Let’s keep things civil…

January 23, 2020

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!