From record-breaking blizzards, windstorms and hailstorms to heat waves, floods and Eastern Plains tornados, Colorado has it all when it comes to extreme weather. That’s why a structural engineer must solve unique challenges in constructing all types of buildings in Colorado. Unless a structure’s design is capable of resisting “loads” (damage caused by extreme weather), that building will likely require continual renovations or ultimately face demolition.

Fundamentals of Structural Engineering

structural engineer knows how to apply mathematics, the science of building materials and applied mechanics to developing blueprints for buildings at risk for suffering climate damage or earthquakes. In addition, they must also be acutely aware of design codes, whether theoretical or empirical. For over 20 years, structural engineers have had access to invaluable software that further improves their ability to optimize a building’s load resistance. Structural engineering software also incorporates components known to reduce building integrity, such as Colorado’s mountainous landscape and invisible nonphysical influences–sun shadows, air quality, radiant angles and underground vibrations. The creation of economical yet enduring and attractive buildings in Colorado should be left solely to an experienced structural engineer.

3 Main Challenges to Colorado Structural Engineers

Expansive Soil

Dry soil easily absorbs any amount of water. Water absorption by most materials causes that material to expand. Soil is no different. Structural engineers understand that before constructing a building in Colorado, soil must be treated properly to avoid movement of a building.

Expansive (swelling) soil is a major problem in Colorado. To prevent unwanted building movement due to expansive soil, engineers suggest treating soil by either removing and replacing rejected soil or mixing water with soil to allow expansion to occur before placing a building on top of it.

The Colorado Geological Survey cites Southern Colorado State University Campus as an example of expansive soil consequences in Colorado. Several buildings have been damaged due to swelling soils that structural engineers failed to account for when designing the structures. Excavation processes during the construction of SCSU allowed water to infiltrate clay soils, causing extreme upward expansion. Cost of repairing building damage is over $1.5 million, an expense that could have been avoided by proactively preparing the soil.

Extreme Winds 

In addition to swelling soils, a Colorado structural engineer must also consider wind load, or the impact of winds pushing against building corners, walls and roofs. While ensuring they remain compliant with area building codes, engineers use mathematics, wind averages and material quality to create load path continuums that promote structural integrity and preservation during high wind events. One of the primary ways to achieve this is to establish dependable connections from walls to roofs and from foundations to floors. Again, depending on building codes, connections can be supported with metal fasteners or nails. Metal fasteners are more expensive than nails, but they provide optimal resistance and strength. Buildings constructed in the tornado-prone Eastern Plains of Colorado should also incorporate laminated windows that reduce the amount of airborne debris both in and out of the structure.

Snow/Rain Loads

In structural engineering terms, snow load is how much snow weighs when it is distributed across a building’s roof. Snow loads are calculated according to uniform distribution and drift distribution. Buildings with multiple roofs have multiple snow loads since snow can slide and drop onto lower roofs from upper roofs. Lower roofs may suffer significantly higher snow loads due to this extra loading effect. Wall and roof framings primarily resist snow loading. Girders and floor joists can also be impacting depending on the shape of the framing.

Rain loading is mostly an issue on structures with low-slope roofs. The same framing components responsible for supporting snow loads are responsible for supporting rain loads.

While no structural engineer or building construction company can guarantee with certainty that a structure is 100 percent protected from extreme Colorado weather events, it can be more costly in the long-term to skimp on paying for professionals to advise you on building code compliance, the best building material to use and what your structure needs regarding expansive soil and extreme weather problems. Although Colorado may seem like it is trying its best to destroy your home or commercial building, there are ways to prevent this from happening.