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Civil Engineering Subdisciplines

  • 22 April, 2021

Engineering consists of applying math and science to real-world problems and building solutions to those problems. Civil engineering specifically solves problems in our infrastructure and environment. Although most people think of roads, bridges, and skyscrapers in relation to civil engineering, there are far more applications that I will briefly describe in this piece.

Construction engineers are responsible for planning and executing designs. They spend time scheduling and managing employees or subcontractors to make sure that work is completed correctly, on time, and under budget. Construction engineers require a strong grasp of other fields of civil engineering in order to not only find possible conflicts in designs but also confirm that the final product is both functional and safe.

Geotechnical engineers design foundations, dams, retaining walls, bridge abutments, road subgrades, and other earthen works. This field is computation heavy; the equations that geotechnical engineers use to calculate stresses, settlements, and other soil properties can be complex. Further complicating the matter, knowing the exact parameters of the worksite and underlying ground is nearly impossible; it just isn't feasible to analyze an entire construction site to know what the soil conditions are like all the way to the bedrock. To gain information about the site, geotechnical engineers drill bore holes, pull samples from them for laboratory testing, and send various investigative instruments down into the holes. If you want to work in a math-heavy field where no two jobs are the same, this subdiscipline of engineering may be for you.

Structural engineers design the skeletons of buildings, bridges, antennas, and other constructions. They design each piece of a building's frame to be strong enough to hold up the structure itself as well as live loads such as occupants, cars, wind, earthquakes, or, in the case of a dam, thousands of tons of water. Structural engineering is another computation-heavy discipline. The size, weight, and strength of each part of a building affect its surrounding parts, so calculating and recalculating are usually done by specialized software to ease the mathematical workload of balancing loads, cost, and strength.

Civil Engineering Subdisciplines

Transportation engineers design our transportation infrastructure including local roads, highway interchanges, timing of traffic signals, railroads, placement of bus stops, and more. This broad category can range from math-heavy tasks like predicting traffic flows or designing for adequate stopping distance of increasingly distracted drivers to the field work of traffic counts. This discipline can also include management duties like operating a city's public transit system.

Hydrologic engineers design systems that provide for the movement of water and containment of waste and pollutants. Focuses could include drinking water treatment and distribution networks, sewers and sewage treatment, and stormwater collection and distribution systems including canals and detention ponds. Hydrologic engineers also evaluate the environmental impact of other projects; for example, the effect that a dam will have on surrounding aquatic life or the effects of coal ash storage onsite after power production. This field uses math and chemistry and involves a mix of desk and field work.

There are many other types of civil engineering such as coastal engineering and urban engineering that use elements of each of the subdisciplines I described in this blog. For more information on civil engineering and its many different subdisciplines, check out the American Society of Civil Engineers' home page at www.asce.org/.
About the Author: Zane Hartzog

Zane Hartzog is a 2012 graduate of Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and a licensed Professional Engineer in the State of Alabama. Zane is the Hot Mix Asphalt and Liquid Asphalt Specifications and Special Projects Engineer at Alabama Department of Transportation where he has been working since 2013. He is currently enrolled in a Graduate Certificate Program in Pavement Materials. Zane and his wife Kasey live near Montgomery Alabama.

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