Civil engineering is a professional engineering discipline that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment, including public works such as roads, bridges, canals, dams, airports, sewerage systems, pipelines, structural components of buildings, and railways.
Civil engineering is traditionally broken into a number of sub-disciplines. It is considered the second-oldest engineering discipline after military engineering, and it is defined to distinguish non-military engineering from military engineering. Civil engineering can take place in the public sector from municipal public works departments through to federal government agencies, and in the private sector from locally based firms to global Fortune 500 companies.
Civil engineering is the application of physical and scientific principles for solving the problems of society, and its history is intricately linked to advances in the understanding of physics and mathematics throughout history. Because civil engineering is a broad profession, including several specialized sub-disciplines, its history is linked to knowledge of structures, materials science, geography, geology, soils, hydrology, environmental science, mechanics, project management, and other fields.
Throughout ancient and medieval history most architectural design and construction was carried out by artisans, such as stonemasons and carpenters, rising to the role of professional builder. Knowledge was retained in guilds and seldom supplanted by advances. Structures, roads, and infrastructure that existed were repetitive, and increases in scale were incremental.
One of the earliest examples of a scientific approach to physical and mathematical problems applicable to civil engineering is the work of Archimedes in the 3rd century BC, including Archimedes Principle, which underpins our understanding of buoyancy, and practical solutions such as Archimedes’ screw. Brahmaputra, an Indian mathematician, used arithmetic in the 7th century AD, based on Hindu-Arabic numerals, for excavation (volume) computations.
Courses of Civil Engineering
If you study civil engineering at undergraduate level, you’ll learn to apply mathematics and scientific knowledge (particularly physics) to real-life situations and problems that arise from creating and maintaining structures, considering environmental, financial, legal and ethical considerations.
At its core, civil engineering is a combination of many scientific specialisms, including mechanics, hydraulics, geotechnics (using knowledge of the earth’s crust to solve construction problems), materials science and statistical analysis. As such, study of these foundational elements will feature heavily in the early years of civil engineering degrees.
As well as the more scientific side, those who study civil engineering will get to develop their design skills, particularly computer-aided design. Project work is central to the subject, meaning that in the latter years of your degree you will be able to complete your own design projects individually or within a team.
Undergraduate civil engineering degrees will typically be three or four years in length and will feature a mixture of lectures and lab work. There will also be an emphasis on working within a team, as this is considered a key skill for anyone pursuing civil engineering careers.
Those who study civil engineering may also have opportunities to participate in field trips and complete industry placements, either as a ‘year in industry’ or for shorter periods.
Duties of Civil Engineers
Civil engineers typically do the following:
Analyze long range plans, survey reports, maps, and other data to plan and design projects
Consider construction costs, government regulations, potential environmental hazards, and other factors during the planning and risk-analysis stages of a project
Compile and submit permit applications to local, state, and federal agencies, verifying that projects comply with various regulations
Oversee and analyze the results of soil testing to determine the adequacy and strength of foundations
Analyze the results of tests on building materials, such as concrete, wood, asphalt, or steel, for use in particular projects
Prepare cost estimates for materials, equipment, or labor to determine a project’s economic feasibility
Use design software to plan and design transportation systems, hydraulic systems, and structures in line with industry and government standards
Perform or oversee surveying operations to establish building locations, site layouts, reference points, grades, and elevations to guide construction
Manage the repair, maintenance, and replacement of public and private infrastructure
Civil engineers also must present their findings to the public on topics such as bid proposals, environmental impact statements, or property descriptions.
Many civil engineers hold supervisory or administrative positions ranging from supervisor of a construction site to city engineer, public works director, and city manager. As supervisors, they are tasked with ensuring that safe work practices are followed at construction sites.
Other civil engineers work in design, construction, research, and teaching. Civil engineers work with others on projects and may be assisted by civil engineering technicians.
Civil engineers prepare permit documents for work on projects in renewable energy. They verify that the projects will comply with federal, state, and local requirements. These engineers conduct structural analyses for large-scale photovoltaic, or solar energy, projects. They also evaluate the ability of solar array support structures and buildings to tolerate stresses from wind, seismic activity, and other sources. For large-scale wind projects, civil engineers often prepare roadbeds to handle large trucks that haul in the turbines.
Civil engineers work on complex projects, and they can achieve job satisfaction in seeing the project reach completion. They usually specialize in one of several areas.
Construction engineers manage construction projects, ensuring that they are scheduled and built in accordance with plans and specifications. These engineers typically are responsible for the design and safety of temporary structures used during construction. They may also oversee budgetary, time-management, and communications aspects of a project.
Geotechnical engineers work to make sure that foundations for built objects ranging from streets and buildings to runways and dams, are solid. They focus on how structures built by civil engineers, such as buildings and tunnels, interact with the earth (including soil and rock). In addition, they design and plan for slopes, retaining walls, and tunnels.
Structural engineers design and assess major projects, such as buildings, bridges, or dams, to ensure their strength and durability.
Transportation engineers plan, design, operate, and maintain everyday systems, such as streets and highways, but they also plan larger projects, such as airports, ship ports, mass transit systems, and harbors.
The work of civil engineers is closely related to the work of environmental engineers.