Structural Engineer vs. an Architect

Architects design buildings. Structural engineers design buildings. So what exactly is the difference? Which job is harder, and which one pays more? What are the other advantages and disadvantages…

Architects design buildings. Structural engineers design buildings. So what exactly is the difference? Which job is harder, and which one pays more? What are the other advantages and disadvantages of each? And how do architectural and civil engineers fit into all this?

If you’re confused, you’re not alone! Architecture and engineering are full of sub-fields and specialisms that can be baffling even to those in the industries. In this article, we’ll pick apart some of the terminology and find out what kind of job is right for what kind of person.

What do architects do?

Architects create the built environment all around us. They are part-scientist, part-artist: they must take into account both physical structure and aesthetics. On a day-to-day basis, architects make sketches, models, plans and technical drawings, either by hand and more commonly with CAD (computer-aided design) software. They meet with clients to discuss their needs, and with other professionals in the industry such as designers and engineers.

At more senior levels, architects may oversee work on construction projects, but they are not involved with the manual work of construction themselves. For more information on what it’s like to work as an architect, you might find the following articles useful:

The Meaning and Definition of an Architect

What Does an Architect Do?

Types of Architect

What do structural engineers do?

Structural engineers also design buildings, but they focus more on safety than aesthetics. They choose appropriate materials and make the calculations to ensure structures don’t buckle or bend, and that they’re fit for their purpose. They may also advise on how to make improvements to existing buildings.

Structural engineers have a wider remit than architects, working not only on buildings but also on things like bridges, dams and even theme park rides! But in common with architects, they produce plans and drawings, meet with other professionals in the field, and may get involved with project management as they become more senior.

What are the major differences between architects and engineers?

There is considerable overlap between the two jobs, but the most obvious difference is that structural engineers do not have much to do with the building’s final appearance. That’s the work of an architect. On the other hand, architects can get away with a lesser understanding of math’s and physics.

They still need some knowledge of these, of course, but in the end it’s usually an engineer who figures out how to keep a building upright and safe. And whereas architects deal almost exclusively with buildings, structural engineers deal with other kinds of infrastructure, as well.

What about the specifics? We’re broken down some more differences between the two careers below.

Salary

This topic is covered in more detail below (see the section titled ‘Salaries in architecture and structural engineering’) but in short, you’re likely to be paid a little more as an architect than as a structural engineer. This reflects the more arduous training that is required to become a licensed architect.

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. In most places, including the UK and US, it takes a minimum of seven years to become an architect.

This involves completing a Bachelor’s level qualification and a Master’s level qualification (adding up to five years) and gaining two years of industry experience before sitting an examination and applying for licensure. This is the longest qualification period of any career, and it can be eye-wateringly expensive. 

To become a structural engineer, the routes are more varied. Some people join apprenticeship schemes after school and learn on the job. Some people take a (pre-university level) diploma which then allows then to work as a trainee engineer. Others opt for Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degrees in structural engineering, including or followed by relevant vocational experience.

In the US, around 50% of structural engineers have Bachelor’s degrees and 40% have Master’s – so these qualifications are by no means essential, but the opportunities that are available to you may depend on your educational background.

Certificates and licenses

In the UK, professional architects must have completed the RIBA Part III exam and been granted licensure. Anyone who has completed a degree in architecture without passing this exam is not allowed by law to call themselves an architect; instead, they should refer to themselves as architectural designers.

The situation is similar in the US, where architects must pass the ARE (Architect Registration Exam) before entering professional practice.

Structural engineers in the UK should aim for accreditation from the Institution of Structural Engineers. If you have a BEng, you can apply for Incorporated Engineer status (IEng); if you have a BEng plus a Master’s, or an MEng, you can apply for Chartered Engineer status (CEng). While both statuses are useful, employers will often favor a chartered applicant. In the US, requirements for licensing of structural engineers varies from state to state. 

Typical work environment

Architects work mainly in offices, with occasional site visits and meetings. In theory, they do a nine-to-five day with occasional overtime, but in practice the hours can be quite long. For structural engineers, the typical work environment depends on the kind of organization they work for. Those who work for consultancies are mainly office-based, as they focus on design, while those who are employed by contractors tend to work on-site and oversee construction.

Hours are usually longer and more irregular with contractors than with consultancies. Other structural engineering employers include central and local government and utility companies. 

Salaries in architecture and structural engineering

As mentioned above, architects tend to earn more than structural engineers. As of April 2021 in the US, the picture is very similar. American structural engineers don’t earn quite as much as their architect colleagues – for example, indeed.com suggests the former will take home an average of $88,476 per year, compared to $108,572 for the latter.

And in UK reed.co.uk suggests an average salary is £61,435 and for a structural engineer £40,598; totaljobs.com goes with £57,000 and £47,500; and checkasalary.co.uk has the lowest estimates, at £42,357 and £38,761 respectively. Of course, salaries are affected by all kinds of factors such as qualifications, experience and location. For example, licensed architects and chartered engineers tend to attract higher wages than those without accreditation, and those based in cities will be paid more than those in small towns. 

You can find more information on architectural salaries on both side of the pond in the articles below:

A Guide to UK Architectural Salaries

A Guide to US Architectural Salaries

Who’s who in architecture and engineering?

Architect vs. architectural engineer

Both of these professionals work on buildings, but whereas an architect considers both the structure and appearance of a building, an architectural engineer is only interested in the structure. Architectural engineers are usually good at math’s and science, and may advise on things like noise reduction, weatherproofing, and adherence to local building codes.

They are problem-solvers who work closely with architects and clients to ensure that designs become reality. It is possible to become an architectural engineer after a three- or four-year Bachelor’s degree, whereas an architect’s training takes at least seven. 

Structural engineer vs. civil engineer

Structural engineering is considered a sub-discipline of civil engineering; it is common to find Bachelor’s, but not Master’s, degrees in civil engineering as it is assumed that students will specialize at postgraduate level. Civil engineering refers generally to the design and construction of buildings and infrastructure (minus the aesthetic elements).

Structural engineering is concerned specifically with making calculations and models for load-bearing structures such as skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels and dams.

Architect vs. civil engineer

Civil engineering is a broad field that takes in both buildings and infrastructure. Graduates of civil engineering degrees may go on to specialize in structural engineering, transport engineering, environmental engineering and more. Broadly, civil engineers are more interested in how things will work than how they will look. Though engineers are often creative people, it is architects whose job it is to perfect the aesthetic side of buildings (and, occasionally, infrastructure). 

FAQs

Is a structural engineer the same as an architect?

No, but there are many similarities between the two jobs. A structural engineer is concerned with the safety of buildings and other structures, whereas an architect focuses primarily on buildings and thinks about how to make them attractive as well as safe. 

Can an architect become a structural engineer?

Yes, but probably not without going back to school. An architecture degree – tough as it is – qualifies you to be an architect, not an engineer. Remember, even to get Incorporated Engineer status, you need a BEng, and for Chartered Engineer status you need a BEng + Master’s or an MEng. If you’re lucky, you may find a Master’s course in structural engineering that will take you with an architecture degree and experience, or an employer who’ll train you on the job.

But realistically, you should expect to do a second Bachelor’s degree in engineering because the two fields need different skills.

Do architects learn structural engineering?

Not really, although they’ll be familiar with many of the concepts. Structural engineering is a sub-discipline of civil engineering, not architecture, and it is focused on math’s and physics. While architects do learn these things, they do so at a more basic level because they also have to learn the principles of art and design.  

What is the difference between a structural engineer and an architectural engineer?

Structural engineers are responsible for making calculations and designing load-bearing structures, which could be buildings or other something else, like a tunnel or dam. Architectural engineers focus on buildings, and they work less on the design side and more as advisors and trouble-shooters during construction projects. Their job is to make sure that different parts of buildings are safe and that they work as they’re meant to.

Do architects make more money than structural engineers?

In general, yes, architects are better paid than structural engineers, but in some contexts the difference may be minimal. Factors such as qualifications, experience and location play a big role in deciding levels of pay, so a senior structural engineer in an urban area will likely earn more than a junior architect in a small town.

Having said that, if you’re trying to figure out which career will pay you better overall, the answer is architecture. 

Is architecture harder than engineering?

Both professions can be challenging. Architecture is ‘harder’ in that qualification takes longer and costs more, and in that architects have to master both technical and creative skills. But engineering, which involves mastery of complex math’s and science, is hardly a walk in the park. You’ll have to work hard to qualify in either field.  

What is the difference between an architect, architectural engineer, structural engineer, and civil engineer?

Architects design buildings, and they are interested in both their structure and their appearance. Architectural engineers also work on buildings, and they solve technical and mechanical problems during construction. Structural engineers design load-bearing structures, which could be buildings or something else like bridges, while a civil engineer is someone who designs and makes buildings and infrastructure, but is not concerned with aesthetics.

Civil engineering is the ‘parent’ field of structural engineering. 

Summary

Architects and structural engineers often work together on building projects, bringing different skills to the table. Structural engineers have a deeper understanding of math’s and physics, and are ultimately responsible for deciding what materials to use and how to build structures so they’re safe for human use.

Architects contribute more on the aesthetic side, though they also understand many technical aspects of building (in the same way that many engineers have a keen sense of the visual). 

While architects tend to get paid more, they have to undergo longer training. It is possible to become a structural engineer (but not an architect) without going to university, though a degree is essential if you hope to become an Incorporated or Chartered Engineer.

In sum, both are difficult and prestigious jobs; which one you choose will depend largely on what you’re good at and what interests you.

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