What is Civil Engineering? (Summary)

When we’ve heard a phrase over and over in our lives, it can sometimes go in one ear and out the other without us realizing what it really means. Civil engineering might be one of those phrases, especially for young adults looking into college degrees. If we break down the term, we find the word civil at its heart. But what does civil really mean in this context? The word civilian gives us some clues to clear up the air. Civil engineering works on “civilian” projects such as bridges and roads that regular people in society use in their daily lives.

Sometimes the projects are a bit less common than roads (think dams and aqueducts), but the main point is that they won’t be projects focusing on things like military machines or weapons. In fact, the term civil engineering came into use first in the 18th century and was meant to distinguish it from military engineering. Now, civil engineering is a profession that involves designing and executing structural works to serve the general public.

Historical Summary of Civil Engineering

Ancient Civil Engineering

Today, civil engineering has quite a long list of subdivisions. They include structural engineering, whose primary focus is on analysis and design of structures such as buildings, bridges, and roads. There’s also geothermal, environmental, water resource, construction engineering, and more. But the discipline didn’t always have this wide variety of sub-fields. In fact, it wasn’t always considered a discipline.

From the earliest of times, people built things. It’s in our nature. Engineering work dates back to the ancient times over eight centuries BC. For example, the Roman public baths, bridges, roads and aqueducts, as well as Dutch sea fences and many other items affirm a history of genius invention and consistent experimentation. But they didn’t apply a lot of scientific knowledge or evaluation to make big advances until about the 3rd century BC.

At this time, builders started using math to provide practical solutions in engineering problems. This is where the famous story of the Archimedes Principle comes from. The story goes that Archimedes needed to prove that a crown was not pure gold. He then used his knowledge of math and physical properties of materials to determine that putting the crown in water should displace a certain amount (if it were pure gold). Because it displaced less, it was not pure gold. Various of Archimedess principles, including this one of buoyancy, became important for engineering. From there, things just kept getting better.

A Growing Field

Civil engineering really started taking off in various areas of the world when groups of people began to abandon nomadic ways of life. People needed reliable structures that would stay put over time as they lived their lives in one place. Because civil engineering focuses so much on buildings and similar structures, it was often considered the same as architecture. This changed in the 18th century when the term civil engineering was introduced to distinguish the field from military ventures.

At first, expert knowledge came from talented craftsmen, masons, and toolmakers. These skilled people then became the first civil engineers. Over the years, extensive civil works depended entirely on human labor organized by contractors. The use of gunpowder and steam diggers aided in the reduction of dependence on human labor towards the end of the 19th century.

Civil Engineering Hands of architect or engineer working on blueprint meeting for project working with partner on model building and engineering tools in working site Construction

The Rise of Modern Civil Engineering

The start of civil engineering as an independent entity was founded in France in 1716. At this moment British and French engineers wrote books which became the standard works for use by mechanics of materials, machines, and hydraulics.

Up to this time, no school existed in Great Britain, denying scientists an opportunity to exchange experiences.  In 1818, a group of young men founded an institution of civil engineers. They were driven by the need to learn from one another. In 1820, they invited Thomas Telford to become their first president. By the 19th century, several civil engineer societies came into existence in Europe and the United States.  In the following century, a similar institution was produced in virtually all the countries in the world.

Formal education in civil engineering was after that available in other countries with France and Germany taking the lead. In London, civil engineering was first taught in 1838. In 1824, the first civil engineering classes were given in the United States at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After that, the number of universities with civil engineering classes increased in the world drastically in the 19th and 20th century. Currently, civil engineering degrees and classes exist in most universities around the globe. There are also many events and advances happening all the time in civil engineering. You can read more about these modern parts of the field in articles on Dave4Math.

Civil Engineering word cloud Possible Areas of Specialization

Possible Areas of Specialization in Civil Engineering

Structural Engineering

Probably the most common and well-known type of civil engineering is that of the structural variety. It involves the design and analysis of buildings, towers, bridges and other structures to make sure they are stable and reliable. Each structure has its own requirement to meet its own set of unique needs during its useful life. Some need to support vast quantities of materials, including the materials in the structure itself. Others need to withstand certain weather patterns and temperatures. For example, storms, earthquakes, and movement are all important factors to consider. Even something like traffic can be an important factor for projects such as roads and bridges.

To capture all of these different requirements, other fields mentioned below are actually sub-disciplines of structural engineering which work to specifically address certain problems. For example, earthquake engineering addresses the specific and grave structural problems that come form earthquakes. Any structural engineer will often work alongside various other civil engineers and architects to get the job done.

Construction Engineering

Another one of the most classic areas in the field, construction engineering involves all the different aspects of building structures. This includes planning, gathering materials, developing sites, and executing the construction of projects. Civil engineering plays a vital role in the construction industry including site survey, feasibility studies, and developing designs. It involves the activities carried out during construction such as dealing with clients, consultation of engineers, as well as contractor consultation. It also applies to many of the operations carried out after construction such as research and maintenance.

To accomplish these tasks, construction engineers need to take into account factors from other branches of engineering such as hydraulic, structural, geotechnical, and environmental. These areas allow them to determine the best sites to build, the best quality materials for the job, and how to put it together efficiently. It’s also important to know that this field often focuses on the more logistical and business sides of these tasks by evaluating logistics, contracts, and prices of supplies throughout the process of construction. However, the tasks a certain firm takes under its wings depend on the firm’s abilities and preferences.

Coastal Engineering

Like construction engineering, coastal engineering involves building and reinforcing structures, only this time on the coast. The coast differs from other areas for a variety of reasons. The first is a very different set of geological features and foundations. The ground near coasts is very different from the inland, and it is constantly changing due to effects of the ocean. Weather patterns can be extreme, and additional defenses are necessary. Preventing floods, erosion, storm damages, and more are some examples of common coastal problems. Coastal engineering concerns itself with these areas as well as with other fields such as coastal management and the environment.

Earthquake Engineering

One of the biggest threats to large civil structures is the shaking of the Earth itself. Earthquake engineering is chiefly concerned with manipulating the structure of architecture to maintain structures during such earthquakes. The field involves understanding how structures interact with shaking ground as well as dealing with potential post-earthquake consequences such as repairs.

Some buildings can withstand surprisingly strong earthquakes, but it’s actually more complex than making structures as strong as possible for the largest earthquakes possible. The size and shape of a structure affects how it will react to various types of waves. High frequency but short waves can devastate small buildings while leaving skyscrapers relatively unscathed. Long period long waves on the other hand and leave small buildings untouched but send taller ones toppling to the ground. Knowing which types of waves are most common in a certain area is vital for making the most hardy buildings, but changes from the norm can ruin even the best of plans.

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering involves manipulating human and natural environments for their protection. It works on problems from energy conservation to industrial hygiene. However, much of modern environmental engineering actually focuses on sanitation and treatment of wastes.

It works to sanitize both the environment of workers and industrial processes, as well as the environment which receives their wastes. This means treating biological, chemical, and even thermal wastes to remediate the sites where waste ends up. Environmental engineers work chiefly in the field of civil engineering, but also overlap with chemical engineering.

Ecological Engineering

Unlike environmental engineering, ecological engineering looks at whole ecosystems and works on manipulating the bridge between human and other natural environments. It looks at how ecology works with human environments and tries to optimize this relationship. Because of the nature of the relationship, this often means figuring out how to treat the ecosystems with respect and preserve their well being.

One of the primary goals is to utilize natural energy sources to manipulate and control environmental systems. This involves taking into account the natural capacity of the systems and conserving non-renewable sources. Ecological engineering works with other engineering fields, as well as private and public clients to manage ecosystems.

Forensic Civil Engineering

The word forensic might bring to mind crime scenes of murders or kidnappings, but that’s not quite what this is about. However, this field does investigate tricky situations to determine what happened, especially in situations that might require legal action. It investigates civil and criminal failures in the engineering world such as damages, accidents, or injuries.

Forensic engineers enter these situations to look at the details of what led to the failure. They evaluate materials and actions on the part of those using them. They then follow health and safety legislation, contract rules and laws, and product liability procedures to figure out if someone is at fault and what should be done. Once that’s sorted out, they help figure out how to improve the conditions such that there isn’t a repeat failure.

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering involves manipulating natural substances such as the rock and soil that support large structures. This requires knowledge from various fields such as soil science, geoscience, materials science, and mechanics. The field works to solve problems by using the knowledge from those fields to determine the mechanics of different materials for construction.

This field of civil engineering gives us structurally sound foundations, buildings, retaining walls, and other large structures. It also helps protect groundwater or maintain landfills. In fact, a new engineering sub-field has emerged from this area, called geoenvironmental engineering.

Hydraulic Engineering

Hydraulic engineering involves manipulating and describing fluids in order to move and regulate them. Liquids are important parts of various civil engineering projects such as those involving sewage or natural bodies of water like lakes and rivers. Thus, hydraulic engineering is highly relevant to the construction of sewers, bridges, canals, and dams. It also has a strong relationship with other sub-fields of civil engineering such as sanitary and environmental.

The field requires knowledge in fluid mechanics as well as logistical issues related to the management of water and wastes. Collection, storage, transport, measurement, control, and use of water and its wastes are all important.

Materials Science and Civil Engineering

Materials science is a field in its own right, but also shares a lot of characteristics with civil engineering. Both look at the properties of materials and how to use them in various ways. Materials science also provides aid to civil engineering in the form of creating or evaluating materials for use in construction and other projects. Without improvements in materials, many improvements in civil engineering wouldn’t be possible.

Materials engineering thus provides protection and damage prevention of project materials. It uses applied physics and chemistry to accomplish this, and is often at the forefront of academic research.