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What is Civil Engineering? (Definition, Types and Job Salary)


Civil engineering is the application of physical and scientific principles for the design, development and maintenance of both the constructed and the naturally built environment. This includes infrastructure such as airports, bridges, buildings, canals, dams, pipelines, power plants, railways, roads, sewage systems, and more.

Civil engineering projects can come through the public sector, from government agencies, or through the private sector, and can be either large or small in scale, with civil engineers working in fields such as planning, budgeting, project and asset management, research, analysis, and more.

Civil engineering is the second-oldest engineering discipline, after military engineering, having been created to differentiate civilian from military engineering. As a result, it is a broad discipline that is broken down into several sub-disciplines.

The broad nature and long history of civil engineering means that its own growth as a discipline is closely associated to the development of human knowledge in areas including physics, mathematics, structures and construction, geography, geology, hydrology, environmental and materials sciences, mechanics, and more.

Scientific principles, such as those developed by the ancient Greek Archimedes of Syracuse, were applied as they were understood, helping to drive engineering forward, which continues to this day with new innovations and research.

To better understand civil engineering today, it is worth taking a quick look at how it developed into a profession over the years… 


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Ancient Engineering

Engineering, in some form or other, has always played a part in human life, but the earliest signs of civil engineering date to between 4000 and 2000 BC.

Beginning in Ancient Egypt (along the Nile Valley in Northeast Africa), among the Indus Valley Civilisation (spanning northeast Afghanistan, across much of Pakistan and into western and northwest India), and in Mesopotamia (along the Tigris-Euphrates river system in modern Iraq), ancient civil engineering began as people began to abandon a nomadic existence and built shelters. This also made trading transport more important, with goods having to be moved to and from these new settlements with the development of sailing and the wheel.

Early engineering projects included the pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Ancient Greece, the Great Wall of China, and the many civil structures built across the Roman Empire, among others spread across the world including in Mexico and Sri Lanka. However, the word ‘engineer’ was still being used interchangeably with ‘architect’ to describe the profession.

The ancient and medieval periods saw most construction and design carried out by artisans like carpenters and stonemasons, with the knowledge held by guilds, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that the term ‘civil engineering’ was first used to describe engineering for civilian, rather than military, purposes.

Civil Engineering as a Profession

The first self-proclaimed professional civil engineer was John Smeaton, who created the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in 1771 with colleagues who would meet informally over dinner. This was, however, more of a social society and was soon superseded by the Institution of Civil Engineers, which was formed in London in 1818 and received a Royal Charter in 1828, which formally recognised it as a profession. The charter defined civil engineering as:

“the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man, as the means of production and of traffic in states, both for external and internal trade, as applied in the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation and docks for internal intercourse and exchange, and in the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses, and in the art of navigation by artificial power for the purposes of commerce, and in the construction and application of machinery, and in the drainage of cities and towns.”

In the United States, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) was founded in 1852.

Civil Engineering Education

The first institution for the teaching of civil engineering, the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, was established in France in 1747, soon followed by similar institutions in other European nations.

The first private college teaching the profession in the United States was Norwich University, founded by Captain Alden Partridge in 1819, although the first degree awarded in the United States came from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1835. The first woman to be awarded a degree in civil engineering in the United States was Nora Stanton Blatch, who was awarded a degree from Cornell University in 1905.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom during the 19th Century, civil engineering was being split from military engineering as the Industrial Revolution gained pace. This led to the creation of educational initiatives including the Class of Civil Engineering and Mining, which was founded at King’s College London in 1838 as a response to the need for qualified engineers to work on the railway system. 1838 saw the establishment of the private College for Civil Engineers in Putney and 1840 saw the UK’s first Chair of Engineering established at the University of Glasgow.

These educational opportunities for civil engineers meant that a degree in the profession was now attainable, opening a wealth of opportunities for qualified professionals.

This range of opportunity exists today with the different types of civil engineering that you could be involved in… 

Types of Civil Engineering

The broad field of civil engineering contains several specialised sub-disciplines, spanning a range of industries and including both practical and more theoretical tasks. These are based on a mixture of location and specialisations, starting with general civil engineering:

1. General Civil Engineering

Also known as site engineering, these civil engineers work with surveyors and more specialised civil engineers to design services such as drainage, dams, electrical supply infrastructure, pavements, sewer services, communications infrastructures, and more. This type of engineering is generally concerned with converting an area of land from one use to another. This includes site visits, meetings with stakeholders, construction planning and development, as well as assessing potential impacts, including for the environment.

2. Coastal Engineering

This is concerned with the management of coastal areas, including protection against flooding and coastal erosion. It is also sometimes known as coastal protection, coastal defence and coastal management.

3. Construction Engineering

Construction engineers are involved in the planning, transportation and use of construction materials, using environmental, geotechnical, hydraulic and structural engineering knowledge. This role often involves a lot of contract drafting, logistics and supply monitoring to create plans that can then be used by construction managers.

4. Earthquake Engineering

This sub-discipline of structural engineering involves the design, build and maintenance of structures capable of withstanding exposure to earthquakes while maintaining compliance with building codes and regulations.

5. Environmental Engineering

This branch of engineering is the modern version of what was once called sanitary engineering. It now includes hazardous waste management and environmental remediation in addition to the treatment of chemical, biological and thermal waste, recycling, and the purification of the air, land and water. Environmental engineers are also involved in assessing the environmental consequences of proposed actions.

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6. Forensic Engineering

Frequently involved in legal affairs, these engineers are called upon to investigate the failure of materials, products, structures machinery, or components that has led to personal injury or property damage. These engineers seek out causes of failure with the aim of improving processes or performance as well as resolving intellectual property claims (particularly patents issues).

7. Geotechnical Engineering

Often working with geologists and soil scientists, these engineers investigate the rock and soil conditions for supporting structures, foundations, and retaining walls. This is made more difficult by the variability of soil behaviours.

8. Hydraulic Engineering

Hydraulic engineers work with the flow and movement of fluids – primarily water. These engineers design and maintain pipelines, drainage facilities, canals and water supply networks using concepts such as fluid pressure, statics and dynamics.

9. Materials Engineering

Drawing on materials science, this discipline is concerned with protective coatings for materials, alloying, nanotechnogy and other advanced materials solutions.

10. Structural Engineering

This large sub-set of civil engineering works with the structural design and analysis of buildings, bridges and towers as well as offshore structures at oil or gas fields. Structural engineers will assess loads as well as forces and stresses to ensure a structure is designed to withstand them.  These loads can moving or static and include those related to climate and weather as well as the weight of the structure itself and anything placed upon or within it. Structural engineering has led to the development of more specialised disciplines, like earthquake engineering (see above). Structural engineers need to also consider cost, ease of construction, safety, environmental impact and sustainability, and aesthetics.

11. Transportation Engineering

Designing, constructing and maintaining transport infrastructure, transportation engineers are concerned with the movement of goods and people safely and efficiently. They work with a range of transport infrastructure including canals, roads, railways, ports, airports and mass transit.

12. Urban / Municipal Engineering

This covers the design, construction and maintenance of a range of different urban structures, assets and networks. These include streets, pavements, water supply systems, sewers and waste management/disposal, bulk materials storage, lighting, parks, and cycling infrastructure, among other things. Municipal engineering has cross-over with many other types of civil engineering, but is primarily concerned with coordinating these structures and services alongside other specialists under the same municipal authority.

13. Water Resources Engineering

While hydraulic engineering (above) is concerned with the conveyance of fluids, water resources engineering covers the collection and management of water as a natural resource, both above and below ground. As a result, it take sin disciplines such as hydrology, resource management, conservation and environmental science.

14. Civil Engineering Systems

This discipline is concerned with integrating project lifecycles from conception to planning, designing, and manufacture, through operation and decommissioning.This is done through the use of systems thinking and a holistic overview of the relationships between different parts of a project, coupled with an attention to technical detail too. 

What Do Civil Engineers Do?

Civil engineers apply different engineering principles (for example, structural, environmental, construction or geotechnical) to projects of all sizes for residential, commercial, industrial or public purposes on behalf of the private or public sectors. This includes measuring the financial, environmental or socio economic costs of a project to ensure they are delivered on time, on budget, and in compliance with codes, standards and regulations.

Civil engineers can be involved with projects from conceptualisation through to design, construction, maintenance and even decommissioning / removal.

These duties can be carried out under contract or as a consultant, with rates of pay and job responsibilities depending on the engineer’s experience and the requirements of the project itself.

Some common duties of civil engineers include:

  • Performing technical and feasibility studies, using reports, surveys, maps and plans and related data
  • Determining costs,
  • Understanding and accounting for health and safety, building and other engineering regulations
  • Assessing environmental impacts and determining risk factors that may impact the project delivery
  • Creating plans and blueprints
  • Collaboration and communication with other engineers, professionals and clients

 Where Do Civil Engineers Work?

Civil engineers work in a range of different environments depending on their area of work or specialism. Although civil engineers do spend time on site, they will also frequently work in an office environment, creating plans and checking procedures.

Civil engineers are required for a large variety of projects across the world, so there is always the possibility of travel with a civil engineering career, while your knowledge could also find you working on a range of different types of project.

Regardless of location, engineers need to obey contract law in their relationships with other parties, and any failure of an engineer’s work could lead to negligence claims or even criminal charges. Suffice to say, you will need the appropriate training, and often certification, to work as an engineer! 

Becoming a Civil Engineer

Most civil engineers study for an academic degree in civil engineering over three to five years to become a bachelor of engineering or a bachelor of technology. This generally requires a grounding in physics and mathematics as well as teaching project management, design and other topics specific to civil engineering practice. With a basic understanding of the principles, it is possible to then specialise in one or more sub-disciplines.

An undergraduate bachelor’s degree (at BEng or BSc level) is usually deemed enough of an industry accredited qualification to begin work, but some will wish to study further and gain a post-graduate degree (MEng/MSc), providing further skills and specialisations. However, for some roles and locations, additional certification may be required to be deemed a chartered or professional engineer.


Certification is an important step in becoming an engineer and involves the satisfying of a number of requirements including undertaking work experience and passing an exam (including both practical and theoretical aspects). Certification allows you to be designated as a professional engineer (in Canada, South Africa and the United States), as a chartered engineer (in most Commonwealth countries, including the United Kingdom), or as a European engineer (in most nations of the European Union). International agreements between different professional bodies recognise the certifications of other nations, allowing undertake engineering work abroad without having to be recertified in different territories.

The exact benefits of certification depend on location; in Canada and the United States you must be certified before you can prepare, sign and seal, and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or seal engineering work for public and private clients. However, in the United Kingdom for example, there is no such legislation in place and in Australia it is only in the state of Queensland where state licensing of engineers is required.

Irrespective of any legislation, certification is often required to work on certain jobs or projects and with particular companies. 

Civil Engineer Job Salary

The salaries for civil engineers differs according to geographical location, what industry you are working in, your employer, and your own level of experience and expertise.

The average salary for a civil engineer in the UK, according to as of the 11 September 2022, is £36,574 per year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for civil engineers in the United States was $88,050 per year in May 2021.

However, as mentioned above, salaries depend on a range of factors, meaning that it is possible to earn multiples of this average amount. 


Civil engineers work on a diverse range of projects around the world, including the designing, planning and supervising of municipal construction projects such as roadways, bridges, buildings, railways, airports, and more. Civil engineers can also be found working to help sure coastal defences, making sure waste products are safely disposed of or recycled, designing transport hubs or looking after the environment.

The work of civil engineers also includes maintaining structures and assets, planning and overseeing decommissioning, and investigating failures.

Civil engineering was made distinct from military engineering and went on to become an established profession with certification and educational opportunities as well as being one of the largest and most diverse professions in industry.


Why is Civil Engineering Important?

It is important as it makes the world a more habitable place – providing us with buildings, bridges, roads, hospitals, airports, tunnels, stadiums, homes, and more. Civil engineers design, build and maintain the infrastructure that we have all around us, and often take for granted.

How will Civil Engineering Change in the Future?

It will remain important in the future and will continue to develop to offer more environmentally-friendly solutions. In addition, engineers will continue acquiring, developing and using more technological skills and increasingly integrate new joined-up solutions and innovations.

Are Civil Engineers in Demand?

Civil engineers are among the most in-demand professionals in the world. Civil engineering has a great many sub-disciplines covering all types of structures, networks, infrastructure projects and constructions, whether large or small.

Are Civil Engineers Architects?

Civil engineers are not architects, although the terms ‘architect’ and ‘engineer’ were once used interchangeably (See ‘History – Ancient Engineering,’ above).

Both are involved in planning and designing structures, but architecture focuses on the aesthetics and functionality of a structure, while engineering is concerned with the structure of a design, ensuring it can withstand both normal and extreme conditions.

Architects tend to lead the design of buildings and structures, working out the shape, colour and other artistic and functional elements of the design before a civil engineer becomes involved to ensure the finished structure will have the necessary structural integrity. The civil engineer may also be responsible for recommending and sourcing materials as well as advising on modifications or alterations to transform the architects design into a realisable plan. There is overlap between the two professions, making it important that they work together harmoniously to make a project’s success easier. 

Are Civil Engineers Paid Well?

As with any role, your wages will increase as you gain experience but civil engineering does provide a well-paid career. Wages differ according to location, role, experience and employer.

Can I Study Civil Engineering after Architecture?

Although architecture and civil engineering are different professions, with different focuses and responsibilities, it is possible to study civil engineering after studying architecture. There may be some cross over between the two, but the skills and knowledge that are required are different, so it is more of a ‘career change’ than a ‘career development.’ It is better to go directly into engineering with a degree in civil or mechanical engineering.  

Can I do Civil Engineering Without Maths?

You will certainly need to use maths as a civil engineer, so you will need some level of maths knowledge. The exact requirements for studying civil engineering will differ according to location and institution.

Can I Study Civil Engineering Online?

Yes, it is taught by several institutions as an online course.

Can I Study Civil Engineering Without Chemistry?

You will almost certainly need chemistry in order to study civil engineering. Chemistry is an important fundamental for understanding the properties of different materials and the effects of environmental conditions upon them, all of which are integral to the profession.

Can Civil Engineers Build Houses?

Civil engineers are able to design and plan all types of structures, including houses. Although architects are more concerned with the functionality and aesthetics of a building than civil engineers, this doesn’t mean a civil engineer couldn’t handle much of this work too. Of course, a house will usually also require trained bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc to actually construct!

Can Civil Engineers Design Houses?

An experienced civil engineer can design a home without the use of an architect, but the skills of an architect are usually employed as they bring a different important skillset to a construction (see ‘Are Civil Engineers Architects?’ above).

Can Civil Engineers Work from Home?

It is possible to work from home as a civil engineer, so long as the scope of your work doesn’t require onsite visits, inspections or supervision. Although civil engineering can involve onsite tasks it also involves a lot of designing, planning, drawing, interpreting data, and developing blueprints and models.

These desk-based tasks can be completed from home with results delivered via email or over the telephone.

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