Civil Engineering: What Does a Civil Engineer Do?

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: July 20, 2021  •  7 min read  •  Engineer
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When you turn your faucets on at home, do you ever think about the path that water has taken to get to your house?

From its source in the earth, it had to travel to a treatment plant equipped to filter and clean it and add any necessary supplements or minerals. Then it had to make its way through pipes laid deep underground and into your home.

Nearly every step in the process we just described was made possible by a civil engineer. Read on to learn more about civil engineering and what these experts tackle in their jobs every day.

What Does a Civil Engineer Do?

What Is Civil Engineering?

Before we dive into what civil engineers do every day, let’s talk some about what civil engineering is. Civil engineering is an enormous field encompassing a variety of different areas of our society. In fact, this field is responsible for quite literally engineering civilization.

Civil engineers design the buildings, bridges, dams, and other major structures that we see around us every day. But they also design and oversee the construction of infrastructure projects. This can include our water system, roads, electrical grid, and more.

They help cities better prepare for natural disasters and ensure buildings are strong enough to withstand natural forces. They also create plans for the systems that keep our modern world going every day.

Design Buildings and Structures

One of the primary things a civil engineer does is design the buildings and structures that surround us every day.

Although civil engineers may work in the public or private sectors, they often work on governmental structures. On the other hand, architects tend to handle residential or private commercial buildings designs, though they may work closely with civil engineers. 

Civil engineers create designs for major public structures, including bridges and dams. In addition, they may design parking garages, highway overpasses, and even drainage systems for the city (more on that later). Tunnels, retaining walls, boardwalks, seawalls, harbors, water towers, and sewer systems may also fall within the scope of civil engineering jobs. 

Supervise Construction 

Most of the time, a civil engineer spends their time inside at a desk, creating plans and reviewing designs for structures.

But on occasion, they may need to go out into the field to help oversee and manage construction projects. As the person who designed the building plans, they are well-suited to make sure everything goes according to the plan.

A civil engineer will need to be prepared to answer any questions construction supervisors have on site. In addition, they can help to solve problems that arise during construction and inspect buildings after they’re complete. A civil engineer may also determine if a project can be completed reasonably and within the established budget.

Prepare for Earthquakes

Civil engineers are tasked with preparing for these disasters in areas of the world that are susceptible to earthquakes.

While many earthquakes may be small and insubstantial, a large earthquake can be devastating. Civil engineers help design buildings that can withstand earthquakes and help to limit the damage and loss of life. 

A civil engineer may review building codes to ensure that major structures can stand up to the force of a major earthquake. They might research construction techniques that can make buildings more durable in the face of these disasters. They may also inspect existing buildings to figure out which ones are most likely to face serious damage in the event of an earthquake.

Care for the Environment 

You might be surprised that some civil engineers are tasked with finding new ways to help us care for our environment.

The construction industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change. As a result, industry executives are looking for more sustainable, eco-friendly options. 

A civil engineer may look at the construction practices of a certain company and find ways to make them more sustainable. They may determine which sustainably sourced materials can replace those that are more damaging. They may even look at the complicated ways that ecosystems interact and figure out how to best help them thrive. 

Protect Against Fires

Of course, earthquakes aren’t the only natural disasters that threaten civilization. The threat of fire is prevalent everywhere too.

In the past, they’ve wreaked devastating damage on some of the world’s most prominent cities. These days, civil engineers are tasked with fighting these fires before they ever start. 

A civil engineer may examine a building and figure out the different areas that pose a risk of starting a fire. They also design safety features to help prevent fires from spreading to other buildings and growing out of control. And in the event of a fire, a civil engineer ensures safety systems are in place to fight it, such as fire hydrants and in-building sprinklers.

Plan for Foundations 

Before any major construction project can get its start, it needs a solid foundation.

But pouring a foundation isn’t a simple matter of building a frame and dumping in some cement. First, you have to know what sort of material you’re building on top of and how it’s likely to behave under the stress of carrying a building.

Civil engineers take a look at the geologic material under a proposed construction site. First, they determine what dirt and rocks make up the area and whether they can carry the proposed load. From there, they can help determine what sort of measures need to be taken to pour a solid foundation on that site. 

Design Highways

One of the most important things a civil engineer does is design our highway systems.

These days, we rely on a network of highways and interstates to get us from place to place. But it’s rare that we ever think about the work that goes into creating those systems.

Civil engineers are tasked with figuring out where all those roads need to go and how they should interconnect. Several factors go into deciding where a new road, highway, or interstate should go. But, first, civil engineers have to analyze traffic patterns and figure out the most efficient way to add to them.

They also have to look at pedestrian traffic, rush hour considerations, traffic lights, road signs, etc.

Design the Water System

The water system is another one of those basic infrastructure components that we rarely think about. We turn on our faucets and expect clean water to come out of them without ever thinking about where that water comes from or how it gets cleaned.

Civil engineers design the systems that allow us to have such ready access to clean water in our homes. They may need to start with something as basic as where water will come from.

Then they have to route that water into a treatment facility for sanitation. From there, they design the system of pipes that carries water throughout the city and out to each of our homes and businesses.

Shape the Railway System 

The railway system is a critical piece of getting goods and materials from place to place in our country. It also provides passenger transportation, especially in larger cities.

And like all the other pieces of our infrastructure, the railway system requires careful planning.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.