Let’s keep things civil…

What is a Civil Engineer?

When someone mentions “civil engineering” or “civil engineer,” what comes to mind? For me, that’s an easy question (since I am one) but, honestly, I don’t think I knew the extent of civil engineering until years after I first started working as one. Some people might think of buildings and bridges, but those are a very specific branch of the broad civil engineering spectrum (called structural engineering – see LBYD’s previous blog post written by structural engineer extraordinaire Drew Eiland for more info). What I’m talking about is more of the underappreciated (in my humble opinion) aspects of building/project design. It’s things that people, even me, take for granted each and every day: Among many others, it’s things like having utility service provided to your house or office; Sanitary sewer networks that carry waste away from the restrooms at our places of work, residence, and leisure; It’s the topography of a site and the storm drains and pipes designed to carry rainwater away from your home, to keep it dry; It’s the accessible parking lot that aims to provide disabled citizens a safe path; the list could go on and on. Needless to say, civil engineers touch many of the engineering designs / systems that you may or may not see each and every day. If I had to oversimplify the definition of a civil engineer’s job, it would be this: Civil engineers design the environment in which buildings and people interact. While that may, in fact, sound simplified, I will try to give us, civil engineers, some due credit: In addition to each and every site that we design being physically different from the previous, it is also the case that coordination with other disciplines of engineering, architecture, landscaping, etc. vary with each site/project as well. If you happened to catch Drew Eiland’s “What is a structural engineer?” post, you may recall his mentioning that structural engineers are like artists – and he’s right. And, similarly, civil engineers are like artists in a sense, but for us, instead of a blank canvas, we’re working with modeling clay provided by nature. We manipulate that clay into a shape that evokes the desires of our clients and provides the intended aesthetics and feel a site requires. From very uniformed to very free flowing, the design possibilities are endless in a civil engineer’s world.

To bring this to a personal level, civil engineering projects make life, as you and I know it, possible. Our daily routines are only “routine” thanks to civil engineering. Each morning, we wake up and expect to be able to turn on a faucet with clean drinking water and take a hot shower. This water had to be cleaned at a water treatment plant (thanks, civil engineers!) and piped from the water provider through a series of pipes with a certain amount of pressure just to reach the consumer (thanks, again, civil!). We expect to have a safe path for our vehicles to travel on between our home and office, and in our neighborhoods, we expect our sidewalk or other pedestrian path to provide a route for walking. These roads, traffic signals, and paths require input from and design by civil engineers. Can you imagine walking or driving out into a world of chaos without these things? Civil engineering provides order to our daily, interacting lives!

And, maybe here is a good stopping point… There are many other aspects to civil engineering that I have not mentioned here (like environmental engineering – man, that’s a big part of what we do!), but, hopefully, this has given you a quick and very basic overview of what a civil engineer does: study, coordinate / communicate, and design. And, while it’s always great to get recognition for the big, exciting projects we work on, many civil projects go on, unnoticed. Having said that, I guess if you never hear of our projects, that just means our design is working, and I can deal with that!

Abstract thoughts from a concrete person

What is a structural engineer?

It’s easy to view structural engineers most clearly in light of the technical knowledge they possess and the technical service they provide. It may even seem appropriate to picture a structural engineer sitting at a desk with blue-tinted screen-safe glasses studying the results of a computer program or with their nose in a code or old textbook. While that picture may not be totally inaccurate, it is rather incomplete. At LBYD, we recognize that the services provided by a structural engineer extend far beyond a technical understanding of structural systems and mechanics. A well-rounded structural engineer embraces a wide variety of roles during the design process.

In some sense, structural engineers are like artists. Only instead of a blank canvas, it’s an architectural floorplan. Instead of pencils and paint brushes, it’s beams, columns and slabs. Structural engineering fosters creativity. An effective structural engineer pays close attention to detail while keeping the big picture in view. After all, a sound design is useless if it can’t be effectively communicated to a contractor through a set of drawings. At LBYD, the development of drawings has transformed drastically over the years. Originally, our plans and details were hand-drawn. Now, our drawings are developed using a three-dimensional modelling program known as Revit. This software program produces two-dimensional views and details from three-dimensional modeling elements. Over the years, we have developed drawing standards that promote consistency, accuracy, and clarity throughout our drawings. As technology has advanced and our firm has grown, it has become increasingly important to maintain our attention to detail and commitment to these drawing standards.

In another sense, structural engineers are economists. Only instead of market trends and stock prices, it’s structural systems. Any given structure could be designed and constructed using a myriad of materials, floor framing systems, lateral systems, and foundation systems. Structural engineers are tasked with producing a design that is constructible, cost-effective, and sensible. Lighter is not always easier. Fewer is not always cheaper. Faster is not always better. These concepts must be kept close to the forefront of a structural engineer’s mind during the design process. At LBYD, we work on projects all over the country (and occasionally the world) for a broad spectrum of clients and applications. For this reason, we must maintain a current awareness of material prices, material availability, and common construction methods. For example, much of our industrial work falls under the category of “design-build”. This means that even during the design process we are working together with the contractor to develop a cost-effective and efficient design. We must learn if the contractor has more expertise or experience in a particular method of construction, such as cast-in-place concrete or steel construction. Understanding the full impact of our design on the cost, ease, and duration of construction is paramount during the design process.

Structural engineers are also a bit like athletes (well, maybe that’s a stretch, but hear me out). Athletes work as a member of a sports team to reach a goal, such as winning a championship. Structural engineers collaborate with a design team to produce a functional design that meets the needs and desires of the owner or user group. Designing a beam may not be as simple as selecting a member with enough strength to support the required loads. That beam may need to be kept shallow enough to allow ductwork to pass beneath it. That beam may be exposed to view and require a profile that matches the architectural components surrounding it. That beam may support a brittle façade that would crack under typical deflections. For these reasons, structural engineers must coordinate with all members of the design team, from the architect to the mechanical engineer to the civil engineer. At LBYD, our structural and civil engineering departments, as well our growing construction engineering division, promote coordination and consideration of other disciplines from the duration of the design and construction process.

Lastly, structural engineers are just grown up kids. I would argue that many structural engineers began their careers well before they learned about the properties of structural systems and construction materials. It began with a desire to build and to create. At some point, the plastic Legos© became steel beams and the wooden blocks became concrete columns. But the mission was the same: make something you could be proud of. While structural engineers are still people who love mathematics and physics, they are far more than that. At LBYD, structural engineers young and old have the opportunity to sharpen all of these skills and do what they love to do: make something they can be proud of.


Written by Drew Eiland