The State of Structural Engineering in the US

In spring 2021, IDEA StatiCa ran the first batch of research on the US's structural engineering market. The research's primary purpose was to thoroughly map US structural engineers' habits, needs, and requirements. This year, we broadened the research by surveying even more companies in other states and regions.

In one of the previous blog posts, we shared the first insights from this research, mainly talking about the general approach of structural engineers to steel connection design. In this article, we are taking a look at the US structural engineering market and its current state from the point of material usage and type of construction.

Characteristics of engineering services/projects

At the very beginning, it is essential to mention that all subjects in this research were confined to geographical criteria – only 38 states from the Eastern and Central US were included.

The reason for this limitation was pretty simple – the western part of the US has significantly different seismic design requirements. That implies different engineering processes, habits and workflows. To obtain consistent results and avoid mixing up two different approaches, we decided to limit the first batch of the research to only the Eastern and Central states of the US.

The data was collected in two separate survey batches. The first one was conducted in May-July 2021, and the other in March-April, 2022. In total, we spoke to representatives of 818 engineering companies and completed 548 questionnaires.

Number of structural engineers & designers

At the beginning of the questionnaire, we asked how many structural engineers or designers work in the interviewed company. The following graph shows the results.

Number of structural engineers & designers

The average number of structural engineers and designers per company varies a lot, so the average metrics might be misleading and influenced by extremes and outliers. Using the median metric, we can state that most of the interviewed offices have around 5 structural engineers or designers. The absolute majority (384 of 528 respondents) of offices declare having between 1 and 10 structural engineers in their teams. 

Usage of materials – "One steel to rule them all"

The goal of this research part was to gain an elementary overview of materials used in construction projects. The question was, “How often do you use/work with those as with the main material.” 

Respondents were supposed to choose from the scale: "always, often, sometimes, rarely, or never". In the next chart, you can see the split of materials mentioned as used "always" or "often". 

Usage of materials

Data confirms the importance of steel and concrete as the most commonly used materials – 82% of subjects use steel always or often, and 72% use concrete. When explored in more detail, about 40% of companies use steel in all their projects ("always"), and 32% of companies use concrete always. 

Types of Construction

Similarly to the usage of materials, we tried to summarize all types of construction and how often they appear on the desks of structural engineers. The chart also includes institutional structures that were stated as others spontaneously.

Types of Construction

No surprise, commercial projects lead. 20% of companies declare to design commercial structures as always, and about 43% do it often.

Besides those mentioned above, several respondents also listed other purposes, which we did not include in the chart because of their lower numbers. These include agricultural, nuclear, garages, marine, temporary, high-rise, sign, catenary, or environmental structures.

We also merged the material usage data with the purpose of construction. 

No big surprise here. For industrial buildings  - steel is in the lead, while for residential steel, concrete and timber are almost equal

Please remember, the chart includes only data of companies that mentioned using the material in concern "always" or "often". 

Structural engineering disciplines

We also wanted to understand the distribution of firms doing three structural engineering disciplines (Overall structural design, Connection design, Fabrication/shop drawings). We asked them to say how often they did these.
Again, answering on a scale of "always, often, sometimes, rarely, or never". The chart below shows a percentage of those who stated to be doing respective disciplines as always or often.

Structural engineering disciplines

42% of interviewed structural engineering companies do connection design always or often. 

To see how they do the connection design, what types of connections they design etc., you can check the previous part of the research summary

We also wanted to provide more information about the "other" option, the most often mentioned activities related to the inspection and evaluation of existing structures, repairing design for damages and retrofit, and very often was also bridge design mentioned. 

Key findings

These research results align with information around the industry from Structural Engineering Associations and other industry groups. 

Typically, structural firms are smaller companies with a specific focus on types of projects ie.  commercial, residential or industrial. The reason for this is that each of these project types has some nuance to it. You would not apply the same principles to a single-family home as you would apply to a processing facility. Also, you have firms that do specialize in new construction, renovations /repairs or inspections.  

This study also confirmed that steel and concrete are still the materials of choice for buildings. Every project uses these materials in some fashion, but we are definitely seeing other materials being used more often, especially wood (in the form of CLT, etc.) for commercial projects.  

The interesting result is the number of firms working on connection design always or often based upon the geographical region involved. This is a much higher number than expected, as while attending different seminars and conferences over the last 20 years around structural engineering and particularly the steel industry, the connection design discussion was that East of the Rockies was primarily delegated connection design.

This is starting to change as firms are looking for other revenue streams and saving time as the schedule has become the main drive for so many projects. Many firms see providing connection design as meeting both needs. They can and have been selling connection design as an additional service to their clients to help expedite the construction administration phase of a project. 

The key factor is that the EOR knows the structure, has the analysis model and knows how he expects the building to perform; thus can often provide a more economical design in less time. Rather than having to provide some general rules back to the fabricator and his connection engineer to ensure that he is covered for any situation that could arise. The phrase “When in doubt, make it stout!” has cost building owners millions of dollars and cost connection engineers their hair as they pull it out, trying to understand what the EOR intends.

As a connection design software provider, we are happy to support this potential shift in the market by providing a tool to design any connection, linking to any analysis software, and helping engineers around the globe be more confident and comfortable in their designs. 

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