Frequently Asked Questions

Although Architects and those directly involved in the building/construction industry are familiar with the expert skills of Chartered Structural Engineers, the general public tend not to know what Structural Engineers do.

Structural engineering is a speciality discipline within Civil Engineering. Chartered Structural Engineers analyse, design, plan and research structural components and structural systems to achieve design goals and to ensure the safety and comfort of users or occupants. They also design structures not deflect or vibrate beyond acceptable limits. Consideration is also given to durability of materials against possible deterioration which may impair performance over the design lifetime.

Their work takes account mainly of safety, technical, economic and environmental concerns, but they may also consider aesthetic and social factors.

They will advise on new builds; on the safe removal of walls, chimney breasts, etc; on groundwork issues/types of foundation and solutions; on refurbishing old and/or damaged buildings; and much more. Usually this will involve a site visit following which they provide design details (to show layout of beams, walls, columns, foundations with sizes; connection joints; truss layout; and any reinforcement that might be needed to the foundations) and they prepare calculations showing the sizes of the building elements needed.

So, a Structural Engineer is a professional who is sufficiently qualified and experienced to advise on structural issues and provide the necessary design and calculations to ensure buildings are safely constructed - in order that they are strong enough and stable enough to resist all appropriate structural loads (eg: gravity, wind, rain, snow, temperature, earth pressure, seismic effects, and traffic) so that they do not collapse, warp, sink, etc and so that loss of life or injury is prevented or reduced.
Hence, "Structural Engineering is about ensuring a structure is capable of standing up and withstanding the pressures of use that the building is subjected to - including the potential weather conditions for the locality."

But not all 'Structural Engineers' are fully qualified or experienced. When employing a Structural Engineer always ensure that they are "Chartered".

To quote the Institution of Structural Engineers, "Chartered Members have achieved a high level of personal achievement and professional competence. Chartered Structural Engineers are entitled to use the designation MIStructE."

Mike Speak and his Associates are Chartered Structural Engineers and members of the Engineering Council.

It depends entirely upon the complexity of the project, on problems being experienced with your property and/or your intentions for the property. Basically, you will need a Structural Engineer whenever assessment as to safety is necessary in respect of a new structure or alterations affecting an existing building.

Here are some examples of when you would need a Structural Engineer:
  • If you wish to modify a building by removing load bearing walls or chimney breasts.
  • If you wish to extend the property, outwards or into the loft.
  • If you intend cutting timbers out of a roof structure.
  • If you intend widening doorways or windows.
  • If you intend digging basements or lowering floors.
  • If you plan to build on soft or contaminated ground, or near large trees.
  • If you notice (or a Surveyor has expressed concern regarding) cracking, bulging or subsidence.

Not only will the Structural Engineer be able to give you valuable advice, they will provide you with the necessary design details and calculations. A Structural Engineer's report on your property not only provides peace of mind but it can also help when you come to sell the property especially if the buyer's solicitor asks difficult questions about previous defects such as subsidence and about any alterations that have been made to the property.

Note: Most house extensions require some sort of structural calculation as existing external wall(s) will be punctured to provide access to the extension. Also, if you are renovating an existing building, a Structural Engineer will need to make a site visit and prepare a document proving to Building Control that the existing structure is sound and suitable for the building's new usage.

Click here to contact Mike Speak.

Generally there are two types of Structural Engineers Report
  • Full Structural Appraisal Report
  • Report on Specific Structural Defects
Full Structural Appraisal Report

This report is normally required when the overall structural condition of the property needs to be confirmed.

This report is sometimes recommended by Surveyors, Valuers, or Solicitors in connection with the purchase or remortgage of a property.

This report would include a description of the property and its general structure and identify any apparent defects giving our opinion as to their cause and structural significance. It would also provide recommendations for any remedial work.

In some cases it may be necessary for further and more detailed investigations to be carried out in order to confirm the likely cause of any defects. These may include the excavation of external trial holes to confirm the size and depth of the foundations and nature of the ground material, a CCTV inspection of below ground drainage to confirm its soundness or internal opening up to confirm the size and quality of structural members.

This report would not include comments relating to electrical and mechanical services or any other non structural related item.

If you are buying a property and do not require a mortgage, we would recommend that you engage a Surveyor to report on the property prior to purchase, particularly if the property is more than 10 years' old.

Report on Specific Structural Defects

This report is provided when a specific defect or defects have been identified.

In some cases this report is recommended by a Surveyor or valuer following their own full general inspection of the property. Alternatively, this report may be requested direct from the owner when a defect becomes apparent.

This report would provide recommendations for repair or remedial works as necessary. In some cases further more detailed investigations may need to be carried out as outlined above for the full structural appraisal.

Quality standards are in place to protect you, as a member of the public, as well as the reputation of the industry

Therefore, it pays to carry out checks before you employ anyone who calls themselves a Structural Engineer.

Things to check before engaging the services of a Structural Engineer:
  • Are they a Chartered Structural Engineer registered with the Engineering Council? Not all ‘structural engineers have passed the Institution of Structural Engineers very high standard exams Those who have done so can use the letters MIStructE after their name If they are also registered with the Engineering Council they can use the letters CEng after their name Mike Speak has been a Chartered Structural Engineer and Member of the Engineering Council since 1994.
  • Are they adequately insured/do they carry both Professional Indemnity and Public Liability Insurance? Mike Speak Associates carry both Professional Indemnity and Public Liability Insurance
  • What experience do they have as a Structural Engineer?
  • Can they provide you with testimonials or references from current or previous clients? The majority of Mike Speak Associates work comes from recommendations or directly from repeat clients including Architects, Surveyors, Builders and private individuals. Refer to our Testimonials page
  • You may wish to obtain more than one quotation for structural engineering services Mike Speak Associates provide competitive rates. With our extensive experience we are able to provide practical and economical solutions
  • Important: Ask the Structural Engineer when his/her information will be available, initially as well as subsequently Also how quickly they will respond if there are any queries after the work commences, and will there be additional costs?

To contact Mike Speak Associates, click here.

If you are buying a property, it is always advisable to arrange for a survey to be carried out by a Chartered Surveyor, particularly if the property is more than 10 years old.

If you are buying the property with a mortgage, you should not rely solely on the mortgage valuation report as this is prepared for the mortgage lender to confirm the security of the loan. This may not highlight all specific defects or inadequacies.

There are two principal types of Building Survey that are recognised by The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors:

1. Homebuyer Survey and valuation

This survey has a standard format and aims to report on all parts of the building that can easily be seen by the Surveyor.

The survey endeavours to comment on the overall condition of the property and to identify which areas are of concern and may require further investigation.

The survey is considered appropriate for conventional type properties, including houses, flats and bungalows, which are in reasonable condition and built in about the last 150 years.

Items such as services including drainage, wiring and gas, etc, are not included in these surveys.

The Homebuyer Survey should identify any major defects and associated cost implications. It should include items such as damp and woodworm and an assessment of the quality of any insulation or damp-proofing. This survey will also provide a valuation of the property.

It is common for the survey to provide recommendations for further investigation by other specialists in respect of certain defects.

2. Building survey

This survey is more comprehensive and therefore more expensive than the Homebuyer Survey and is appropriate for all residential properties. It will provide a much fuller indication of the construction and condition of the property.

A Building Survey is generally required for older buildings or buildings that are in a poor state of repair or have been extensively altered or converted. The survey should include all visible defects and likely cost of the repairs and testing together with recommendations relating to insulation, damp, damp proofing and woodworm.

The Survey Report will also provide comprehensive information regarding the construction of the property and information about its location. The Survey Report does not normally include a valuation of the property but can be arranged as an extra item.

It is common that the survey may recommend further investigation to be carried out by a specialist in respect of certain defects.

3. Valuation

If you are not seeking a mortgage to buy a property which appears to be in good condition or is of recent construction, a further cheaper option may be a Valuation Report.

This should provide a simple valuation of the property with comments on any major defects. This is similar to a mortgage valuation for a bank or building society.

Any major defects identified may need to be referred to a specialist in the area of work.

We recommend that you contact Mike Speak Associates in the first instance.

  • If the work simply involves, for instance, the removal of a load bearing wall we would be able to give you an indication of our fee for our services. We would visit your property, take the necessary details and then provide calculations and details suitable for Building Regulations (see FAQ 7 and FAQ 11), to enable a builder to carry out the works.
  • If the work is more extensive, such as building an extension, we would most likely refer you to a local Architect. He/she would give you a quotation for their fees. They would then draw up plans and, if necessary, make a Planning Application. After Planning Permission had been granted, the Architect or yourself would contact Mike Speak Associates to provide a quote for Structural Engineering design. We would then provide the calculations and details suitable for Building Regulations(see FAQ 7 and FAQ 11), to enable a builder to carry out the works.
  • After you have received both the Architects drawings and specifications, and our calculations and details, you should obtain competitive quotations for the work from three local builders. (See FAQ 10).

The Full Plans Building Regulations application is generally required for larger projects such as extensions or new buildings.

It is necessary to send two copies of the plans and application forms to your local Building Control. Your payment is made in two stages: one when you send the plans and one after the first inspection has been carried out by the Building Inspector.

The approval decision can take up to five weeks. When the approval has been granted works can then commence.

The Building Notice application usually applies to smaller works such as the removal of a load bearing wall. The Building Notice form should be sent to Building Control with a block plan showing the proposals in relation to existing buildings. A single fee (equivalent to the total Building Regulations fee) is sent with this application.

You may commence the works two days after submitting the application. With the Building Notice there is more emphasis on the builder and if the completed work does not meet Building Control requirements, significant costly and disruptive remedial works may be required to achieve the necessary standards and requirements.

Building Control would also request any relevant structural calculations and details relevant to the work. These should therefore be obtained from Chartered Structural Engineers such as Mike Speak Associates prior to commencement of the works.

If you are carrying out work close to your neighbour’s property you may have a legal obligation to notify them in respect of the Party Wall etc Act 1996.

The Act gives you rights and responsibilities whichever side of the wall you are on, whether you or your neighbour is doing the work.

The Act does not affect any requirement for planning permission or Building regulations approval.

The Act does not only relate to the party wall, it also covers:

  • A wall of any building on the boundary line between two properties
  • A wall which is common to two or more properties
  • A garden wall close to the boundary
  • Floors and ceilings of flats etc
  • Excavation close to a neighbours property

It is always better to reach a friendly agreement with your neighbour prior to the start of any work rather than resorting to the law.

If you notify your neighbour in writing of intended works and do not receive their written agreement within 14 days, a dispute is deemed to have arisen.

A Party Wall Surveyor or Surveyors will then need to be appointed to resolve the dispute. You would be responsible for settlement of the fees of the Surveyor or Surveyors. This process could delay the work significantly.

For further useful and more detailed information relating to the party Wall etc Act 1996, we would recommend that you download The Party Wall etc Act 1996 explanatory booklet.

We recommend that you contact a Structural Engineer.

The engineer will discuss your concerns and advise you what you should do next.

In most cases the engineer will need to visit the property and carry out an initial partial inspection of the area of concern. Sometimes the engineer will be able to identify what the problem is at this visit and the engineer would provide you with a brief report confirming their findings and recommendations.

In some circumstances the engineer may need to return to the property to carry out some further investigative work, for example, excavating trial holes to confirm the size and nature of existing foundations and ground material, or lifting floor boards to confirm the floor structure and support details.

A local builder is sometimes employed to carry out these investigative works.

It may also be necessary to engage a specialist to carry out a CCTV inspection of the drains. This additional information would hopefully confirm the cause of the defect and enable the Structural Engineer to provide recommendations and details in respect of any repairs.

When you see a crack, do not immediately assume that your property is suffering from foundation subsidence and that major underpinning (foundation strengthening) will be required. Such extensive works are fairly rare these days. It is important to realise that defects associated with structural movement such as cracks are quite common. Many of these defects can be easily repaired at minimum cost.

Carrying out any works to your property can prove to be a disruptive and sometimes stressful experience. It is therefore very important to choose a reputable, good quality builder. In most cases the Architect or Structural Engineer will be able to recommend several builders who are well known to them and who come highly recommended. If you are choosing a builder yourself we recommend that you take the following steps.
  • Ask for references.
    • A competent builder will be proud of his/her previous work and will be pleased to provide references and examples of similar work.
    • We recommend that you contact the builder’s previous customers to obtain their verbal comments.
  • Contact the Federation of Master Builders and ask for confirmation that the builder is a member.
  • Obtain at least three written quotes from different builders, particularly for large projects.
    • You should not necessarily choose the cheapest quote. Ensure all the quotes cover the same work specification.
    • In some situations a builder has been known to provide a very low initial quotation and then claim numerous extra costs during the work.
  • Draw up a contract or agreement with the builder. This should describe the work to be carried out, the date of completion for the work, what hours the builder intends to work each day, site tidiness and disposal of waste materials, catering and lavatory arrangements, security and safety etc.
    • In many situations the work to be carried out will be identified on the Architect’s or Structural Engineer’s drawings. The contract should include the fixed fee cost and date when the work is due to commence.
  • Ask to see the builder’s professional indemnity and public liability insurance certificates. Contact your insurance company if you think the building work may affect your building and contents insurance.
  • Avoid paying deposits to the builder. These are usually only payable when the project will take a long time to complete.
    • Any payment schedule should be agreed in writing.
  • Before the builder commences work make sure that you have planning permission or building regulations approval if appropriate.
    • If structural alterations are required, ensure that you have the relevant structural calculations and details completed before the work commences and that you have copies of these. Ensure that these are sent to Building Control for approval.
  • For larger projects you may wish to engage the Architect or other project supervisor to supervise the works from commencement to completion.

Building Inspectors check building regulations and building notice applications, carry out site visits at various stages of the work to ensure compatibility with the submitted design and details; also to ensure that they satisfy building regulations requirements.

Traditionally, building regulations and building notice applications had to be submitted directly to the Local Authority Building Control Department. In recent times it has also become possible to submit applications for checking and approval by independent Building Inspection companies.

The objective of a site investigation is to identify any potential problems, particularly in the ground, associated with the site prior to the commencement of the project; also to ensure that the extension is designed and constructed as safely and economically as possible.

A comprehensive knowledge of the site’s ground conditions is essential to avoid potential additional costs that may be required to rectify any problems or inadequacies further on during the project.

The extent of the site investigation will depend on the size and complexity of the project.

For very small extensions to properties of more recent construction, there may be sufficient knowledge relating to the existing foundations and ground conditions such that no ground investigation is deemed necessary prior to commencement of the project.

In most other cases, the minimum investigation to be carried out should include hand dug trial holes to confirm the size and depth of the existing adjacent foundations and the nature of the ground material.

In some cases, it may be necessary to take samples of soil from these trial holes and send them for testing at a laboratory to confirm the soil characteristics. This is common, for example, with sites having clay soil and significant trees. The testing will enable the most economic size and depth of foundation to be confirmed.

The hand dug trial holes may be excavated by a local general builder under the supervision of the appointed structural engineer for the project.

For larger projects, or for sites with suspect ground conditions, a more comprehensive site investigation may be appropriate.

This is best carried out by a specialist geotechnical engineer and may include the following:

First Stage

Desk study, including gathering all available records such as old and recent maps, previous site investigation records, from general knowledge and from utility companies.

This study may also include investigating previous and current usage affecting the site such as mine workings, the geology of the site, and ground water conditions including the possibility of flooding.

Second Stage

Carrying out the ground investigation using one or a combination of trial holes, boreholes, in-situ testing and laboratory testing.

Third Stage

Providing a factual report which includes a description of the site, all the findings of the desk study and a description of the testing carried out plus associated results.

The report can also provide recommendations for the most appropriate foundations and associated requirements. If piling is required, the report should include the necessary information to enable the piles to be designed and specified.

The report is normally passed on to the appointed structural engineer, to be used in conjunction with the design of the building foundations and floor.