Civil Engineering  

by Mark Swink, P.E., Civil Engineer



Civil engineering is not all about fancy buildings – it is about maintaining vital infrastructure. When people think of famous civil engineers from the past, they think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Bazalgette, the great engineer of the Victorian age who saved London from cholera by constructing new sewers.

Today, civil engineering is often associated with the world's most jaw-dropping structures, such as Sydney Opera House, the Shard and China's Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. But civil engineering is also about maintaining and adapting the infrastructure that people depend on every day - roads, railways and bridges, energy and water supply, waste networks, and flood defenses. Civil engineers have to keep this infrastructure running effectively and adapt it to meet challenges, such as population growth, climate change, and natural disasters.

They must also find ways to deliver the infrastructure needed when there is little money to pay for it. Put simply, civil engineers have to come up with solutions to complex problems and implement them; they literally shape the world people live in.


bridge under construction

Civil engineers shape the world

There are two types of civil engineering roles: consultants who focus on design work and generally spend more time in the office or working with clients, and contractors who are more involved with keeping an eye on the physical construction and are usually based on-site. Both are challenging environments, and all civil engineers are required to be innovative and logical individuals. Other essential attributes civil engineers need include: creativity, versatility, a problem-solving mind, and the ability to understand the bigger picture and to collaborate with a number of other professionals.

Civil engineers design, build, supervise, operate, and maintain construction projects and systems in the public and private sector, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment. Many civil engineers work in design, construction, research, and education.

The duties of a civil engineer may typically include any or all of the following:

  • Analyze long-range plans; survey reports, maps, and other data in order to plan projects.
  • Consider construction costs, government regulations, potential environmental hazards, and other factors in planning the stages of, and risk analysis for a project.
  • Compile and submit permit applications to local, state, and federal agencies, verifying that projects comply with various regulations.
  • Test building materials, such as concrete or asphalt for use in particular projects.
  • Provide cost estimates for materials, equipment, or labor to determine a project's economic feasibility.
  • Use design software to plan and design transportation systems, hydraulic systems, and structures in line with industry and government standards.
  • Perform or oversee surveying operations in order to establish reference points, grades, and elevations to guide construction or design.
  • Present their findings to the public on topics such as bid proposals, environmental impact statements, or descriptions of projects.
  • Manage the repair, maintenance, and replacement of public and private infrastructure.

Civil engineers inspect projects to insure regulatory compliance. In addition, they are tasked with ensuring that safe work practices are followed at construction sites.

Many civil engineers hold supervisory or administrative positions ranging from supervisor of a construction site to city engineer, public works director, or city manager. Others work in design, construction, research, and education. Civil engineers work with other professionals on projects and may be assisted by civil engineering technicians.

Civil engineers design, build, and maintain the foundation for modern society – from roads and bridges, drinking water and energy systems, to seaports and airports, and the infrastructure for a cleaner environment, to name just a few. Civil engineering touches people throughout their day. Think of a civil engineer when:

  • Turning on the tap to take a shower or drink clean water.
  • Flicking on the lights and opening the refrigerator.
  • Driving to work on roads and bridges through synchronized traffic lights.
  • Taking mass transit or taking a flight for a vacation.
train station platform

Civil Engineers make mass transit feasible.

Entrusted by society to create a sustainable world and enhance the global quality of life, civil engineers serve competently, collaboratively, and ethically as master planners, designers, constructors, and operators of society's economic and social engine - the built environment. They are stewards of the natural environment and its resources; innovators and integrators of ideas and technology across the public, private, and academic sectors; managers of risk and uncertainty caused by natural events, accidents, and other threats. They also serve as leaders in discussions and decisions shaping public environmental and infrastructure policy.

Every person, family, and business needs infrastructure to thrive - from the roads travelled to work, to the pipes that deliver clean drinking water, to the inland waterways, and rails that move goods from coast to coast. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure depicts the condition and performance of the nation's infrastructure in the familiar form of a school report card-assigning letter grades based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement. The report card is available for public viewing at


Sustainability is an issue that The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) defines as a set of economic, environmental, and social conditions in which all of society has the capacity and opportunity to maintain and improve its quality of life indefinitely without degrading the quantity, quality, or the availability of economic, environmental, and social resources. Sustainable development is the application of these resources to enhance the safety, welfare, and quality of life for all of society. Civil engineers shall be committed to the following ASCE Principles of Sustainable Development.

  • Principle 1- Do the Right Project. A proposed project's economic, environmental, and social effects on each of the communities served and affected must be assessed and understood by all stakeholders before there is a decision to proceed with a project. Consider non-structural as well as structural (built) solutions to the needs being addressed: and
  • Principle 2 - Do the Project Right. The civil engineer shall actively engage stakeholders and secure public understanding and acceptance of a project’s economic, environmental, and social costs and benefits. To move toward conditions of sustainability, engineers must design and deliver projects that address sustainability holistically (from concept to demolition or reuse) rather than adding a variety of "green" features onto a conventional project.

ASCE supports the following steps to achieve a sustainable project:

  • Perform Life-Cycle Assessment from Planning to Reuse. Project participants should use rigorous life cycle methodologies that quantify the economic, environmental, and social effects of the project.
  • Use Resources Wisely - Minimize Use of Non Renewable Resources. Sustainable development shall include progressive reductions in resource use for a given level of service and resiliency.
  • The feasibility of restoration, or return of depleted resources, shall be evaluated by the civil engineer.

  • Plan for Resiliency. Sustainability requires planning for the impact natural and man-made disasters and changing conditions can have on economic, environmental, and social resources.
  • Validate Application of Principles. Civil engineers must guide project development and validate the application of these principles by using metrics and rating tools such as the EnvisionTM Rating System for sustainable infrastructure.

ASCE recognizes the leadership role of engineers in sustainable development and their responsibility to provide effective and innovative solutions in addressing the challenges of sustainability. The ASCE Code of Ethics requires civil engineers to strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties. ASCE works on a global scale to promote public recognition and understanding of the needs and opportunities for sustainable development.

Environmental, economic, social, and technological development must be seen as interdependent and complementary concepts, where economic competitiveness and ecological sustainability are complementary aspects of the common goal of improving the quality of life. Engineers have a leading role in planning, designing, building, and ensuring a sustainable future. Engineers provide the bridge between science and society. In this role, engineers must actively promote and participate in multidisciplinary teams with other professionals, such as ecologists, economists, and sociologists, and work with the communities served and affected to effectively address the issues and challenges of sustainable development.


American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) - A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets

Department of Defense

International Code Council

Department of Justice

Department of Transportation

Additional Resources