Sometimes referred to as “The Science of the Art of Construction,” civil engineering is often the unsung hero of a project; without it, buildings and cities would cease to exist in a way that’s operable or sustainable.
Although the projects they work on have vastly changed over the centuries, civil engineering is arguably the oldest engineering discipline. The design of the built environment began the first time someone placed a roof over their head or laid a tree trunk across a river to make it easier to get across. New materials and technology have allowed civil engineers to think even more creatively, expanding their opportunities to expand and enhance the built environment. From impossibly tall towers to stunning bridges and captivating airports, civil engineers push the limits of what’s possible. At the same time, civil engineers are bound by their ethics of professional practice to ensure that all designs are safe, practical, and economical.
What Does a Civil Engineer Do?
Civil engineers work with many of the unseen elements of a project or building: the structural framework and foundations, provision for the various utility services, stormwater management and flood protection, sanitary sewerage and waste disposal, performance of building materials and components, and access to transportation networks. Civil engineers often work closely with architects and landscape architects to determine the best options for harmonizing the surrounding environment with the aesthetics and program of a building, while providing the building the supporting infrastructure it needs to function.
Civil engineers understand the moving parts beneath a project and are experts when it comes to:
- Structures and Foundations
- Mechanics of Materials
- Transportation Systems
- Geography and Land Use Practices
- Fluid Mechanics
- Hydrology and Climate
- Soils and Geology
- Environmental Protection and Remediation
- Construction Techniques
Why are Civil Engineers Important?
More than just problem solvers, civil engineers often are the first to identify problems. They contribute during all stages of a building’s design and construction. A critical element of any successful project, civil engineering ensures that all relevant human and environmental factors are on the table. The work performed by civil engineers contributes to public health, safety, and welfare by promoting and protecting the psychological and physical well-being of all persons.
In addition to creating new facilities, civil engineers also play an important role in the maintenance, operation, and expansion of existing buildings and infrastructure. Things like highways and railways, water supply, and waste collection and treatment systems are all kept functioning by the innovation and knowledge of civil engineers, who are challenged to consider constantly changing factors, such as population growth and climate change.
Natural disasters are another element that civil engineers must consider—both for the safeguarding of lives and property and for the restoration after damages have occurred. Risk factors and allowable margins of safety are considered in almost all design decisions.
As with all design professionals, civil engineers must think creatively to develop solutions that accommodate finite resources and limited budgets.
What Makes a Great Civil Engineer?
This engineering discipline can be broadly divided into two areas of practice: engineers who spend more time on project design prior to construction, and engineers who spend more time on-site during construction. Although generally using the same knowledge base, these two types of civil engineers work in vastly different settings.
For design-oriented civil engineers, most of their day will be spent in an office or with clients, performing calculations and developing plans, as well as addressing issues to ensure a successful project that meets the needs of the client.
Construction-specialist civil engineers mostly spend their days on project locations, overseeing the contractors who are carrying out the physical work and making sure everything is done correctly and appropriately, answering questions, and managing problems that occur in the field.
No matter the type, to excel as a civil engineer, individuals need to have several qualities, including:
- Creative Thinking
- Problem Solving
- Broad Technical Expertise
- Seeing the Big Picture
Civil engineers who work closely with architects usually have the experience and knowledge necessary to collaborate in a fast-paced and creative work environment. However, all civil engineers learn how to communicate effectively across many disciplines, which is another reason why they are such a keystone in every building project.