What does a Civil Engineer Do?

Civil engineering is the oldest and possibly the most important of the engineering fields, often going unnoticed. Do you know what a civil engineer does?
Trevor English

Perhaps the oldest and broadest of all of the engineering fields, civil engineering isn't just skyscrapers and bridges. Many civil engineers never build anything so massive, rather they are integral to the normal function of society. From the roads we drive on to supplying freshwater, civil engineering encompasses almost everything in your daily life.

Traditionally civil engineering is thought about in regards to structures and essentially making sure a building doesn't fall over. Surprisingly, none of this was an exact science until fairly recently in history. In fact, soil mechanics weren't fully understood until the mid to late 1800's. Up until we had theoretical and empirical formulas for loading of buildings as well as geology, structures were largely built without knowing what would happen to them.

bridge civil engineering analysisModel of a bridge reacting under seismic loading [Image Source: PDS Limited]

Whenever a structure is built, even before modern plumbing, it was the civil engineer's job to figure out how to access and collect water. Historically speaking, before the Romans came along with piping, aqueducts and other advances, large urban areas were only built by water sources. A city needed a freshwater source for drinking and waste, but cities also flourished around coastlines and bays due to the availability of transportation.

The Roman Empire reshaped the field of civil engineering. Over the empire's roughly 500 year reign, Roman engineers developed lead piping, water treatment, aqueducts, and even sewer systems that are still in use today. All of these technologies may seem like commonplace today, but if the sewer backs up or access to freshwater is lost, people get mad. This makes civil engineering a largely thankless career choice, but if a civil engineer makes a mistake, whole societies can be destroyed.

Civil engineering even involves a significant amount of chemistry. Specifically in the area of wastewater and groundwater treatment. Proper wastewater treatment is actually a fairly recent technology. The Romans simply dumped their waste back into the surrounding rivers and let it flow downstream. Even as recent as the early 1900's wastewater was pumped back into water sources and allowed to naturally filter, obviously causing problems. Most historical disease outbreaks were caused by a lack of knowledge in regards to water pathogens and waste treatment. Modern civil engineers have developed wastewater treatment plants which use chemicals such as chlorine and various filtering technologies to make wastewater effluent (drinkable water).

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Back to what civil engineers are most known for structures and roads. When building any structure a civil engineer has to take into account the loading of the material, but also what the building will sit on. As mentioned earlier, there wasn't much knowledge regarding if the soil being built on was good for a foundation. As engineers had no way of knowing how the ground would react to loading, they took best guesses as to what would work. This in part explains why the leaning tower of Pisa is, well... leaning. Large-scale, and even small-scale, building failures have caused geotechnical analysis to advance in modern times. Geology is a large part of what a civil engineer takes into account when constructing a building.

Take for example the Burj Kalifa in Dubai, otherwise known as the world's tallest building. It is well known that Dubai sits in the middle of the desert, which has a lot of sand. In fact, so much sand that engineers could not build a foundation for the building without some special civil engineering practices. Instead of simply sitting the building on the ground, engineers built large cylinders hundreds of meters into the ground to hold the building up. These piers worked by using friction from the surrounding soil to hold the building up, a practice that had never been accomplished on such a large scale.


A part of civil engineering that involves both structure and water is that of dams. Dams can be some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of engineering, but they can also be incredibly dangerous. Often dams hold back millions of cubic meters of water with significant urban populations sitting downstream. For example, if the Hoover Dam were to fail, it is estimated that 450,000 people would lose their lives.

hoover dam civil engineerThe Hoover Dam [Image Source: Mike O'Callaghan]

Modern facets of civil engineering involve airplane structure, freshwater and wastewater piping, oil fracking, and pretty much everything that involves the present infrastructure. It is fairly easy to decipher whether a civil engineer was involved in a project. If it involves moving parts or anything more than basic electricity, civil engineers tend to hiss in fear, much like an angry cat. Not to worry though, that's why there are electrical, mechanical, biomedical and other engineering professionals who take care of all of the other important things that keep the world running.

Along with growing concerns about the environment, civil engineers have taken a large part in the advancement of green technologies. A new solar roadway being installed in France is one of the most recent civil engineering advancements in the field. Of course, there were electrical and other engineers involved in the project as well, their contributions should not be diminished. Environmental engineering is essentially a battle to keep the world clean and livable, a fight many civil engineers are involved in. Of course, there is always the opposite end of the spectrum. Historically, civil engineering projects have been some the most environmentally harmful projects ever built.

Every engineering profession is important in their own respects. Civil engineering, however, provides the necessary infrastructure to allow modern society to function. If you are looking for a technical career path that does not limit the fields you can get involved in, civil engineering is the way to go. From structures to environmental engineering, there is a facet of civil engineering for everyone. This article of course just touched the surface of civil engineering, there are so many more new and exciting technologies in the field. Make sure to check back at Interesting Engineering each week to new articles discussing the field of civil engineering.

Civil engineer bridge wheel[Image Source: Wikimedia]

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