What is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering is the professional term for engineering discipline that deals with civil, structural and architectural engineering and design

As part of our new series of resources on Engineering Career paths we are doing a deep-dive into Civil Engineering and the various options available to Civil Engineers.

We will return to the different types of civil engineering courses and civil engineering bachelor’s degree later in the series. For now we want to answer a basic question – what exactly is a civil engineer? While the question might sound simple a civil engineer can have a range of different specialities and each of these specialities can shape our world in different ways.

What is Civil Engineering?

Civil Engineers shape the built environment, and use their creativity to improve the world we live in for a sustainable future.

Every building, road, bridge, harbour, airport or energy facility will have relied on the creativity, imagination and skills of Civil Engineers. However, in the modern world these existing projects have aged and civil engineers are now also needed to manage construction projects to rebuild, repair, and upgrade bridges, roads, levees, dams, airports, buildings, and structures of all types, making it an in-demand and highly lucrative field. Today Civil engineers design, construct, maintain, and operate infrastructures, while simultaneously safeguarding public and environmental health and upgrading neglected structures and systems.

The history of Civil Engineering

It is considered the second engineering discipline historically. The first type of engineering consider to be a profession was military engineering. The new field was a response to this and was a way for engineers working on non-military projects to set themselves apart from military engineering

Traditionally Civil Engineering has covered any professional engineer who applies physical and scientific principles to solve the problems of society. The history of the profession has always been linked advances in the understanding of physics and mathematics. Because it is a broad profession, it is often broken down into specialised sub-disciplines, these have expanded as our knowledge of structures, materials science, geography, geology, soils, hydrology, environmental science, mechanics, project management, and other fields have grown.

We often think of large infrastructure projects when we think of Civil Engineering. While it is true that some Civil engineers work at the highest level of the planning, design, construction, and operation of multifaceted projects or research and that these types of construction engineering projects can take place at huge scales like the construction of national transport networks or water networks but Civil Engineers also work at small scales with the development of individual roads or buildings.

What is civils

You might see Civil Engineering referred to sometimes as Civils. The plural is rarely used outside Construction. The plural of Civil tends to only crop up in the construction industry and is often used in company names. It is sometimes used by those involved in infrastructure of transport networks and projects.

What do Civil Engineers actually do?

As the field of Civil Engineering is broad, and people might have a very particular specialty, it can be difficult to visualise what your day-to-day might look like. What’s more emerging technologies mean you will committing to lifelong learning to keep your knowledge fresh.

Most civil engineers will work out of office buildings or as part of a remote team designing structural plans for projects, some will do site visits and some projects might even need you on site full time. What you do day to day will depend on your specialisations, your experience and your job role. For example, the day to day working in a team of transportation engineers might be very different to what a foundation engineering firm might do.

Day to day as a civil engineer

However, generally you would normally expect your work within Civil Engineering include tasks like:

  • Working with clients and others professionals involved in a project like architects or subcontractors
  • Communicate effectively with a range of audiences. You won’t just be talking to other engineers but business leaders, those representing Professional Organizations, vendors and professionals within the engineering economy.
  • Working on management tasks like creating job specs, supervising other engineers, and working through tender processes
  • Technical or feasibility studies, these would involve on-site investigations
  • Using a number of different of computer software programs for developing designs
  • Being responsible for undertaking complex calculations or checking colleagues calculations
  • Fixing any design and development problems that occur on a project
  • Managing a project budget or resources
  • Ensuring that the scheduling of material and equipment purchases and deliveries fit into a project plan
  • Making sure engineering aspects of a project complies with regulatory requirements like health and safety
  • Assessing the environmental impact of projects and how a project interacts with the natural environment

Civil Engineering Specialisations

Most civil engineering jobs will not advertise for a “Civil Engineer”. They will be pitched towards their specific specialisation. For example a company might advertise for a structural engineering or construction management role.

These types of jobs might be inside a Construction companies (both as consultants and contractors), working for Local authorities and government departments, working Rail companies or even Utility companies. The specialization you pick will depend on the kind of problem solving you are most interested in, and which part of society you’d like to help build and improve. The main areas of Civil engineering are:

Aviation and Airport Civil Engineers

These projects might involve completely new projects or changing or improving existing airports to include new technologies.

These can be broken into further sub-disciples like

  • Airside infrastructure – working on runways and taxi-ways
  • Airside support services – working on cargo or aircraft maintenance facilities.
  • Terminal Construction – working within construction engineering on the design and maintenance of terminal buildings

Bridge Civil Engineers

Bridge engineering is one of the most fields most associated with big Civil Engineering projects but it also requires several sub-specialisations to work together.

For example, Engineers working on the design and construction management of a bridge need a strong understanding of Structural Engineering and Sustainable Principles but they also need to be able to work alongside road, geotechnical, railway and environmental engineers. If you are to function effectively as a member or leader of a team that establishes goals, plan tasks, meets deadlines, and creates a collaborative and inclusive environment is as important to your career as your technical knowledge.

That is because these mega-projects often combine dozens of contractors and consultants, as well as specialist when working on the superstructure design. You might be an engineer who’s job is only to deal with steel design, or someone working as project managers, construction managers or in a one of many senior positions on managing the project. You will not only need to good technical foundation but good critical thinking skills.

Sub-fields you might not think of Civil Engineers working could include

  • Geotechnical engineers – working on the substructure and foundations.
  • Specialist subcontractors and suppliers – these can be individual contractors or firms that specialise in engineering solutions to issues with bearings or post-tensioning, or have specific knowledge of Transportation Engineering or cutting edge engineering technology

Building Construction civil engineering

Civil engineers have often be associated with building services, working as a structural engineer within the design process to produce solutions to architectural problems and providing specialist understanding of modern construction methods. Construction engineers manage projects for erecting buildings, digging tunnels, and laying roads. They might have a speciality in Solid and Structural Mechanics

These engineers work alongside those in Architectural Engineering to ensure buildings get designed safely and meet the requirements of evolving government regulations. Often they will be tasked with developing and conducting appropriate experimentation, analysing and interpreting data, and use engineering judgment to ensure builds are going to be safe and meet regulatory requirements.

  • Sustainable Engineering – today engineers have ethical and professional responsibilities to ensure that buildings are developed with the climate-crisis in mind . Sustainable engineering materials and building techniques are an important part of how engineers can combat climate change.

Coastal and Marine Civil Engineering

These types of Civil Engineering projects are increasingly important as coastal communities battle against rising sea levels and erosion and see Engineers working on sea defences.

This can see engineering roles around hard defences like barriers constructed from concrete or can see the creation of soft defences which might involve artificial or reconstructed beaches. These are some of the most complex engineering problems a structural engineer has to work on as they involve incredibly harsh environments

Engineers might also work on critical economic infrastructure like the building and maintaining ports, offshore wind farms and emerging technologies that harness tidal energy. Engineers will often have specific certifications in coastal engineering, geotechnical engineering, ports engineering, water engineering, and other fields.

Nuclear or Traditional Power Civil Engineering

Engineers are needed for the design and build of a whole host of Civil Engineering infrastructure needed to create energy. These career paths overlap with the roles you might find in Mechanical Engineering.

While it might sound like there isn’t much variety in the energy sector the boom in renewal technologies mean that Civil Engineering graduates could end up working on designs for an offshore wind facility, not just the the maintenance of existing oil platforms or the decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

Environmental Engineering

One of the newest Civil Engineering sub-disciplines has quickly expanded to become on of the most sough-after types of Civil Engineering. Environmental Engineering deals with a huge number of environmental engineering challenges.

Environmental Engineering can include how to deal with a range of civil infrastructure from municipal sewage systems and hazardous waste management, to how power plants process emissions, how construction firms clean up contaminated land, and how water companies deal with complex water supply networks and wastewater distribution systems and waste disposal. Critically Environmental engineers are needed to addresses energy and resource recovery from waste materials.

Geotechnical Civil Engineering

Geotechnical Engineering is one of the most specialist types of Civil Engineering that deals with Structural Design. These types of engineers are responsible for the foundations of structures. Geotechnical Engineering must have the ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems by applying principles of knowledge of engineering, science, and mathematics.

As the field is so complex and specialist most Civil Engineers do not find it included in the core curriculum of a Civil Engineering degree and engineers will normally have a specialist postgraduate degree. Day to day a Geotechnical Engineer will be responsible for assessing field data regarding the ground, soil, and rock on a site of a build. They will be asked with ensuring that the foundations of a building and slopes around it are safe and stable. This can involve completing site investigations, designing foundations in computer aided design software or overseeing the on-site construction work.

Highways, Road and Transportation Civil Engineer

In broad terms highway engineering involves the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems, roads, bridges, and tunnels to ensure safe and effective transportation of people and goods.

However, when only a small number of engineers work on large scale mega-projects. Many Road and Highway Engineers are involved in the Planning Applications for government agencies, and local government around building roads. These engineers work on things like Transport Assessment, Transport Statement, Transport Scoping Study, Travel Plan, Road Safety Audit.

This is because any road development proposals will impact on the local transport network in the form of an increase in traffic or pedestrian movement which can have an impact on safety and the whole road networks operation. A Highway Engineer involvement helps planners understand the scale and nature of everyday development proposals, and their role is often to advise on how any adverse impacts of the development.

Offshore Civil Engineering

This sub-discipline of Civil Engineering deals with the design, construction and maintenance of structures intended to work in a stationary position in the ocean environment. This can be large oil-platforms that are critical to the Oil and Gas industry or for newer technologies like Offshore Wind Turbines or Tidal Energy plants.

The job is not only to work on the design of these types of structures but also design permanent and temporary anchorages, and perform assessments of seabed stability. This might see an engineer undertaking conceptual or feasibility studies, on-site assessments.

Rail Engineering

The design, build and maintain the railway system’s infrastructure is often associated with Civil Engineering, but the sub-field itself can be broad and deal with everything from the tracks, earthworks and drainage, to communication and power systems that keep train networks working.

Rail Engineers are responsible for not only the design, build, operation of the rail network but they can go on to manage the sophisticated and complex interfaces which characterise existing and new railways and infrastructure.

Hydraulic Civil Engineers

Hydraulic is often overlooked as a field of Civil Engineering. It deals with the application of fluid mechanics to water flowing in any isolated environment (for example a pipe or pump) or how water moves in an open channel (river, lake, ocean) and often involves engineers being asked to solve complex engineering problems.

This is critical not only to Hydroelectric-power structures, dams, breakwaters or sewage conduits but also feeds into other fields that deal with coastal erosion protection and flood protection.

Tunnelling Civil Engineer

There are lots of different methods of modern tunnel construction and as our cities grow tunnelling has taken on a critical role in how large scale infrastructure projects can be be seamlessly added into cities without disturbing existing buildings or roads. Most types of tunnelling do require incredibly specialist skills and equipment. Modern techniques for tunnelling include the use of bored tunnels using Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs), sprayed concrete lined tunnels, tunnels constructed by blasting with explosives, and tunnels constructed by pipejacking, piperamming, or thrustboring.

The variety of these methods means you will need to use a whole range of specialist structural and geotechnical knowledge is required but engineers are also expected to know many elements of underground engineering. For example caverns and stations, rock tunnels, shafts, might come under the remit of a tunnelling engineer. This large variety means the underground world and the skills it needs are always varied and challenging.

Water Resources Engineering

Different to Hydraulic engineering, the role of a Water Resources Engineer is to provide clean drinking water and treat wastewater. This field can deal with everything from land resource usage, human health, to water and environmental restoration.

Water resources engineering covers the creation and management of facilities and techniques to control societies access to water. This ranges from assessing the best ways create and manage irrigation, waste disposal and canal systems to ensuring that waters safe to drink both for humans, plants and animal. That means a role as a Water Resources Engineer might be involved in implementing sustainable new engineering technology for water drainage systems, or creating energy-efficient treatment plants, and even improving infrastructure to prevent urban flooding.

The next steps to becoming a Civil Engineer.

Now you have a better understanding of the different types of careers paths Civil Engineers might take you are probably wondering what you next steps to there are.

Typically Civil Engineers will have taken part in a broad civil engineering program to prepare them for their career. This might have been a bachelor’s degree ( undergraduate degree ) in civil engineering or masters, or it might have been an apprenticeship programme. Many Civil engineers jobs require a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, in one of its specialties, or in civil engineering technology but there are apprenticeship programmes available if you are interested in working in a role with civil engineering technicians.

Deciding what your own Educational Objectives are will influence your choice of course, modules within it and what your might choose as a technical elective.

Civil engineering degrees & civil engineering program

In the next part of our series we will look at the difference between the two and what might be the best fit for you depending on the civil engineering specialty you want to pursue and what options there are for Civil engineering degrees. Programs in civil engineering and civil engineering technology might see modules on math, statistics, engineering mechanics and systems, and fluid dynamics, depending on the specialty

Everyone is different and finding the most appropriate learning strategies will ensure you have a solid foundation in civil engineering and allow you to achieve success in your career while maintaining as many career opportunities as possible.

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