Structural elements and how they work

When it comes to constructing a new building, or refurbishing an existing one, consideration of the building structure and design is vital in ensuring your finished project is enduring and safe. Structural engineers use the laws of physics and knowledge of how different elements and materials work to advise on the required structural elements. No matter how complex the project may appear, most structural design can be achieved with a limited number of structural elements. We take a closer look at six of the most commonly used ones and how they work in this blog.


A column is a structural element that passes the weight of a structure above on to the structural elements below. Columns are often used to support beams or arches that hold up walls or ceilings. They are one of the oldest elements of building design, with some of the earliest examples in Ancient Egypt dating back to as early as 2600BC. They’re also prominent in Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, with famous examples on display at the Parthenon in Athens and Pantheon in Rome.


A beam is a horizontal structure supported at both ends, often used to support downward-bearing weights, such as floors, ceilings and roofs, by transferring the weight to a vertical structural element, i.e. a wall or column. As well as gravitational forces, beams can also provide support for horizontal forces, such as those created by earthquakes or strong wind.


A truss is a group of structural elements assembled to create a rigid structure. In fact, the word comes from the Old French trousse meaning “a collection of things bound together”. It is usually a collection of straight elements (beams, for example) connected at the joints, with the elements traditionally arranged in a triangle due to the shape’s structural stability.


An arch is a curved structure which carries a force in only one direction. Arches are sometimes used to support a horizontal weight above or used as decorative elements in building design. Their widespread use and popularity was spread by the Ancient Romans, who were the first to use them in a range of different structures. They are tricky to construct as they are supported by the weight of all the different elements. Construction can involve a frame for the underside of the arch, which the separate voussoirs are placed on top of, and which is then removed once they are all in place.


Shell structures are large structures made up of small thin, curved plate elements carrying compression forces in two directions. This structural element is often used to create the roofs for large buildings, including stadiums and airports. A well-known example is the famous lattice thin shell roof at the British Museum.


A catenary is a curve formed by its own weight which is supported at two ends. It creates a ‘U’ shape – for example, a chain hanging between two posts, or overhanging power lines. Catenary curves are used as guides in engineering and architecture to determine the shape of arches and bridges to ensure they will not bend. Catenaries can also be seen in suspension bridges – sometimes known as catenary bridges.

There are many different types of structural element and which ones are required in a construction project depends on the building design. We have a team of qualified, highly experienced structural engineers who will check loads, calculate the forces and stresses bearing on your structure and recommend the appropriate structural elements required to ensure your construction project is completed safely and is built to last for many years to come.

Find out more about our structural design services.

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