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Structural Design Concepts

The process of structural design is simple in concept but complex in detail. It involves the analysis of a proposed structure to show that its resistance or strength will meet or exceed a reasonable expectation. This expectation is usually expressed by a specified load or demand and an acceptable margin of safety that constitutes a performance goal for a structure.
The performance goals of structural design are multifaceted. Foremost, a structure must perform its intended function safely over its useful life. Safety is discussed later in this chapter. The concept of useful life implies considerations of durability and establishes the basis for considering the cumulative exposure to time-varying risks (i.e., corrosive environments, occupant loads, snow loads, wind loads, and seismic loads). Given, however, that performance is inextricably linked to cost, owners, builders, and designers must consider economic limits to the primary goals of safety and durability.

The appropriate balance between the two competing considerations of performance and cost is a discipline that guides the “art” of determining value in building design and construction. However, value is judged by the “eye of the beholder,” and what is an acceptable value to one person may not be acceptable value to another (i.e., too costly versus not safe enough or not important versus important). For this reason, political processes mediate minimum goals for building design and structural performance, with minimum value decisions embodied in building codes and engineering standards that are adopted as law.

In view of the above discussion, a structural designer may appear to have little control over the fundamental goals of structural design, except to comply with or exceed the minimum limits established by law. While this is generally true, a designer can still do much to optimize a design through alternative means and methods that call for more efficient analysis techniques, creative design detailing, and the use of innovative construction materials and methods.

In summary, the goals of structural design are generally defined by law and reflect the collective interpretation of general public welfare by those involved in the development and local adoption of building codes. The designer's role is to meet the goals of structural design as efficiently as possible and to satisfy a client’s objectives within the intent of the building code. Designers must bring to bear the fullest extent of their abilities, including creativity, knowledge, experience, judgment, ethics, and communication–aspects of design that are within the control of the individual designer and integral to a comprehensive approach to design. Structural design is much, much more than simply crunching numbers.

Vertical Loads

Gravity loads act in the same direction as gravity (i.e., downward or vertically) and include dead, live, and snow loads. They are generally static in nature and usually considered a uniformly distributed or concentrated load. Thus, determining a gravity load on a beam or column is a relatively simple exercise that uses the concept of tributary areas to assign loads to structural elements. The tributary area is the area of the building construction that is supported by a structural element, including the dead load (i.e., weight of the construction) and any applied loads (i.e., live load). For example, the tributary gravity load on a floor joist would include the uniform floor load (dead and live) applied to the area of floor supported by the individual joist.

The structural designer then selects a standard beam or column model to analyze bearing connection forces (i.e., reactions), internal stresses (i.e., bending stresses, shear stresses, and axial stresses), and stability of the structural member or system; for beam equations. The selection of an appropriate analytic model is, however, no trivial matter, especially if the structural system departs significantly from traditional engineering assumptions that are based on rigid body and elastic behavior. Such departures from traditional assumptions are particularly relevant to the structural systems that comprise many parts of a house, but to varying degrees.
Wind uplift forces are generated by negative (suction) pressures acting in an outward direction from the surface of the roof in response to the aerodynamics of wind flowing over and around the building. As with gravity loads, the influence of wind uplift pressures on a structure or assembly (i.e., roof) are analyzed by using the concept of tributary areas and uniformly distributed loads.

The major difference is that wind pressures act perpendicular to the building surface (not in the direction of gravity) and that pressures vary according to the size of the tributary area and its location on the building, particularly proximity to changes in geometry (e.g., eaves, corners, and ridges). Even though the wind loads are dynamic and highly variable, the design approach is based on a maximum static load (i.e., pressure) equivalent.

Vertical forces are also created by overturning reactions due to wind and seismic lateral loads acting on the overall building and its lateral force resisting systems. Earthquakes also produce vertical ground motions or accelerations which increase the effect of gravity loads. However, vertical earthquake loads are usually considered to be implicitly addressed in the gravity load analysis of a light-frame building.

Lateral Loads

The primary loads that produce lateral forces on buildings are attributable to forces associated with wind, seismic ground motion, floods, and soil. Wind and seismic lateral loads apply to the entire building. Lateral forces from wind are generated by positive wind pressures on the windward face of the building and by negative pressures on the leeward face of the building, creating a combined pushand-pull effect. Seismic lateral forces are generated by a structure’s dynamic inertial response to cyclic ground movement. The magnitude of the seismic shear (i.e., lateral) load depends on the magnitude of the ground motion, the building’s mass, and the dynamic structural response characteristics (i.e., dampening, ductility, natural period of vibration, etc.).

For houses and other similar low-rise structures, a simplified seismic load analysis employs equivalent static forces based on fundamental Newtonian mechanics (F=ma) with somewhat subjective (i.e., experience-based) adjustments to account for inelastic, ductile response characteristics of various building systems. Flood loads are generally minimized by elevating the structure on a properly designed foundation or avoided by not building in a flood plain. Lateral loads from moving flood waters and static hydraulic pressure are substantial. Soil lateral loads apply specifically to foundation wall design, mainly as an “out-of-plane” bending load on the wall. Lateral loads also produce an overturning moment that must be offset by the dead load and connections of the building. Therefore, overturning forces on connections designed to restrain components from rotating or the building from overturning must be considered. Since wind is capable of generating simultaneous roof uplift and lateral loads, the uplift component of the wind load exacerbates the overturning tension forces due to the lateral component of the wind load. Conversely, the dead load may be sufficient to offset the overturning and uplift forces as is often the case in lower design wind conditions and in many seismic design conditions.