my calculator and did calculations to make sure that something is sufficient, later to back up findings in the office. If you are able to do that without the assistance of sophisticated computer software, then speed naturally follows. I also use excel sheets, written by me, that speed up the design process, and modeling software for really complex projects.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

I completely agree about writing your own spreadsheet.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Several things have made me faster. For more complicated projects, computer modeling has made my life easier. Using FEM programs to do the design and detailing are the cat's meow. The caveat here is that you have to invest A LOT of time in learning the programs. A junior engineer should be working under someone that is mentoring them. You had better understand how to model a building accurately, or you could get yourself into serious trouble with assumptions that aren't correct.

Secondly, being organized. Develop templates for projects that are similar, keep standard details organized. Develop a process that works for you, and perfect that. Be organized in your calcs, project folders, reference materials. Be organized in your life.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Quote (dianium500)

Programs, written by you and not someone else, is what makes you faster, in my opinion.

I'm a big proponent of this too. Can get tough in a business environment, though. If there's already a spreadsheet written, then writing your own may not be the best use of company time even if it benefits you personally/professionally. Most spreadsheets have mistakes too, so there's that to contend with when writing your own versus using one that has been used successfully for a while (and hopefully vetted). I'd personally argue it's still a net positive even if you lose some profitability getting them there, but I'm sure many managers and business owners would disagree.

You can get similar results by taking someone else's spreadsheet or even hand calculations and going through step-by-step to make sure you truly understand what's going on, where the equations are coming from and what they're doing (in structural theory or building codes, not where cells are being pulled from). I'd still prefer writing my own, but you can do well going through other people's work too. And it's a bit more palatable business-wise, especially if the spreadsheet needs to be updated for a new code anyways.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

Thank you so much all for the great responses. I will consider them in my development.

RE: How to get better at Structural Design

I see my engineering repertoire as amassing a set of basic "tools" on my engineering toolbelt. For my everyday work (low to mid-rise residential/commercial construction), we come across the same basic types of problems over and over again. You will design thousands of beams and get really good at it, this is one "tool" on your toolbelt. You will design thousands of columns and that is another "tool". Eventually you will have a couple of dozen or so basic "tools" in your kit and this will suit you well for 90% of all situations.

One day you will come across a harder problem that doesn't work perfectly within your toolkit. You might have to be a little creative and use a combination of tools in your toolkit to come up with a solution. If you have enough tools in your toolkit, you will realize that a harder problem is just a variation or combination of some easier problems which you have mastered. You will be able to break apart a hard problem into its most basic form and apply your fundamental techniques.

Maybe you will come across a completely new type of problem and sometimes there are specialty tools just for that one situation.

You will slowly be able to tackle 95% of all problems you encounter with your toolkit. Eventually 96%, 97% and so on. If you see enough situations it will soon become quick and natural for you to know what to do.

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