Getting To Know Civil Engineering


By Jim Lucas August 29, 2014

Article originally found at

What Is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering is the design and construction of public works, such as dams, bridges and other large infrastructure projects. It is one ozf the oldest branches of engineering, dating back to when people first started living in permanent settlements and began shaping their environments to suit their needs. 

Early engineers built walls, roads, bridges, dams and levees; they dug wells, irrigation ditches and trenches. As larger groups of people began living together in towns and cities, these populations needed reliable sources of clean water, the means to dispose of waste, a network of streets and roadways for commerce and trade, and a way to defend themselves against hostile neighbors. 

Ancient civil engineering projects include the roads of the Roman Empire, the Great Wall of China, the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and Mayan ruins at CopanPalenque and Tikal. Many early civilizations built monuments to their rulers or gods. These may have been simple mounds or truly remarkable achievements, such as the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, whose construction by pre-industrial societies remains mysterious. The names of the engineers who designed these wonders are lost to antiquity. 

Today, the public is more likely to remember the names of great civil engineering projects than the names of the engineers who designed and built them. These include the Brooklyn Bridge (designed by John August Roebling and son Washington Roebling), the Hoover Dam (John L. Savage), the Panama Canal (John Frank Stevens) and the Golden Gate Bridge (Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis). One notable exception is the Eiffel Tower, named after Gustave Eiffel, the French civil engineer whose company built it. 

What does a civil engineer do?

Civil engineers “design, construct, supervise, operate and maintain large construction projects and systems, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

These engineers may also handle site preparation activities, such as excavation, earth moving and grading for large construction projects. Additionally, civil engineers may conduct or write the specifications for destructive or nondestructive testing of the performance, reliability and long-term durability of materials and structures. 

Here are some recent and ongoing civil engineering projects of note:

  • A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted tests to see how well buildings made of cold-formed steel can withstand earthquakes. 
  • Engineers at the University of Maryland are working on smart bridges that can send out warnings when they are in danger of collapsing.
  • In Los Angeles, civil engineers who are experts in structural monitoring helped art conservators preserve the iconic Watts Towers monument.

What a civil engineer needs to know

Today’s civil engineers need in-depth understanding of physics, mathematics, geology and hydrology. They must also know the properties of a wide range of construction materials, such as concrete and structural steel, and the types and capabilities of construction machinery. With this knowledge, engineers can design structures that meet requirements for cost, safety, reliability, durability and energy efficiency. Civil engineers also need a working knowledge of structural and mechanical engineering

These engineers can be involved in nearly every stage of a major construction project. That can include site selection, writing specifications for processes and materials, reviewing bids from subcontractors, ensuring compliance with building codes, and supervising all phases of construction from grading and earth moving to painting and finishing.