Structural Engineering Stories

You don’t really know what structural engineering is like until an engineer has told you their stories. The stories of their successes, their set-backs and how they went about finding solutions. The stories of the people behind the places. The stories of the politics behind the possibilities. The stories of perseverance and hope. Definitions of structural engineering are full of facts but engineering stories also capture the feelings. Structural engineering text books are full of equations but engineering stories also capture the emotions. Structural engineers products show the final decisions but engineering stories also capture the drama that led up to them. 

If you know someone who’s a structural engineer maybe you could ask them sometime. There’s also some good structural engineering stories you can read in these books or in particular this one, which I’d recommend. 

But if you’d like to read something short and easy, not too technical but that give an idea about structural engineering and what it feels like, then maybe these might interest you…

Firstly you might like to read a story about Emily the Engineer on a first date, trying to explain what her job is and why it’s important.

Or you might enjoy imagining this story where Emily saves a Beyonce concert, when it looks like the show may have to be cancelled.

Or you might like to put yourself in her shoes as she rushes to St Paul’s Cathedral to stop it collapsing.

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St Paul’s Cathedral is Falling Down

‘Can you come quickly, we’re worried the Cathedral is falling down’. The voice was polite and trying to be calm but there was an edge to it and anyway it wasn’t every day that Ruth, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, rang you before breakfast. If the building that had defined London’s skyline since 1675 really was falling down, that was obviously a big deal.

Emily assured Ruth that she’d come straight away and rang off. She flopped back down onto the bed, looked into the distance and breathed out, blowing out her cheeks. She really didn’t need this today.

She pushed herself out of bed and hobbled slightly stiffly to the bathroom. She’d cycled a new longer route home yesterday to clear her head. That was what she’d needed at the time but now she was paying for it. She had a quick wash in front of the mirror. Her hair looked greasy and she spent a few seconds deciding if she should wash it. Ah well, today wasn’t the day, she’d just have to put it up.

She threw a few bits in her bag before she went to get breakfast. Most of what she needed was on her phone – camera, record drawings of St Paul’s and somewhere to take notes; but she grabbed some measuring equipment including a tape and also some gloves in case she needed to crawl about and get dirty.

The amazing breakfast she’d had planned with toast, salmon and some very ripe avocado’s would have to wait. Emily hated missing breakfast, she really loved her food, but now was not the time. She stopped to fill her water bottle and grabbed a banana and headed out of her apartment.

To save time she got a cab. Sitting in the back of the taxi her mind wandered. Ordinarily, she loved travelling through London and looking at all the buildings. Having seen how much effort went into making each of them just the way they were she found them fascinating to look at and think about. The shops with their glass fronts, high ceilings and spacious interiors sitting beneath blocks of apartments or offices. Lots of the buildings near where she lived appeared to be made of brick but as a structural engineer she knew that most building’s larger than a house probably had a structural engineer design a skeleton for them in steel or concrete. Even St Paul’s Cathedral, which looked like it was just built from stone, had a hidden steel skeleton within the dome to hold it up.

As the taxi approached the Cathedral she was starting to feel slightly nauseous. Not sick exactly just tense around her stomach, and a bit cold. She shivered. It was all just so unfair. The feeling that had been bubbling inside her finally came into focus. She shouldn’t even be here doing this, it should be her boss the eminent Dr Stanley Moss CEng RDI, FICE FIStructE FRSA FRIBA, the country’s one and only cathedral engineer.  But he was on holiday for two weeks, rafting down the Amazon and there was no way to contact him.

What if the Cathedral was falling down? She’d need to get everyone to evacuate and temporary propping installed as fast as possible. And then they’d want her to appear on the news. She’d have to look authoritative. She absentmindedly got out her eye make-up and started to apply it as the taxi swerved around the bendy streets avoiding the traffic. That was always a battle to appear authoritative. Everyone seemed to want their structural engineer to have grey hair and wrinkles…

To be continued…

How can I lose weight quickly?

Emily was doubting herself. “How can I lose weight quickly?” she thought as she looked first at her design for the concert screen and then at the stacks of now useless parts. Beyoncé started rehearsing her final song “Remember those walls I built…” in the background, Emily felt sick. To be able to lift the screen into place, she would have to use all her engineering skill to lose weight from the structure with only six hours left.

Dan, the construction manager, wasn’t helping. He always thought he knew best, and he just couldn’t bring himself to accept that the crane wasn’t going to start again. He had his eyes closed, phone pressed to his ear and was talking passive aggressively as he rubbed his shaved head “Just try and start the crane engine one more time. We really need this”.

She tried to think of happier things to calm herself down. She thought of Thomas, then her mind wandered to the camping holiday they were planning. Then she had a brainwave.

Guy ropes! The structure wouldn’t need to­­ be so strong and heavy if we stabilised it with guy ropes! She’d seen a drum of wire outside for the lighting rigs that she could use. It wasn’t perfect but if she re-designed it carefully, the wires wouldn’t block people’s views. She crouched down, and flipped her drawings over, sketching the new design in biro on the back, while resting them on her knee. To check that it was strong enough, she did some quick calculations on her phone, while talking softly out loud and jotting things down “1kN/m2… 6mm diameter wire.. cos theta.. tension force.. bending moments.. expected deflection..”. There that should do it. She’d write it up properly later.

Dan was shouting into his phone “Come on, it has to work! Try again! Switch it off and then back on again!” She took the phone out of his hand, and handed him her new design.

“Here you go, all sorted”

Dan looked like Emily had cast a stupefy spell over him.

“No need to thank me, just some VIP tickets for that box over there will do it. I’ll see you in five hours, I need to go and get changed!”

Emily was an engineer

This story is for Lucy, an undecided 15 year old, wondering what to do next.

Emily was an engineer.

“Is that like an architect?” asked Thomas as he gazed at her steadily, placing his wine glass carefully back on the table.

“kind of, not really”.

She’d met him online – well to be honest on Tinder. So she knew he had a nice smile, but in person he had quite a presence too. He had nice shoulders. They’d texted a few times, then a lot. He’d rung her while she was swimming, she’d rung him back. He’d suggested this little place and now here they were… talking. It was all a bit awkward, but in a good way.

“architects are like GP’s, structural engineers are like brain surgeons”

She liked putting it like that. It sounded more dramatic than just saying she was a specialist. And it wasn’t just brain surgeons that were smart, it had been such hard work becoming an engineer, and now she’d got chartered as well. It was a real achievement, so she forgave herself for a bit of boasting. It was a first date after all. And those letters after her name had required all her intellect and all her persistence. She studied maths, science and art for A-level. Then she’d had done a masters in engineering at university, with placements in different firms over the holidays. After working for a few years, she’d got enough experience and responsibility to pass the Institution of Civil Engineers membership process.

“oh really” Thomas looked impressed. “So what kind of stuff do you do?”

She noticed while he was talking that he had freckles on his nose. And she was about to answer his question when the pizza arrived (she’d asked if they could get a big one and share, so she could test his generosity – and make sure he didn’t eat any garlic!). They refilled their wine glasses from the bottle and chewed thoughtfully in silence for a few minutes.

“well.. “ she tried to think of a good way to explain it. Thomas caught her gaze while she was staring at his arm muscles, he smiled, but she was sure she was blushing. Before it got any worse, she stammered on.

“well … have you ever been to a gym where the floor was bouncy ?”

“yeh my one at uni was like that”

“well one thing I do, is I advise architect’s how to stop that.”


“I guess you could say structural engineers design the skeleton of a building, how it stands up. But every building is different, so every structural skeleton we design is a bit different. Weight-lifters need bigger bones than jockeys, women and men have different skeletons. Our bodies just adapt over time, but when you’re designing a block of flats you have to know how big the skeleton will be, before you start the foundations. Most buildings you can’t see the skeleton, but sometimes you can like the Eiffel Tower, or the Millenium Brid..”

Emily was cut short. She’d been getting quite passionate about engineering and been waving her hands about, she was just about to talk about her favourite structures, when Thomas seized the moment and leant in for a kiss.