Structural Engineers Roundtable: Three issues facing the structural engineering industry


    The first annual Structural Engineer’s Buildings Conference, which was held last December in Chicago, provided an opportunity for structural engineers from across the nation to gather for education, networking, and to ask questions. Structural Engineer’s Editor Jennifer Goupil, P.E., hosted an impromptu roundtable discussion titled “SE issues” that attracted a large number of attendees, eager to listen to and talk about some of the most significant issues facing structural engineers today.

    This article consists of questions generated from three topics—building code changes, risk management, and structural licensure and certification—discussed during the roundtable session.To provide answers, Structural Engineer solicited responses from some of the industry’s most respected knowledgeable experts.

    Building code changes

    One of the most concerning topics discussed during the roundtable was the issue of building codes.Not only were the participants frustrated that each city, county, and state has adopted a different edition of the building codes, but the fact that each municipality has its own code addendums also creates additional challenges, according to most of the practicing engineers in our discussion. Further discussion of the topic revealed the bigger question from the participants, “Why do the codes change so often?” While the reasons behind municipal code adoption are as numerous as there are jurisdictions, we thought we could address the topic of the changing building codes. Structural Engineer asked the International Code Council (ICC), publisher of the International Building Code (IBC), as well as representatives from several of the standard-developing organizations of the structural engineering industry to comment on why the codes frequently change.

    International Code Council

    John R. Henry, P.E., principal staff engineer at the ICC offered this explanation, “Several code changes that appear in the 2006 I-Codes are to clarify, consolidate, or reorganize provisions to improve the code and make it more user-friendly. For example, in the 2006 IBC, one goal was to eliminate duplicate provisions that appeared in both the code and the referenced standard, and to have the design criteria within the code and the technical provisions within the standard.

    Other reasons for code changes are to incorporate advances in science and technology, as well as permit new, innovative materials and methods of construction.” According to Henry, some recent examples of new science and technology include the 3-second gust wind speed maps in the 2000 IBC and the new U.S. Geological Survey spectral acceleration seismic design parameter maps in the 2006 IBC. In addition, he said, some examples of new and innovative materials and methods of construction incorporated into the 2006 IBC are the introduction of Autoclaved Aerated Concrete masonry construction and the new provisions for micro piles.

    “Historically, improvements to the code come from lessons learned and changes that make codes easier to read and understand. So there will always be changes,” agreed Mike Pfeiffer, P.E., vice president of Codes and Standards Development. “In the last code change cycle there were more than 2,000 ICode changes submitted. That’s a record. It reflects how widely used the ICodes are. It speaks well of engineers, architects, code enforcement officials, and others who care enough about safety that they take the time to participate in the ICC code-development process.” Doug Thornburg, AIA, CBO, director of Product Development opined, “The open code development process of ICC encourages the submittal of changes to be considered for inclusion in future editions of the code. Interested and affected parties are able to take knowledge gained from both personal experiences and professional activities to propose new or revised requirements that better protect public safety and property.

    The exchange of information and ideas throughout this process creates an environment that naturally provides for a significant number of code changes.” “As a rule, the proponent of a code change believes his or her proposal will enhance the code and enhance building safety and fire prevention,” noted Alan Carr, S.E., senior staff engineer.

    “Sometimes they propose to add new requirements to allow the use of new design methods or materials. Sometimes they propose to remove requirements that have become irrelevant. Sometimes they propose to reformat or clarify the existing provisions to make the code easier to use.” American Society of Civil Engineers—S.K. Ghosh, Ph.D., president of S.K. Ghosh Associates, Inc., is on the code-writing committees for both the American Society of Civil Engineers Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures (ASCE 7) and the American Concrete Institute’s (ACI) Building Code Requirements for Structural Concrete (ACI 318). He believes that the codes change as a result of new technology, new research, and the need to clarify revisions—which presents a continuous struggle to make the standards more clear.

    American Concrete Institute

    James K. Wight, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, is chair of the ACI 318 committee, and Daniel Falconer, P.E., is the managing director of engineering for ACI. They explained that the ACI 318 code-publication cycle traditionally introduced major revisions on a six-year cycle, with a three-year minor update. This cycle was followed from 1971 through 1995, but was disrupted after the 1995 code by the need to review and incorporate many of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) seismic recommendations, allowing 318-99 to be in synch with ASCE 7-98 for the creation of the 2000 IBC. After that version,ACI reverted to its former cycle, with 318-02 incorporating several major revisions, and 318-05 as a minor update.

    “In response to perception that the three-year ACI code cycle is too frequent, ACI is considering removing the minor update from the cycle in the future, and aligning with the ASCE 7 publication cycle,” said Wight and Falconer. “If this happens, a mechanism for needed interim updates will be formalized.” ACI welcomes opinions on this issue.

    American Institute of Steel Construction

    Charlie Carter, S.E., P.E., the chief structural engineer for the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), agrees with many of the roundtable participants—the codes change too often. “We’re not eager to revise our documents as often as some others are; we’d like to slow it down just like the profession would,” said Carter. “The typical code changes are small but incremental as you go along, and the average engineer has to deal with wood, steel, concrete, and has to know everyone’s changes. So, if we can keep those changes to a minimum over time, people can be effective as engineers and not professional code monitors [in order to] figure out how to do their job the right way.” American Forest & Paper Association—According to John “Buddy” Showalter, P.E., the director of technical media for the American Forest & Paper Association’s (AF&PA) American Wood Council, the structural provisions of the building code do seem to change frequently, while other portions of the code do not seem to change as often. “Structural provisions change so much because load provisions, like those promulgated by the Building Seismic Safety Council and ASCE, are constantly changing and evolving. Wind, seismic, and snow load provisions have been changing with nearly every three-year cycle of the building code for the last two decades,” he said.

    Groups such as the National Council of Structural Engineers (NCSEA), and material interest groups such as the AF&PA, which participate in the code-change process, try to simplify or clarify structural provisions to make them more usable by structural engineers, said Showalter. However, with multiple interest groups proposing code changes, sometimes conflicts or unclear language is incorporated. Then, another attempt is made in the next code-change cycle to clarify the conflict, resulting in more changes.

    “A solution to this seems to be the move toward consensus-based referenced standards,” said Showalter. “ASCE 7 is one such standard. If Chapter 16 of the ICC’s IBC ever gets to the point where it simply references ASCE 7, then many of the conflicts in the code will be eliminated and changes will be less frequent.” Risk management A second topic that commanded much attention during the roundtable was the topic of risk. Structural engineers have the highest claims-torevenue ratio among practitioners in the architectural-engineering field.

    Therefore, one of the main questions that structural engineers want answered is, “What are my risks and how can I minimize them?” Nils V. (Val) Ericson, P.E., is chairman and CEO of The Di Salvo Ericson Group – Structural Engineers, Inc., and chairman of the Council of American Structural Engineers’ (CASE) Risk Management Program (RMP)—an organization formed to help structural engineering firms reduce the number and amount of claims made against them. According to Ericson, the greatest risk structural engineers face is defending themselves in a situation in which they have no control. Often, this includes the claim by an owner of a building who was unsatisfied with the construction—perhaps because of time delays or not receiving what he expected—and consequently blames the design team.

    “It’s the third party suits that can really surprise you because someone that is looking for recovery of a loss that has to do with your project won’t look for the person of responsibility, but [instead], everyone involved,” said Ericson. “As engineers, we never like to admit we’re wrong, so we get defensive and we don’t want to just settle like the insurance companies may want.

    They will take the strict business approach and weigh the costs of defending the claim against the costs of settling it. We may not agree [to settle] because there is now the stigma that we have some responsibility.So, a lot of the risk has to do with uncontrollable things that draw us into a claim that we have to defend, even though we may not have a role in the responsibility for the problem.” The best way to prevent risks such as this is to avoid the projects and clients that produce them, or understand the risks and decide to address them before committing to the project. Ericson believes that there are certain types of projects that lead to more of these types of claims, which require an engineer to research the project and client before getting involved.

    Developed by engineers in private practice, RMP’s Foundations for Risk Management focuses on 10 areas of the structural engineering practice to help engineering firms manage their practice on avoiding and minimizing risk. In addition, RMP is developing tools to apply the foundations, providing engineering company management with a way to integrate them into their business.

    The tools are delivered to structural engineers at RMP’s annual convocation, a meeting where structural engineers are invited to join the committee in sharing experiences, success, and failures. The third annual convocation will be held in California this fall.

    Besides the convocation, RMP is developing additional strategies to minimize risk for structural engineers through a variety of programs. One of the next steps is to approach professional liability insurers for a partnership. “We’re trying to work with them to use these tools to minimize claims, resolve claims early, and to educate their insured,” said Ericson. “We’re doing something we think will help the whole profession and will help structural engineers because it may lower [their] premiums.” Other programs include a technical peer review, where RMP reviewers visit a structural engineering company to interview staff; review products, contracts, and policies; and meet with the CEO to evaluate his or her perception of the company. In addition, a claims review process would allow an insurance company to use RMP reviewers in verifying a claim’s merit, guiding the defense of the client and insurance company.

    “The idea is to heighten awareness of the risks in the practice of structural engineering, provide techniques to deal with them, and raise the level of practice,” concluded Ericson.

    Structural licensing and certification

    One final topic that the group discussed was licensure. Many of the structural engineers wondered why there are different structural engineering licenses and certifications, what each one entails, and what is required for each one.

    Of course, each state offers its own requirements to earn a Professional Engineering (P.E.) license for structural engineers. In fact, many states offer a P.E. license, but in a handful of states a Structural Engineer (S.E.) license is offered. And in some of those, an S.E. license is required to work on some types of projects. Most of the roundtable participants were intimately familiar with this variance within state-issued licenses and Structural Engineer has reported on this in the past (“Examining professional licensure,” February 2003).Therefore, we wanted to address the non-statutory certifications and designations.

    Currently, certification for structural engineers is offered through the Structural Engineering Certification Board (SECB)—an organization formed to identify those professional engineers with the additional education, experience, and skills that are specific to the practice of structural engineering. However, the SECB is not the only organization developing specific recognition for structural engineers. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) established the Model Law Structural Engineer (MLSE), which refers to a licensed engineer who meets their specific criteria. SECB—Ronald O. Hamburger, S.E., principal at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Inc., a member of the SECB, and chair of the National Council of Structural Engineering Association (NCSEA) Licensing Committee, provided the SECB perspective. “There are so many licenses because the federal government hasn’t reserved the right to regulate the practice, it’s a state’s right,” said Hamburger. “In terms of certification, to my knowledge there is only one certification credential [SECB] for structural engineering. Licensing is a legally enforced qualification. In order to practice professionally you need licensing, not certification. [We are encouraging certification] to strengthen the ability to obtain uniform structural practice acts in all 55 jurisdictions.” Certification was initiated by the NCSEA for a number of reasons: to bring order to the chaos, to identify structural engineering as a distinct and separate discipline from civil engineering, and to provide individuals that became certified an opportunity to participate in committees to establish education and other qualification requirements.

    There are two paths to become certified through the SECB: the regular process and the grandfathering provision.

    The grandfathering provision does not require the same specific education requirements as the regular process, nor does it have specific examination requirements, though it does require a license that permits the practice of structural engineering in some U.S. jurisdictions.


    An MLSE is defined as an individual who has obtained an NCEES Council Record, which is a demonstration that the individual has attained a defined level of education and experience and has successfully completed various engineering examinations.

    NCEES Assistant Executive Director Jerry Carter said the NCEES organization is encouraging MLSE, “to facilitate the mobility of qualified professional engineers among the various jurisdictions.” “The MLSE is not as much a certification as a designation of defined requirements,” said Carter. Having this designation helps a licensee to apply for licensure in another jurisdiction through comity provisions. All [state] member boards acknowledge and accept the NCEES Council Record and some have provisions to provide for expedited review for candidates with the MSLE designation.” Additionally, he said there has been a request from various states with high seismic conditions that NCEES create a Structural III exam because the feeling is that the current NCEES structural exams do not adequately cover this or some other specialized areas of structural engineering. At a meeting of interested stakeholders last year, it was agreed that what was needed was potentially revamping the current NCEES structural exams rather than creating a new Structural III exam. For example, the 2005-2006 NCEES Committee on Examinations for Professional Engineers (EPE) has committed to reviewing the Structural I and II exams and current seismic exams from Illinois, California, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, and Hawaii to provide recommendations on modification to the NCEES structural exams to incorporate seismic design that will satisfy the exam requirements of these and other state member boards.

    “Hopefully, if we can arrive at a consensus on what needs to be changed in the current exams, this will eliminate the state-specific structural exams that have been offered in the past,” said Carter.

    According to Hamburger, presently the SECB certification is very similar to the MLSE; however, the SECB is attempting to adopt uniform continuing education criteria, while the MLSE only suggests criteria of continuing education.


    These topics—building code changes, risk management, and structural licensure and certification—were only three of the many that the group discussed during the roundtable. We also discussed labor shortages and code enforcement at length.

    This Roundtable Series is one way in which Structural Engineer connects with practicing structural engineers. If you have other concerns or comments, please e-mail us at