What is Civil Engineering?

Civil Engineering is the (oldest) engineering discipline which deals with designing and building all types of structures and related things, by applying principles of engineering knowledge backed up by research and knowledge based on science and mathematics. Civil engineers design and build all types of structures that make up our civilization, hence the word “civil”.

Engineering is basically the the sum of practical applications of scientific knowledge to improve our society and make things. n other words, it is an applied science. We can even think of all engineers (civil, electrical, mechanical, computer, mining, metallurgical etc…) as mathematicians in specific areas, who are specialized in applying mathematical knowledge to different areas of life, but at the same time differ from a mathematician by possessing non-mathematical knowledge in that particular area to solve practical problems, design, modify, make and build things, based on the theory obtained as a result of research and studies in that area.

For structures such as buildings, which is the most common structure that first comes to mind, architects design the main aspects, appearance, aesthetics, functionality, interiors, while civil engineers do the design calculations of structures so that they do not fail or collapse. Apart from architects, civil engineers also design many other structures that are not buildings such as bridges or dams or transportation systems and many more. Civil engineers also design things that does not appear as structures, but require civil engineering knowledge regardless, such as stabilizing slopes to prevent them from falling, install storm sewer lines, building a temporary structure to divert a river, infrastructure such as roads, and all things required to build our civilization.

Civil engineers make sure that the things which they design operate properly, and do not fail. Failure can have different meaning for different things. For a building or bridge or tunnel structure for example, failure means the collapse of the structure or excessive deformation so that it can not serve its purpose anymore, or even when the users of the structure do not feel comfortable using the structure anymore. For a sewer system failure may mean the frequent failing of pipes or the system not being able to handle the amount of water by flooding when it rains a lot… For a road, failure may mean that the road does not have the capacity to handle the traffic load, or ponding of water on the road. For an engineered slope on a mountainside, failure means sliding of slope. For a retaining wall, failure means the wall tilting excessively, or collapsing and so on…

Civil engineering study, as taught in universities, is classified into 5 main categories.

The first four subcategory listed below is design, and the fifth one is construction of those designs:

  • Structural: Deals with the structural design of any type of structure. This is probably the category that first comes to everybody’s mind, when thinking the word “Civil Engineer”. A structure can be a building, house, bridge, stadium, warehouse, tunnel, dam and so on. Civil engineers specializing in this branch are also called “Structural Engineers”. Although definitely subjective, by many civil engineers, this subcategory can sometimes be thought as “the most difficult” due to the complexity of the designing structures and the amount of engineering knowledge involved.
  • Geotechnical: Deals with soil and foundations of structures. All structures must have adequate foundation and strong enough earth material beneath that. Civil engineers specializing in this branch are also called “Geotechnical Engineers”. They not only deal with the foundations, but also things such as designing stable slopes on hills, designing retaining walls and excavation supports, improving soil strength, classifying and testing soil, dealing with groundwater and so on. This is the only design branch that relates to all other four categories listed here, as everything built, must stand on earth. All civil engineers specializing in any category often use engineering judgment, but geotechnical engineers probably use it most frequently, as soil is not man made but a natural material of varying characteristics. The soil can be a highly irregular material, although with our current knowledge level, we are able to make very good approximations, based on a good amount of past experience, research and theoretical knowledge developed, and very effective testing methods both in the field and in the lab.
  • Water Resources: Deals with any structure that is built on, near or to handle water in some way, such as dams, aquaducts, coastal structures, offshore structures, sewer and storm drain systems, water channels, seawalls… In other words, anywhere water is present (except the groundwater considerations for foundations, which fall into the realm of geotechnical engineers). Civil engineers specializing in this branch are also called “Water Resources Engineers”.
  • Transportation: Deals with the design of highways, roads, and related structures to facilitate the transportation of vehicles. Transportation engineers are also involved in design of bridges or tunnels, but those are performed together with structural and geotechnical engineers, where a structural engineer would be more involved in the design of structure, while the transportation engineer will be involved in calculating the required traffic capacity of the bridge and how exactly the road is laid out, with what cross section in the first place. Design of roads and highways are entirely done by transportation engineers, although they interact with geotechnical or water resources engineers from time to time. Civil Engineers specializing in this branch are also called “Transportation Engineers”.
  • Construction Management: This branch drastically differs from the other four. While the other four that we just listed means making calculations and designs using engineering principles, civil engineers specializing in this branch do not make designs (except for temporary construction items), but they take those designs done by other four branches, and build them in the real world. Engineers working in this branch, still need to be aware of the engineering knowledge behind the designs to some degree, and must have great coordination, management, critical thinking and people skills. They must also advance themselves in the field of project management theory, which is presented as the last chapter at the end of this book. Civil engineers specializing in this branch can be called Construction Project Managers/Engineers, Construction Managers/Engineers, Site Managers/Engineers, Planning/Scheduling Managers/Engineers, Construction Estimators depending on what they specifically do and their experience level. Another branch, called Construction Engineering can also be counted here, as it is basically the same category but construction engineers also deal heavily with temporary structure design, such as formwork, shoring, scaffolding.

At least two or more branches as listed above, always work and coordinate with each other in order to design and to build things. For example a bridge will involve participation of engineers from all five branches above (water resources too if it has piers in a river), a dam will involve engineers from structural, geotechnical and of course water resources, a building will involve structural and geotechnical engineer only (and of course architect but that is not our focus here). And of course in all cases, there is always a construction project manager needed in the field.

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