[Viewpoint] What Makes a Good Structural Engineer?

When you think about what makes a good engineer, what comes to mind? Creative problem solving?  Technical skills? Tact application of scientific principles?

good engineer deliberating on a drawing

Very recently I was in the company of two architects reviewing drawings while also discussing work. Both men were sharing their experiences with structural engineers. The conversation tended towards the direction of structural engineers all acting in the same way and not being open-minded. Yes, while architects mostly worry themselves with functionality and aesthetics, structural engineers think about stability and safety first. These requirements can sometimes contrast. And frankly, you do not need to be a member of the built environment, you only need to have engaged in a conversation between an architect and a structural engineer to figure this out.

After much had been said, and both men now noticing the smirk that was already very visible on my face, one of the architects turned towards me and asked the question, “what exactly makes a good structural engineer?” Good question I silently said to myself, this is perhaps, a great opportunity to put both men to sleep by making a compelling argument for my profession. However, answering this question was not as easy as I would soon find out.

When you think about what makes a good engineer, what comes to mind? Probably, Creative problem solving?  Technical skills? tact application of scientific principles? See, these are skillset that makes up an engineer. The question wasn’t about what makes an engineer. An average engineer and a good engineer are all engineers, however, there’s a clear cut between an average engineer and a good engineer. So, what really does it mean to be a good engineer? Are good engineers born with a natural talent, discovered in unique environments? Or can they be cultivated and shaped? Are they like prodigies, emerging from a lineage of technical experts? Or are they more like adventurers, who simply need the right opportunity to unleash their potential and create innovative solutions?

In answering the question, I quickly ran through my memory, sampling through for people I’d met and which I would consider were good engineers within the context of the discussion. Here are my top five indicators.

Top of my list is creative thinking. Creativity is often overlooked in the engineering profession, but it is a crucial attribute that separates average engineers from good ones. Creativity in engineering means more than just artistic ability; it encompasses the capacity to devise innovative solutions to complex problems.

Engineering education and training often emphasize mathematics and optimization, naturally attracting left-brained individuals who think linearly. From the beginning of their studies, engineering students are taught to prioritize efficiency, optimization, and economy. And so, for many engineers, trying new things feels awkward. While designing efficiently is important, this focus can sometimes limit creativity and the ability to develop multiple viable solutions. Take for instance, a reused and refurbished project, perhaps an operation that intends to add two additional floors on an existing building. Many engineers would simply take the easy way out which is to demolish and rebuild on grounds that the structural integrity of the existing building will be compromised.

A good engineer, however, thinks non-linearly, seeing beyond the immediate problem to identify alternatives and maintain a broader vision. How about we explore strengthening the existing building? perhaps using FRP? A good engineer considers how their solutions align with other project parameters, such as aesthetics, budget, and compatibility, rather than just focusing solely on structural integrity.

Next on the list is clear communication. A common pitfall amongst engineers today is the inability to communicate ideas. Engineers, for the most part are trained to be good in math’s and science but hardly on how to communicate their ideas. Communication is a cornerstone of successful engineering practice. A good engineer is able to articulate their ideas, designs, and plans clearly and concisely to a wide range of stakeholders, including clients, team members, and regulatory authorities.

Clear communication ensures that everyone involved in a project understands the objectives, constraints, and expected outcomes. This is particularly important when conveying complex technical information to non-engineers. A good engineer is able to break down even the most complex concepts into understandable terms, making sure that everyone is on the same page.

Effective communication also involves active listening. Engineers must be able to listen to clients’ needs and concerns, team members’ suggestions, and feedback from all stakeholders. This helps in building trust and ensuring that the final product meets or exceeds expectations. Additionally, strong interpersonal communication skills can lead to better teamwork and collaboration, fostering a positive and productive work environment.

As one writer wrote somewhere else, ‘are these qualities really skills, or are they simply good manners and common courtesy?’ A frequent complaint about engineers and is that they are often “too busy.” Comments like, “She never gets back to me,” “He takes forever to respond,” “She never answers her phone,” or “I gave him the drawings three weeks ago and I’m still waiting for his design,” are all too common. In fact, this is the exact reason why the conversation between myself and the two-architect started in the first place.

On a construction site, time is money, thus, delays can cause significant setbacks and increased costs. Accessibility entails being approachable to clients, team members, and other stakeholders, fostering a sense of reliability and trustworthiness. Promptness involves meeting deadlines and delivering results within agreed-upon timeframes. Engineers who consistently deliver on time demonstrate a strong work ethic and commitment to their projects. This attribute is particularly important in engineering, where delays can lead to increased costs and project setbacks. A good engineer is always accessible and prompt.

With respect to how engineers respond to their work, two types of engineers can be found. The passive/reactive engineer and the proactive one.  A passive engineer only responds when prompted, doing the bare minimum to address requests or project briefs. In contrast, the proactive engineer takes initiative, guiding the process rather than merely reacting to it. This approach might seem daunting, but it’s actually straightforward: offer solutions without being asked, assist in areas beyond the immediate scope, and go the extra mile, such as not only explaining your solution over the phone to the architect but also providing a sketch.

Proactivity is a critical trait of good engineers. They are able to anticipate potential problems and then take steps to prevent them before they occur.

Being proactive also means continuously seeking improvement and staying ahead of the curve. Good engineers keep up with the latest industry trends, technologies, and best practices. They are always looking for ways to enhance their skills and knowledge, ensuring they remain competitive and effective in their roles.

A common source of disagreement between an architect and a structural engineer is when the architect is trying to favour an aesthetic requirement and the structural engineer just seem to discountenance this requirement on the ground that it doesn’t work structurally.   

Without trying to necessarily sound politically correct or incorrect, Engineers often have a big reputation for being rigid and reluctant to modify their designs. When confronted with a challenging proposal, they might quickly respond with, “No, that won’t work,” or “Sorry, you can’t do that.” It can be tempting to decline these requests to avoid extensive calculations or, if we’re being truthful, because we might not know the solution or how to approach it.

However, it is not enough to just discountenance an idea because you do not have a solution or because you’ve never tried it.

For instance, very recently I had to design a 7.6m transition beam to support 8 stories of column loads. At the outset I thought this was going to be impossible because the proposed scheme utilized a flat slab system which is mostly heavier relative to another slabs. To make matters worse the headroom between the proposed floor was just 3m. After deliberating with the architect and he just wouldn’t alter his grid. We found a way to reduce the overall loads by using a lighter slab and then have an 800mm transition slab at the level.

Being open-minded and solution-oriented is crucial skillset of good engineers. It involves being receptive to new ideas and suggestions rather than dismissing them outright. Good engineers understand the importance of flexibility and are willing to explore the potential benefits of new ideas.

Instead of immediately saying “no” to a new idea, a good engineer evaluates its feasibility and potential impact. They consider the idea from different angles, weighing its pros and cons before making a decision. This open-minded approach fosters a collaborative environment where team members feel valued and heard.

Finally, and one of the most important traits of a good engineer is that they always uphold the highest standard of ethics

A good engineer has a sound commitment to integrity. This means being honest and transparent in all professional dealings, providing accurate information, and ensuring reliability in data and calculations. Integrity involves adhering to ethical principles, even when it might be tempting to compromise for personal gain. Engineers who prioritize integrity prioritize public safety over convenience or profit.

Good engineers are ethical by demonstrating responsibility and accountability for their work. They acknowledge mistakes and take corrective actions rather than shifting blame. Ethical engineers understand the societal and environmental impacts of their work, adhering to professional standards to ensure high quality and safety.

Also See: [Viewpoint] Why Buildings Fail in Nigeria


In summary, the attributes that make a good engineer extend beyond technical skills and knowledge of math and science. As posited to in the article all engineers are expected to already have these skills. What differentiates a good engineer from an average one is mostly in their work ethic. Creativity, effective communication, accessibility and promptness, proactivity, and an open-minded approach, and being ethical are the essential qualities.

The list presented in this article is in no way exhaustive. There are many more traits of good engineers which are equally valid. The key point, however, is to remember your role as a structural engineer when engaged on a project. An understanding of your role keeps you in check and makes it easier to be a good engineer.

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