Asphalt spreader at work


Civil engineering is one of the oldest jobs in the world. Ever since civilization has been around, we have required the talents of civil engineers to keep things running smoothly.

The discipline of civil engineering deals with the design, maintenance, and construction of our naturally built environment. Civil engineering is involved in some way in almost everything you use in your city, from buildings to infrastructure, and is one of the most important fields of study today. Things like bridges, roads, buildings, canals, and dams are all designed, built and maintained by civil engineering specialists.

Although the construction and maintenance of these structures falls under the umbrella of civil engineering, there are actually a handful of sub-categories that make up the entire civil engineering industry. These sub-categories are as follows;

  • Structural Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Coastal Engineering
  • Geotechnical Engineering
  • Water Resources Engineering
  • Construction Engineering
  • Transportation Engineering
  • Materials Engineering

Each of those categories in turn gets divided into even deeper sub-categories, but we’ll explain about them in other dedicated sections for each field. Here is a brief overview about each of the main categories in the civil engineering industry.

Structural Engineering

This sub-discipline of civil engineering consists of the structural analysis and structural design of towers, bridges, buildings, tunnels, flyovers, gas and oil installations, and other structures. The main focus of this sub-discipline is to identify any loads which might act upon the structure in question, as well as the stresses and forces that could arise within the structure.

Once these loads and stresses have been identified, structural engineers then work to design the structure in a way that  successfully resists and supports them. Earthquake engineering and wind engineering are sub-disciplines within the sub-discipline of structural engineering.

Some of the loads or stresses commonly dealt with in this discipline include live loads, moving loads, dead loads, loads from temperature variation, self weight loads and as previously mentioned, earthquake loads and wind loads. The job of a structural engineer is not only to prevent catastrophic failure or collapse of a project, but also to prevent it from behaving in any way that might be considered undesirable. Part of their job consists of being as efficient with materials and funds as possible, so they are constantly consulting with construction managers, architects, and transportation engineers to get an outside opinion.

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering is also known as environmental health engineering, or public health engineering. Specialists in this field are involved in the treatment of thermal, biological, or chemical wastes. They also deal with the purification of air or water, and the remediation of sites that have been contaminated by accident, or waste disposal. Some of the areas of study covered in environmental engineering include;

  • Hazardous waste management
  • Solid waste treatment
  • Waste water treatment
  • Water purification
  • Air pollution
  • Pollutant transport

Environmental engineering is an especially critical job in regards to keeping our planet healthy, as specialists in this field oversee green engineering, industrial ecology, and pollution reduction. When an action is proposed, environmental engineers are also the ones who go out and compile information on the potential environmental consequences of that action.

Specialists in this field are tasked with developing engineered systems that are used for treating hazardous wastes, water, and air to reduce emissions of pollutants as much as possible.

Coastal Engineering

As you can probably guess from the name, coastal engineering is mainly focused on managing coastal areas. This includes managing the coast itself, as well as dealing with any specific demands that construction projects on or near the coast might require.

A coastal engineer is typically well versed in dealing with storm surges, tides, waves, hurricanes, tsunamis, and the effect of saltwater on manmade materials. Coastal engineers not only work with the coasts of oceans, but smaller seas, big lakes, estuaries, and marginal seas as well.

In addition to managing the construction of coastal structures, coastal engineers also provide input for coastal defense strategies, land reclamation, and energy production facilities like off-shore wind farms. These engineers work with a lot of numerical models and physical models to predict and measure the impact of the water they are working with.

Common opportunities for employment in the field of coastal engineering are found with government agencies, defense contractors, consulting firms, and the private industry as well.

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering involves the study of soil and rock that support civil engineering systems. Experts in this field use knowledge of materials science, soil science, hydraulics and mechanics to economically and safely design structures like retaining walls and foundations, as well as other structures.

In order to protect ground water and maintain landfills, geotechnical engineering has spawned a new sub-division of itself known as geoenvironmental engineering. Geotechnical engineering is known as one of the more difficult domains of civil engineering to work in because soil is typically very hard to predict unlike concrete or steel. The properties of soil such as stiffness, strength and dilatancy can depend entirely on stress, adding an element of unpredictability to the job.

Typically a geotechnical engineer will begin a project by examining the bedrock properties, soil, and fault distribution of a specific site to build an assessment of their engineering properties. Experts in this field are tasked with the job of helping prevent damage from earthquakes, sinkholes, debris flows, landslides, rockfalls and soil liquefaction.

Geotechnical engineers also help design the foundation, pavement subgrades and earthworks for projects, and structures of all shapes and sizes are built with input from geotechnical engineers. It’s very common to find specialists in this field working for universities, international organizations, private industries, design firms, consulting firms, public agencies, contractors, academia, energy companies, and utility companies.

Water Resources Engineering

This civil engineering sub-discipline involves the management and collection of water as a natural resource. Within this discipline you can find elements of conservation, hydrology, meteorology, resource management, and environmental science.

Water resources engineering is primarily concerned with the management and prediction of the quantity and the quality of water in both above ground and underground streams, lakes, and rivers. A water resources engineer will typically model and analyze areas of the Earth to predict both the content and the amount of water flowing in, out, or through a facility, but they are not normally involved in the design of a facility.

Hydraulic engineering is very closely related to water resources engineering and is mainly concerned with the conveyance and flow of fluids, mainly water. A hydraulic engineer helps design structures like drainage facilities, pipelines, water supply networks, canals, dams, bridges levees, culverts, storm sewers, and culverts.

Often a hydraulic engineer will have to call upon his or her skill in fluid statistics, hydraulics, fluid pressure, and fluid dynamics to accomplish their end goal. It’s not uncommon to find specialists in this field working with government entities and engineering consulting firms.

Construction Engineering

This sub-discipline is one of the most common types of civil engineering, and it involves the planning and execution of construction projects, and site development based on environmental, hydraulic, geotechnical, and structural engineering.  Construction engineers tend to be focused more on risk management during a project, and they work with models and statistics that help them to determine what the risks are of a given project, as well as how to mitigate and avoid them.

While a construction engineer doesn’t normally specialize in any one of these other categories, they are able to tie everything together exceptionally well and are usually most concerned with business transactions. Construction engineers monitor the price of supplies being used, review and draft contracts, and evaluate the logistical operations of a project.

Transportation Engineering

Transportation engineering involves the construction and planning of structures designed to help move goods and people in a way that is safe, efficient, and keeps the surrounding community in a vibrant condition.

This sub-discipline of civil engineering can involve specifying, constructing, designing, and maintaining infrastructure used for transportation such as rail systems, highways, roads, streets, mass transit systems, ports, and airports. Transportation engineers draw on knowledge from a variety of different areas including queuing theory, urban planning, transportation planning, transportation design, infrastructure management, ITS, and pavement engineering.

Transportation systems are typically designed after collecting data on the target area for construction such as land use, population, laws and ordinances, community expectations and values, economic activity, and transportation services and facilities. Once this data is collected they can then create models that are used during the design and construction of the project.

Technical knowledge is not the only quality a transportation engineer must possess however, they also have to take into account the current social, political, and economic landscape of the target area. Collaboration with urban planners is very common as well due to their in-depth knowledge of a community’s quality.

Materials Engineering

Specialists in this field of engineering are experts in all matters related to materials used in building projects. They are proficient in the fundamental characteristics of all types of materials and they typically deal with materials like carbon fibers, chemically stabilized and treated soils, polymethylmethacrylate, mix asphalt concrete, Portland cement concrete, steel, aluminum, steel and fiber reinforced concrete, chemically bound and unbound aggregates and thermosetting polymers.

Many of the resources that we use for construction are made from materials which are not available in endless supply, thus our materials engineers have been instructed to focus their efforts on mechanically and chemically stabilizing our current materials for reuse.

Materials engineering is also concerned with prevention and protection (finishes and paints), and engineers are involved in the process of combining two types of metals to create one with the properties they desire.

They also use nanotech and nanoscience more often nowadays, and experts are commonly involved in both failure analysis and forensic engineering. The specialists in this field are commonly using kinetics, micromechanics, and thermodynamics to solve the challenges they are presented with.

In Conclusion

There are many sub-divisions of civil engineering, and each of them is equally important. Many of these fields tend to overlap with each other, but there is always a specialist in each category who can offer something that specialists in other categories cannot.

From coastal engineering to transportation engineering, each specific field of civil engineering is incredibly important in helping our society run as smoothly as it does. Now that you have a better understanding of these categories, you should have no trouble at all determining what kind of engineer your situation calls for. In many cases you might need to consult more than one!


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