Structural Engineering vs Architecture: What’s the Difference?

If you’re planning an extension or renovation project, you might be wondering what professionals you need to have on board in order to make your dream a reality. The list of people may seem to go on forever, and you might not even know what half of them do. Don’t worry, you’re not alone – some sub-fields of architecture and engineering are mindboggling even to those in the industries!

On a fundamental level, structural engineers and architects both design buildings and yet their roles are extremely different. For most home projects, you’ll most likely need both. If you’re unsure what the difference is between structural engineering and architecture, it might be an idea to get clued up before your project gets underway.

This guide from Summit Architecture will make it clear in no time – keep reading to find out exactly what architects and structural engineers do and how they can help you bring your vision to life.

What is an architect?

Put simply, an architect is a trained, accredited and registered professional that is qualified to design, plan, advise and aid in the execution of both private and public buildings. The role requires knowledge of both aesthetic and technical aspects and a balance between logic and creativity.

The word ‘architect’ derives from a Greek word that directly translates to ‘chief builder’. This term has of course changed and adapted through time, but it is still an extremely accurate way of describing an architect’s holistic role throughout construction projects.

Architects are often required to play several roles during the construction process, including but not limited to designer, manager, businessperson, creator, adviser, and mediator. They are usually the one constant part of a project, someone who sees it through from start to finish.

What is a structural engineer?

Like architects, structural engineers also design and build buildings. However, they focus more on safety than aesthetics. Their role involves choosing appropriate materials, making calculations to ensure structures don’t collapse or bend and ensuring that everything – from materials and tools to the building itself – is fit for purpose. This might require them to make sure a structure can withstand heavy loads and strong winds or even earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

Structural engineers don’t only design and build buildings, however. They can also advise on how to improve the structural integrity of existing buildings and often design other structures such as bridges, artworks, dams, or even rollercoasters.

Typical projects and tasks for architecture firms

An architect’s responsibilities might include:

Typical projects and tasks for structural engineering companies

Structural engineers are typically required whenever structural changes to a building are required.

This includes projects like:

  • Renovations that involve removing, modifying or adding any structural elements of the house

  • Extensions

  • Loft conversions

  • New build houses

  • Projects that require foundations to be underpinned

There are very few occasions where you would only need a structural engineer. However, if the project’s design aspect is minimal and the overall project is fairly simple, it may be possible to just hire a structural engineer (rather than both an architect and structural engineer).

Here are just a few examples of such a project:

  • Removing or knocking through an existing wall

  • Making an existing opening larger

  • Fitting solar panels

  • Removing a chimney breast

The main differences between structural engineering and architecture

As you have probably noticed already, there is considerable overlap between the two fields. The most obvious difference is that structural engineers aren’t really involved in the building’s appearance, whereas this is arguably the architect’s primary responsibility. On the other hand, architects can get by with less knowledge of the mathematics and physics behind a building’s structure, as this is where the structural engineer comes in.

Both roles still require some knowledge of both aspects, of course, but it is usually the structural engineer that works out how to keep a building safe, secure, and structurally sound and the architect focuses on the aesthetic element.

Another obvious difference is that architects deal almost exclusively with buildings, while structural engineers can work on all sorts of different structures.

Education, training and experience

Entry is competitive for university courses in both architecture and engineering, though requirements vary from institution to institution and country to country.

On the whole, it takes a minimum of seven years to become an architect. This usually involves completing a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, plus two years of industry experience. Only when they’ve completed all of these can prospective architects sit their licencing exam.

The routes into structural engineering are more varied. Some people join apprenticeship schemes straight out of school and learn the trade on the job, while others study for a diploma which then allows them to work as a trainee engineer and progress on from there. The other route available is a Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree in structural engineering, including or followed by some industry experience.

Certificates and licenses

In the UK, professional architects must have completed the RIBA Part III exam and been granted a license in order to practise. A degree in architecture is not enough to legally call yourself an architect – prospective architects should be called architectural designers until they pass their licensing exam.

Structural engineers tend to aim for accreditation from the Institution of Structural Engineers, which provides different accreditation statuses depending on the level of education.

When looking to hire an architect or structural engineer, it is important to ensure they have all the necessary qualifications and licenses. Not only will this ensure everything is above board, but it will also give you the peace of mind that you have a professional you can trust on board.

Typical work environment

Architects work mainly in offices, with occasional site visits and meetings. In theory, they do a nine-to-five working day with occasional overtime but, in reality, the hours can be quite long.

For structural engineers, the typical work environment depends on the kind of organisation they work for. Those who work for consultancies are mainly office-based, as they focus on design, while those employed by contractors tend to work on-site and oversee construction.

Architect costs

Broadly speaking, architects charge fees in three ways: fixed fees, percentage fees, or a time-charge fee. They can use just one method or a combination of methods. The cost and fee-charging method will be determined by factors like the project’s complexity, geography, size and sector.

Fixed fees are fairly self-explanatory – you pay a pre-agreed amount, usually in situations where the project is entirely defined and so the cost can be easily estimated.

Percentage fees are where you pay a pre-agreed percentage of the final cost of construction and the project is partly planned and defined, but there is scope for additional tweaks or more complex details to crop up.

Time-charge fees involve paying a pre-agreed rate (usually per hour or per day) for an unknown piece of work where the client doesn’t know exactly what they need from their architect just yet.

As a rule of thumb, you can expect to pay your architect between 8 and 15% of the construction cost for their ‘full services’. However, this is something you’ll need to discuss with them prior to beginning the project, as it varies greatly within the industry.

Structural engineer costs

Just like when hiring an architect, you’ll need to keep in mind that the overall cost will be impacted by the complexity and size of the project. The more complex the structure, the more time and knowledge the structural engineer will need.

It has been estimated that the average cost of a structural engineer is £400 for a basic residential project and £5,000 for a complex residential project. Commercial work is likely to be more, as the size of the project is usually much larger, but this is not always the case.

Again, the way the structural engineer charges their fees may vary – make sure to discuss it with them early on in the project (ideally before agreeing to the work).

We are pleased to offer financing solutions for our clients here at Summit Architecture. Our financial solutions are available for both residential and commercial property works. If you are looking to raise short or longer-term property finance in the UK, we can help. Find out more here.

Summit Architecture: Structural Engineering and Architectural Design Experts You Can Trust

Summit Architecture is one of the best-regarded architectural and structural engineering firms across London, Leeds and Manchester, thanks in part to the reliable expert advice and high-quality services we offer our clients.

We have decades of experience, as well as a deep understanding of the latest advances in architectural materials and the technologies which underlie structural engineering services. By choosing us, you can be sure your project is in great hands.

Our services include everything from initial consultation and planning and building regulation compliance to architectural drawings and design & build. We can guide you through the process and support you from start to finish. Most importantly, we are committed to making your vision a reality, no matter how big or small the project.

Get in touch for more information or book a consultation online today.