What Do Civil Engineers Do for Their Communities?

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A structural engineer and construction manager wearing hardhats are reviewing construction designs at a job site.Billions of liters of untreated sewage spill into lakes, rivers, and streams across the country every year. Outdated sewage systems that mix stormwater with human waste are to blame. When faced with an inundation of stormwater that can overwhelm these systems, the untreated overflow empties into waterways.

Fortunately, innovative engineering designs are addressing this problem. By constructing tunnels that capture and store combined sewage overflow until the system can handle it, civil engineers have devised a solution that prevents this contaminated mess from entering rivers. As a result, cities such as Washington, D.C., are now on track to have swimmable waterways by 2030.

Civil engineers have a long history of coming up with creative solutions that make a meaningful impact on the environment and people’s lives. What do civil engineers do for their communities? From developing plans that improve the safety of highways and bridges to designing energy-efficient buildings that reduce the carbon footprint, civil engineers help society in many ways. A Master of Science in Civil Engineering can prepare individuals to tackle and solve a range of engineering challenges.

A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer

While civil engineers fill diverse roles, their work often involves similar duties. A day in the life of a civil engineer may consist of time spent in the office and time working in the field. Depending on their specialization, the amount of fieldwork an engineer conducts can vary. Fieldwork takes place in diverse locations, including various types of construction and mining sites.

Civil engineers are vital to construction projects in both the public and private sectors. They participate in project design, supervision, construction, and maintenance. Their workday consists of the following:

Completing Surveying Tasks and Site Planning

Construction projects begin with site planning, which involves surveying the land slated for development to determine property lines and plot features. Civil engineers then use the information gathered during the survey to create a diagram that typically includes the following:

  • Landscape features such as hills, plateaus, soil types, natural vegetation, and streams
  • Buildings on the land parcel
  • Other structures, including fencing, power lines, and utility poles that may be present

Civil engineers use site planning diagrams to support their construction design and planning processes. Site planning provides civil engineers with important information that allows them to customize how they handle issues such as:

  • Drainage and sanitation
  • Erosion and sediment control (land management techniques used to prevent disturbing sediment during construction)
  • Grading (adjusting the slope and elevation of land to divert water away from a planned construction)

Conducting Feasibility Studies

Civil engineers analyze various components of an engineering project to break down its costs, risks, and overall viability. In this way, they determine whether to advance a project to the production/construction stage or make adjustments first.

These analyses, known as feasibility studies, consider aspects of a project such as permitting, materials, construction costs, and environmental resources. They also examine a project’s technical limitations and determine the risks associated with them, as well as the funding, personnel, and supplies available for a project.

Last, civil engineers examine timelines and time commitments required to determine a project’s feasibility.

Interpreting Government Regulations

Engineering projects must abide by myriad regulations, codes, and standards that prevent both environmental and occupational hazards. These regulations, codes, and standards also help ensure that materials, equipment, and processes are safe. They address construction techniques, personnel safety, and equipment maintenance.

Civil engineers need to both interpret and apply these rules and best practices. This may involve researching laws and reviewing plans to ensure that they comply with guidelines and restrictions specific to various types of buildings and infrastructures. Civil engineers often access databases that contain this information to familiarize themselves with applicable laws.

Submitting Permit Applications

Engineering projects typically require permits, inspections, and project-specific documents, such as site maps. Civil engineers organize the necessary documentation and applications and submit them to local, state, and federal authorities.

If a proposed plan doesn’t conform to local planning codes, civil engineers must get special permission to deviate. Alternatively, they may apply for conditional use permits, which allow for small changes to approved codes. To receive such approvals, civil engineers may need to appear at public hearings to share the details of their plans.

In most cases, civil engineers must submit separate applications for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing work, grading, and demolition permits. For verification, they may speak with the building department of jurisdiction to check on the permit requirements for a project.

Meeting with Clients

Civil engineers serve a range of clients — from real estate firms to local governments — to review and discuss budgets, models, design preferences, and more.

During the early stages of a project, meetings typically focus on understanding the client’s vision and gaining clarity on budgetary constraints. Later, civil engineers meet with clients to review prototypes, make adjustments to materials, and manage other details.

Once a project is in production, civil engineers may meet with clients on-site. They also make sure to regularly update clients on a project’s progress.

Why Is Civil Engineering Important?

To understand why civil engineering is important, keep in mind that it affects the most basic elements of people’s lives, from the water they drink to the sidewalks they walk on. Civil engineers have a hand in the public services that keep society running. Their work encompasses the design and maintenance of transportation networks, sewer systems, utilities, and water supply systems.

To cover this wide span of work, civil engineering has several branches. Each branch specializes in an area of discipline and contributes to society in a valuable way. These branches include the following:

Construction Engineering

Construction engineers oversee residential and public construction. They work alongside general contractors and architects to ensure that building projects are constructed according to plan and specifications.

This involves managing labor, planning, and materials during the construction process. It also involves designing the temporary supports, known as shores, used during the construction or repair of a building.

Construction engineers answer construction managers’ questions related to worker safety and the stability of a structure. By performing analyses, construction engineers determine the safety and viability of what construction managers want to do.

For example, a construction manager may need to place a crane on a building to reach some construction work. It’s the job of a construction engineer to assess how to do that safely without causing damage to the existing building.

Likewise, a contractor adding rooms to a building’s basement may seek guidance from a construction engineer on how to extend the foundation and the bracing necessary to properly support the structure. A construction engineer’s expertise protects workers by preventing structures from collapsing and excavations from caving. Ultimately, these professionals help protect the public.

Structural Engineering

Structural engineering is a subdivision of construction engineering. While construction engineers oversee the implementation of a construction project, structural engineers focus on how to solve structural problems in construction designs.

For example, structural engineers determine the most suitable materials for various types of construction. They also calculate the weight loads that people and environmental factors will generate and design projects to withstand those loads.

In this way, structural engineers ensure that communities have structurally sound hospitals, schools, shopping centers, and more.

Geotechnical Engineering

Many factors — including soil density, rock composition, and water flow patterns — can compromise a structure’s foundation and make it unstable.

Geotechnical engineers ensure that the ground beneath proposed construction sites can support planned structures. They use their expertise in rock and soil mechanics (how they behave when compressed) to make recommendations about how and where to construct buildings, roads, runways, tunnels, etc.

To determine the feasibility of a planned structure, geotechnical engineers perform various soil tests and make calculations about groundwater conditions. Their analyses reveal potential hazards that could compromise a project if not attended to.

For example, geotechnical engineers may discover that a lack of uniform soil density around a proposed bridge could cause the structure to lean and eventually collapse. Likewise, they may determine from a soil composition analysis that the proposed building materials for a planned project could make the structure particularly vulnerable to an earthquake.

Geotechnical engineers work on various projects: the construction of railroads, dams, offshore installations, bridges, tunnels, and more. Their expertise provides the information necessary to build solid foundations for all types of structures. Without the contributions of geotechnical engineers, the structures society relies on could lean, settle unevenly in the ground, and ultimately collapse.

Transportation Engineers

Transportation engineering covers the design, development, and maintenance of transportation systems and infrastructure. It includes the building and upkeep of roads, highways, airports, mass transit systems, railroads, traffic control systems, seaports, and bridges.

Transportation engineers use their design and construction expertise to make transportation networks safer, faster, and more efficient. They help solve common problems in transportation, such as the management of traffic flow to reduce congestion. They also devise plans to prevent transportation accidents.

Transportation engineers play a role in facilitating trade routes and transporting goods as quickly as possible. Additionally, they determine the appropriate pavement needed to build streets, freeways, and other types of construction. They also develop plans to address pedestrian traffic.

Federal and state governments hire transportation engineers, as do vehicle manufacturing companies, trucking businesses, airlines, railroad operators, and consulting firms. The public and private sectors, along with the public, depending on transportation engineers for safe, reliable, sustainable transportation systems and infrastructure to move people and goods in today’s society.

Water Resource Engineering

Water resource engineering addresses how to deliver clean water to communities, dispose of wastewater, and prevent flood damage. Engineers in the field design, build, and repair structures and systems that manage water resources.

This involves mapping the water needs of a location and making plans for water use and treatment. Water resource engineers may design pump systems, pipelines, and wastewater treatment plants. They may develop plans for sea defense walls to help address rising sea levels that global warming causes and build reservoirs to protect communities from flooding.

Water resource engineers design drainage systems to handle water flow and work on projects that deliver water for irrigation. Additionally, they develop and manage freshwater supply systems to ensure that communities have safe drinking water and devise efficient ways to remove and recycle wastewater.

Local, state, and federal government agencies and private corporations turn to water resource engineers to design water management systems. These engineers make it possible for communities to have access to uncontaminated water for drinking and daily life. They also play a vital role in managing sewage and protecting communities from flooding.

How Does Civil Engineering Help Society?

To answer the question, “What do civil engineers do for their communities?”, one can examine the various ways they improve the performance of the systems on which communities depend. Civil engineers may design transportation systems that use smart technologies to control traffic signals, optimize traffic flow and reduce accidents. They may also plan green construction projects that use energy-saving technologies to help keep surrounding air, water, and soil clean.

Regardless of their specialization, civil engineers typically work on projects that protect community health and safety.

This involves addressing the challenges of obsolete and aging infrastructure, such as:

  • Overtaxed bridges
  • Outdated road designs and roads in poor condition can lead to accidents
  • Sewage systems that spill trillion-plus gallons of untreated wastewater into the environment each year

Designing Safe Structures and Vital Infrastructure

Civil engineers design vital infrastructure to keep communities safe and social functioning. In collaboration with city planners, architects, and engineers in other disciplines, civil engineers forecast the future needs of communities and plan accordingly.

For example, projected population growth and climate change will increase demand for water in the years to come. Engineering solutions to address increased demand include building systems that capture and store rainwater and finding more affordable and effective desalination methods.

When planning or updating infrastructure, civil engineers consider how nature and events like storms and tornadoes will affect it. By identifying potential vulnerabilities to such forces, civil engineers address possible safety risks and improve a structure’s resilience.

In addition, civil engineers protect the infrastructure on which society depends. Through the monitoring and maintenance of everything from stormwater pipe systems to mass transit tunnels, civil engineers not only improve the performance and efficiency of infrastructure but also identify problems and safety risks that require attention.

Protecting the Environment

Numerous scientific reports, including one that the U.N. recently released, offer alarming news about human-induced climate change. These studies highlight the dangers of ongoing environmental degradation and underscore the importance of reducing our carbon footprint.

Civil engineers play a critical role in this regard. By developing green structures and public works projects to minimize air, soil, and water pollution, they help make systemic changes to how communities use energy and impact the planet. It’s worth noting that systemic changes have the greatest potential impact in reducing pollution and protecting the environment.

Civil engineers innovate ways to reduce greenhouse gases, whether by designing structures that emit fewer emissions during construction or by selecting low-carbon construction materials. Civil engineers look for ways to create renewable energy systems and introduce more green spaces (which capture harmful carbon gases) into the communities they design.

Civil engineers also devise ways to recycle and reuse materials. Their ingenuity has led to methods that convert sludge residue from wastewater treatment plants into fuel — a process that simultaneously provides a renewable energy source while helping to manage sewage.

Helping Communities Prepare for Disasters

Civil engineers use resilience planning to develop communities better prepared for natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and climate change.

The term “resilience planning” in engineering refers to creating structures and systems that can absorb or withstand damage without collapsing or failing. Resilience plans incorporate adaptations into construction and engineering designs that allow structures to recover from disasters.

For example, thoughtful structural designs make it possible for bridges to sustain earthquakes. They can also prevent buildings from collapsing from a terrorist bomb. Resilience adaptation measures may include adopting technologies such as smart grids or implementing redundancies into a system design. These intentional duplications provide backups that allow a system to function even when damaged.

In addition to incorporating adaptation measures, resilience planning involves making calculated decisions about which engineering choices to avoid. For example, rather than building in floodplains or areas vulnerable to landslides, civil engineers select higher ground in lower-risk locations.

Civil engineers also consider how natural structures can provide protection from disasters such as floods by creating designs that allow more room for moisture-absorbing grass and trees, rather than large, impermeable paved areas.

Civil engineers incorporate resilience planning into wastewater facilities, roads, bridges, buildings, and power plants. With climate change fueling extreme weather patterns that cause more intense hurricane seasons, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, and other severe natural events, communities need resilience planning now more than ever.

Make an Impact on Society as a Civil Engineer

What do civil engineers do? They help society solve problems. Professionals in the field innovate solutions that protect natural resources, provide communities with efficient transportation networks, construct safe buildings, dams, bridges, and more. With the country’s aging infrastructure and threats from climate change, the demand for talented engineers will only grow.

Ohio University’s comprehensive online Master of Science in Civil Engineering (MSCE) degree program offers concentration options in construction engineering and management, environmental engineering, structural engineering, and transportation engineering. Discover how Ohio University’s online MSCE program can prepare civil engineers to make an impact on society.

Recommended Readings

Building Climate Change-Resilient Infrastructure

How to Become a Transportation Engineer: Steps Toward a Dynamic Career in Civil Engineering

Women in Engineering: Scholarships, Statistics & Tips for Advancing


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American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE Strategic Plan

Beton Consulting Engineers, “Resilient Engineering for Climate Change”

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CareerExplorer, What Does a Water Engineer Do?

Central Geotechnical Services, Why Is Geotechnical Engineering Important?

Design Everest Lounge, “The Permit Process: What to Expect”

Engineering360, Codes, Standards, and Regulations Information

Eos, “The Capital’s Waterways Could Be Swimmable by 2030”

Houston Chronicle, “Wastewater Process Engineer Job Description”

ICS Engineering Inc., Engineering Feasibility Studies

Indeed, What Is Transportation Engineering?

Infrastructure Report Card, 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure

Institution of Civil Engineers, “Everything We Thought We Knew About Civil Engineering Improving the World Is Wrong”

Keck & Wood, “Earth Day Celebration — How Civil Engineers Help the Environment”

McNeil Engineering, What Your Civil Engineering Consultant Should Ask You

McNeil Engineering, Why Is Civil Engineering Important?

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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civil Engineers