A day in the life of a Structural Engineer
Have you ever driven by a construction site and seen the “skeleton” of a building going up and thought, “I wonder who designed that?” Have you speculated how tunnels, bridges, or other structures stay in place? Well, we can thank a structural engineer for helping design most of the infrastructure and buildings we use and interact with daily.
Structural engineers consult with architects and contractors to calculate loads on a system so that it is designed safely to withstand the elements (like high winds or earthquakes) and manmade impacts (think of cars traveling across bridges and roads). They provide drawings to describe their design and tell contractors how to build each structure effectively. Structural engineers are employed in a variety of fields, such as building design, bridge design, power plants, and wind farms, as well as vehicle design for aircrafts and ships, to name a few.
Structural engineers typically work behind the scenes on a project. So, to learn more about this field that impacts us all, we recently visited with one of our long-time structural engineers, who shared with us what he does on projects and what he’s learned throughout his career. For those considering working in this field, Mark McKinney, PE, provides an intriguing glimpse into the world of engineering.
How and why did you become an engineer? Why a structural engineer?
When I was a kid, I was always building things – Legos, tinker toys, models, model rockets, you name it. Math and science were easy for me, so I enrolled in general engineering at OSU because I wasn’t sure what different types of engineers actually do. In my first semester, the head of the civil engineering department called and offered me a $300 scholarship to change my major to civil engineering, which was a lot of money at the time. I changed my major the next day and it could not have worked out better. I’ve been engineering for more than 27 years now and I still enjoy it.
What does your typical day look like?
I start off each day probably like most people, by making a to-do list first thing every morning and crossing items off throughout the day. More than anything else, I sketch, mark-up, and review drawings over and over until they are complete. I still do calculations to determine the size of structural members and their components, but I’ve been doing them so long that they go pretty quick. Every project has a team of people working on it, and I experience a lot of interaction within the project team. All projects have project completion deadlines, so I’m always working toward the next deadline.
Is there a lot of travel?
A few short trips a year, so not much. Most people like to know there is a structural engineer working on their project, but they also realize I’m not getting much actual work done when I’m at their site or sitting across the table from them. Most of my work takes place in the office, where I have access to all the necessary resources and can collaborate with my team.
What do you take into consideration when designing and analyzing a project? How do you plan for these in your design?
Every project has a structure to support “something,” and that “something” varies quite a bit per project. At Ross Group, we do anything from oil and gas, industrial, and commercial buildings, to concrete reaction masses for vibration testing, parking garages, and historical renovations.
The first step is to gather all the information on what I’m designing. Next, I consider all the loads and select a structural system. The challenge is to then figure out how to create a set of drawings that will describe the project accurately to someone who knows nothing about it!
What do you like about your field?
A lot. Before a project can be built, it has to exist on paper – our drawings. Before it exists on paper, it only exists in my mind. All of this work starts with my ideas, which eventually become something real in the world that people see and use - and I like seeing my ideas take shape and come to life.
I also enjoy coming up with a simple solution to a difficult problem, all the little “eureka” moments. Sometimes one of our constructors comes to me with a problem and their project is “stuck,” meaning progress has slowed or stopped. When I spend some time to solve the issue and get their project going again, they are appreciative. I discover something new on almost every project, so I never stop learning, which is something I love about the job and is important to me.
What are some challenges?
Engineering teams are very dependent on each other. They can’t do their work without me and I can’t do my work without them. When I’m working with a good team and the project is going well, it’s fun. It doesn’t happen often, but if I’m working with a team that does not get along or someone is not doing their part, it’s pretty rough.
What is something about your job that would surprise someone outside your field?
When someone sees my desk covered with papers, pencils, scales (like a ruler), circle/square templates, etc., they are often surprised. Of course, our awesome designer draws everything in CAD on a computer, but I’m still old school and draw everything by hand. I have an electric pencil sharpener within arm’s reach and use it several times a day.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into the field?
Find a good mentor. I am very fortunate that when I was a young engineer, I had talented older engineers to learn from. There is a huge learning curve after college when you start an engineering job, and you must have people willing to show you the ropes. Another important lesson when designing is remembering the “KISS” acronym - Keep It Simple, Stupid. Do not overcomplicate your design if you don’t have to; it just confuses people!
What was your favorite project and why?
Wow, that’s a tough one. I was one of the engineers on Chesapeake Arena and when I’m there, I always look up at the roof trusses I designed. I was the structural engineer for the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and day or night, there are always people there remembering what happened that day. I worked on a NASA project a few years ago, which was for the world’s largest sound test chamber with one of the world’s largest vibration test facilities right next to it. When I look back over the years, I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to do work that I enjoy and that is important to me and my community.
Mark’s diverse career is just one example of the significant role structural engineers play in creating both the simple and complex structures you see around you every day. The next time you gaze up in wonder at a high-rise under construction, experience the heady mix of exhilaration and anxiety when driving a multi-level highway interchange, or simply consider how your house holds up its roof, you’ll remember that it's all because – in part – someone like Mark did his job. Amazing examples of engineering are all around us and the more we know about how they work, the more we can appreciate their impact on our everyday lives.