The Status of Structural Engineering
in the United States of America

Milo S. Ketchum, B.Sc., M.Sc., M.I.Struct.E., M.ASCE.

presented at The Institution of Structural Engineers Fiftieth Anniversary Conference, October 1958
The Institution of Structural Engineers, 11 Upper Belgrave Street, London, S.W.1.

A review of the profession of structural engineering in the United States should be of interest to the members of the Institution of Structural Engineers because of the many parallels between your practice and ours.

In the United States it cannot be said that there is a real profession of structural engineering. There is no national society which represents the interests of the structural engineer exclusively; there is no course of instruction in structural engineering in an accredited engineering college, and there is no magazine for the structural engineer. It is actually a subprofession with interests in civil engineering, contracting, architecture, aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, and many other fields. In each of these design fields, his interests are secondary and he is seldom in a position of leadership. Only in the field of bridge engineering does the structural engineer design a complete unit of construction and hold a dominant position.

Let us consider, for example, the field of architecture. Here the structural engineer works as an employee for the architect, as a self-employed consultant, or, in a very few cases, as a principal in an architect-engineer firm. As an employee he is expected to prepare only that portion of the plans of a building showing the structural components. The overall responsibility for, and conception of, the structure however, rests with the architect. Unless he, too, becomes a registered architect, he normally does not become a principal in the firm. As an employee, the structural engineer cannot be a true professional and his earnings will always have a limited ceiling, depending on his usefulness to the firm of architects. Many architectural firms in the United States employ the services of consulting structural engineers on a fee basis, usually a percentage of the cost of construction. The consultant is more truly professional. However, it is usually the architect who designs the basic structure and the consultant merely determines the size of the beams and prepares a set of plans to go along with those prepared by the architect, who receives the greater part of the fee. Other consultants in the architectural field are not in a comparable situation. For example, a heating and ventilating engineer makes most of the major decisions with regard to the equipment and processes be selects.

In the field of aeronautics, structural engineers are employed in the design of only a part of the entire machine and are seldom in a position where their decisions can dominate the design; the aerodynamic and engine problems far outweigh those of structure. The same is true in the fields of machine design.

The most noteworthy structures in America have been in bridge engineering. It is interesting to observe that most of the long span suspension bridges have been designed by independent consulting engineers rather than by the engineering staffs of organizations, such as state highway departments, for which they were built. The connexion between performance and professional status is certainly evident in these structures.

A few consulting structural engineers prepare plans and specifications for industrial buildings and in this field act essentially as architects rather than structural engineers.

Professional Representation

There has been virtually no professional leadership in structural engineering in the United States. The interests of the structural engineer presumably are represented by the American Society of Civil Engineers. There can be little doubt that it has fulfilled its function in the technical field, but professionally it would be surprising if such a heterogeneous group as the members of the A.S.C.E. could advance the professional interests of the structural engineer, possibly at the expense of other members of the group.

The leadership of the society comes largely from outside structural engineering. Of the present (1957) Board of Directors, with the exception of two bridge engineers for Highway and Railway bridge departments, and a consulting bridge engineer, there are no individuals who can be identified primarily as structural engineers.

Furthermore, there has been no concerted effort of structural engineers to break away from their present status within the society. Several years ago the sanitary engineers made such an attempt to form their own organization but a compromise was made through which they now have a partially independent status.

Although there is no national society for structural engineers, several of the western states have such organizations. In California, the Structural Engineers Associations of Northern and Southern California are very active. Membership is not limited to practising engineers but includes affiliate membership for contractors, suppliers and equipment manufacturers. This movement is spreading from the west coast and associations have been formed in Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. As the movement gains momentum. and penetrates further east, the time will come when a decision must be made by the A.S.C.E. on the proper place of structural engineering in its set-up or it will lose many of its members. One solution would be to divide the membership into separate but allied groups. A precedent exists for this in the formation of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers, with component organizations of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, and so forth.

The problem of individual professional recognition has been further compounded by the tremendous growth of the National Society of Professional Engineers. The principle requirement for admission to this society is registration as a professional engineer in one of the forty-eight states, the territories, or the District of Columbia. This organization has been very active in representing the professional interests of registered engineers, particularly in the matter of salaries, enforcement of the registration laws, and professional recognition for the engineer. Again the N.S.P.E. cannot be expected to further the interests of a special group such as the structural engineers at the expense of others. This fact has only recently been demonstrated to the N.S.P.E. by the formation of a separate national group for consulting engineers called the Consulting Engineers Council. There are now seventeen state and regional organizations comprising this group. The N.S.P.E. has also formed a division, known as the Functional Group for the Consulting Engineer, to compete with the C.E.C., but it is the consensus of the consultants that the N.S.P.E. cannot act properly for them.

Registration of Engineers

The problem of registration of engineers plays a very important part in the work of engineering societies. It may be of interest to outline the situation with regard to registration laws in the United States. In order to practise engineering, one must obtain registration from the state board of registration in the state in which one intends to practise. In conformity to the principle of states rights, each registration law is different. In some states, registration is difficult to obtain and in others, it is easy. There are many states and the laws are continually being tested in the courts and are being revised so the picture changes each year. However, a general pattern is emerging from the confusion. At the time of graduation from an engineering school, the prospective engineer takes an examination for a designation as an “Engineer-in-Training.” This examination is intended to test the basic engineering education of the trainee. After about four years of experience, a final examination is taken for qualification as a registered engineer.

In many states, registration carries no designation of the branch so that, legally, a mechanical engineer can draw plans for structural engineering work. In other states the branch is designated. In a few states, structural engineering is a special category. For example, in California, one must first pass an examination as a civil engineer and then after several years experience, under a structural engineer, and after a rather difficult examination, one obtains registration as a structural engineer. This designation is required for certain types of public work. The principal reason given for the more rigid requirements in California, is the necessity to design and build for earthquake forces.

Technical Societies

Although there is no national organization to look after the interests of the structural engineer, there are many technical societies that he must join in order to receive tile technical publications. One may list for example: The American Concrete Institute, The American Welding Society, The Prestressed Concrete Institute, International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering, and others.

Of particular interest is the American Concrete Institute, founded in 1905 as the National Association of Cement Users. The A.C.I. is very active in the technical field but, of course, cannot be cognizant of the professional problems of the structural engineer. The companion organization in the structural field is the American Institute of Steel Construction, which is a trade association of steel fabricators and not a technical society. The American Welding Society does a great deal of useful work in the technical phases of structural steel.

Education of the Structural Engineer

Some of the structural engineer's difficulties result from the educational situation. The education of American youth is one of the much debated topics of American life. Many Americans, particularly those with college training and brought up under the classical system, are completely out of sympathy with the so-called progressive education which puts peculiar emphasis on the absence of discipline. This system has reacted unfavourably on engineering education. Training that the student should have received before he enters college must be given in college, thus displacing many courses of a technical nature. Another significant feature of American education is the insistence on a completely democratic system. Every child must have the opportunity of going to college regardless of his natural qualifications. Education of our youth is thus reduced to its lowest common denominator. There is strong evidence that the pendulum is going to swing in the opposite direction in this regard. Progressive education has run its course. The competition for entrance into the colleges is becoming very great, thus putting a premium on rigorous training in the lower grades.

There are also great strengths in American education. It cannot be denied that the American youth is a well adjusted individual and has been trained in team work. Most of our youth, even in the upper middle class families, are accustomed to working with their hands.

A short description of our educational system may be of interest to those of you who are not familiar with it. The prospective engineer begins his education at six years of age and then continues through twelve years of school, which are known as Elementary School, Junior High School and High School. He then is ready to enter college at about eighteen. The normal school year is from the middle of September to the first of June, so there is a vacation of three months in the summer during which many boys work at odd jobs such as lawn mowing and clerking in grocery stores. Engineering students usually obtain practical experience during this period. The normal engineering course is four years, with a few institutions requiring five years. Instruction in an engineering school is quite rigorous and requires all of the waking hours of the normal student to attend classes and prepare his lessons. Most classes are by recitation with formal lectures in some of the basic subjects such as chemistry and physics. The advanced classes are both lecture and recitation. The student usually submits homework to the instructor to be graded each day. Examinations are given at the end of each course, each semester, and there are no final qualifying examinations for graduation. Advanced training is obtained in the division of a college or university called the Graduate School and the degrees given are the Master of Science and the Doctor of Philosophy. The nature of graduate work is quite different from that of the undergraduate engineering school. Discipline is relaxed and the student is expected to do his own work and some of his own thinking. Engineering educators like to think that the Master's Degree is equal to graduation from an English or European school of engineering. Most engineering educators would like to have the gifted students return for a year of graduate work after several years of experience, rather than adding another year to the present four year curriculum.

Structural engineers may be trained as either civil engineers or architectural engineers. The civil engineering students receive professional courses in highways, structures, traffic, city planning or hydraulics, with usually only a single specialized course. in advanced structures. The emphasis is only on analysis while the design and creative phases are greatly neglected The civil engineering student can hardly be expected to be made aware of the accomplishments and problems of the structural engineer, and it is now generally understood that to be trained adequately in structural engineering, it is necessary to obtain an advanced degree.

Courses in architectural engineering are usually given in connexion with schools of architecture and are often entirely separate from colleges of engineering. The structural engineering portions of the architectural engineering curriculum are, of course, primarily devoted to problems of building construction. In this connexion, the architectural engineering graduate receives considerable training in architectural design. Actually, many architectural engineering graduates go into straight architecture as draughtsmen and many of our practising architects are graduates of these courses. Here again structural engineering plays second fiddle to another profession. Also, many graduates go into the better paying field of aeronautical engineering where they are preferred to other graduates for their superior ability in stress analysis.

Engineering educators are now generally concerned not with the technical competence of their graduates, but with the general education. There has been a concerted movement to introduce more courses into the curriculum in the humanities, such as English, history and economics. If the lower schools would do a proper job, it would not be necessary to give elementary courses in these subjects at the college level.

An interesting sidelight of the training of American engineers has been the great interest in the development of iterative methods for analysis. They have been popular because the education of American civil engineers is deficient in mathematics; the usual curriculum going no further than calculus. This is due in some measure to the large number of subjects which must be covered; to the very poor pre-college mathematics training, and the lack of need for mathematics in the non-structural courses. Methods of analysis which by-pass mathematics have been developed which appeal to the American engineer - the most noteworthy of which is the Moment Distribution Method, developed by Hardy Cross. He is noted in this country not only for this development but for his great interest in the basic philosophy of structural engineering.

Some of the lack of thorough mathematical training may be made up by the availability of electronic computing machines which by use of finite difference methods, reduce the demand for highly trained professional mathematicians through the use of prepared programmes. Many highway departments already use small computers for routine calculation of earth-work quantities and for calculations of dimensions and stresses in highway bridges.


Let us now examine the problem of technical and trade magazines. There are many sources of technical information but there is no single technical publication exclusively devoted to the interests of the structural engineering profession. The best known publication in the civil engineering field is really a contractor's magazine with an occasional article describing the construction of all interesting structure. Very little space is given to the analysis and design problems of structural engineering. Civil Engineering, a magazine published by the American Society of Civil Engineers, usually has a single article each month on structural engineering of more interest to construction men than to design engineers. Few articles of a creative nature are presented which might stimulate the imagination of the structural engineer. A comparison with a similar magazine published in England, will indicate that the American magazines are quite allergic to mathematics and detailed analysis of engineering structures.

There are three excellent magazines for architects published in the United States. By subscribing to all of these magazines, it is possible for the engineer directly concerned with buildings to glean some inspiration on new structures. A large part of the circulation of these magazines is to engineers so it is worthwhile to keep them interested. For example, photographs of Felix Candela's beautiful shell structures in Mexico were shown in architectural magazines years before they appeared in the engineering magazines.

In the field of purely technical publications, the situation has improved in recent years. The publication policy of the A.S.C.E. has been revised so that the Proceedings are now issued separately to each technical division of the Society in the form of small paper bound volumes, produced by photo-offset from typewritten copy. The publication is more rapid and the structural engineer does not need to wade through papers in many fields in order to find one of possible interest to him. The Journal of the American Concrete Institute is one of the necessary publications for the structural engineer. It is handsomely printed and contains many articles on both design and construction.

The Consulting Structural Engineer

The most professional group in the structural engineering profession are the consulting engineers, and if there is to be any leadership, it must come from this group.

The average consultant is somewhat of an individualist; the average structural office is quite small, consisting of not more than a principal and five employees. The architect must have personal service from the engineer so large organizations are the exception. The major part of his practice is the preparation of the structural drawings for architects. In the United States, the architect hires the structural engineer and pays him directly out of his own fee rather than having the owner engage the services of the engineer directly. The same is true for heating and ventilating and electrical engineers, and other consultants.

Statistics indicate that about 65 per cent of the architects use the services of structural consultants. The remainder do their own structural design or employ structural engineers on their own payroll. There are a few structural engineers that are full partners of architect-engineer firms and can thus fully participate in the planning of the work of these firms.

The consultant is competing against the architect who can place engineers on his own payroll. Therefore, the consultant must be efficient in the preparation of plans. However, there is no real stimulation for the average consultant to prepare unusual structural designs or to spend time in study unless he has an unusual architect client who demands such performance.

Twenty years ago much of the structural engineering design was furnished by suppliers of materials. Now the consulting engineer has little competition from this source because most architects either have their own engineering staff or work with consultants. There are very few proprietory companies furnishing structural systems that also furnish their own structural engineering. On the other hand, there are a number of large contracting firms who furnish a complete building service called, “a package deal”, or a “turnkey job” particularly for industrial buildings. These firms generally have their own architectural and engineering staffs and do not use the services of consultants.

The profession of Quantity Surveyor is almost unknown in the United States. Plans are drawn in detail and sent to contractors for competitive bids (or tenders as I understand they are called in Great Britain). The contractors make their own take-off of quantities. Therefore, the plans and specifications have to be complete at least as regards quantities of materials or the architect may have to furnish parts of the building out of his own pocket if he has a recalcitrant client. The general contractor may be only a broker and engage sub-contractors for all the elements of a building. Complete shop details are normally furnished by reinforcing bar fabricating companies or by structural steel fabricators. The drawings are then checked by the structural engineer as a service and is included in the basic fee. In some areas, the structural engineer also may prepare shop drawings for his projects as a separate contract with the fabricator.

The structural engineer also may supervise construction of the most important elements of the structure, such as the placement of reinforcement. It is not the general practice for engineers to furnish complete supervision.

Fees for consulting engineers are normally based on a percentage of the total cost of construction, or on the total less the mechanical and electrical contracts. They vary from one-half of one per cent to 1.25 per cent of the total. In California, the exception to the general rule, the fees are much higher ostensibly because of the earthquake problem. The normal fee for the architect is 6 per cent of the total cost of construction. The standard fee for heating and ventilating and electrical is 3 per cent of the cost of the equipment. The structural engineer is not normally reimbursed on the basis of the cost of the structure only because of the difficulty of separating a reliable structural cost from the. contractor's estimate.

Bridge Engineers

Until a few years ago, there were only a few legitimate bridge engineers in tile United States, and their practice was devoted mainly to long span toll bridges that were out of the range of design of state highway departments. With the adoption of the new highway programme, the shortage of draughtsmen and engineers has made it necessary to use consultants. There are many firms now taking part in the highway programme who design both the road system and the bridges required for it. These designs are often dictated by the state bridge departments and there is little room for structural ingenuity. There are, of course, outstanding exceptions to this general rule.

The Future

It is even more important for the structural engineers to have strong professional leadership than for other professions because they are in a subordinate position. The need for preserving a high morale is greater and there should be better communication between structural engineers in the fields of building, bridge, aeronautical and mechanical engineering structures. The attempt at the formation of such a group would, of course, be strongly opposed by the other societies in the civil engineering field because of the great multiplication of professional societies. However, it might be possible for such a society to be a part of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In summary, it is the unescapable conclusion of the writer that much could be done for the structural engineering profession in the United States if there could be proper leadership. The profession could have some voice in the education of structural engineers so they would be better fitted for their profession, better grounded in fundamentals and trained to have more creative minds. Because of the structural engineer's inferior position in regard to the work he performs with the architect, it is even more important for him to have leadership of his own choosing than for some of the other divisions of engineering.

The American structural engineer should study his profession in Great Britain where a professional organization has been formed to which he could look for the solution of many of these problems.

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