What Does A Civil Engineer Actually Do?

As a civil engineer with my own small consultancy, I’m often at networking events or business fairs with people outside my industry.  I’ll introduce myself and the conversation will often follow a similar path to this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a civil engineer” I reply.

“Oh.  {{{BLANK EXPRESSION!}}}  So… what do you actually do?!?”

 

Working in an industry, it is easy to assume that everyone knows what you do.  If someone tells me they are a solicitor, accountant or web developer, I reckon I have a fairly good (if simplistic) idea of what their job entails, but it always amazes me that doesn’t follow through to civil engineering.  So I want to explain what civil engineering is and what we as civil engineers do.  Apologies to those readers in the industry who already know what they do, you won’t have to read on!

 

History of Civil Engineering

 

Civil Engineering History Aztec Pyramid
Aztec Pyramid

Civil engineering has been around as long as humankind itself, since we started constructing shelters instead of living as nomads.  Think about the great structures from ancient civilisations.  In medieval times, most construction of notable buildings was done by craftsmen such as masons and carpenters.  The grand design work was done by architects, although this would have encompassed much of what we understand civil engineers to do today. Indeed, until relatively modern times, there was little distinction between civil engineers and architects.

In the 18th century, the term civil engineering was born, differentiating engineering works for the civilian population from military engineering.  John Smeaton, who designed the Eddystone Lighthouse among many other things, is generally credited as the first to call himself a civil engineer.  In 1771, he formed the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers.  Over the next few decades, this evolved into the Institution of Civil Engineers which was formed in 1818 with Thomas Telford as its first President.

The Institution received its Royal Charter in 1828, which finally established the first definition of civil engineering.  The Charter stated that “civil engineering is the application of physical and scientific principles, and its history is intricately linked to advances in understanding of physics and mathematics throughout history. …Civil engineering is a wide ranging profession, …its history is linked to knowledge of structures, material science, geography, geology, soil, hydrology, environment, mechanics and other fields.”  Finally civil engineers had a public definition of what it was that they did.

The late 18th and 19th centuries spawned many of the figures we recognise today as iconic civil engineers.  Smeaton & Telford, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson, Robert Stephenson, Joseph Bazalgette, Benjamin Wright, among many others.

 

Civil Engineering History IKB Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

But ask someone to name a modern civil engineer and you will probably meet a blank expression.  This is largely because major projects are now delivered by large teams, so we don’t have the great iconic figures we once had.  Sir John Armitt is arguably the most famous civil engineer of today, having led the team that delivered the London 2012 Olympic Games infrastructure.

 

Civil Engineering Today

Today, we can say that civil engineering deals with the design, construction and maintenance of the built and natural environment.  It includes roads, bridges, canals, dams, buildings, harbours, railways and airports.  It also includes producing, treating and distributing all the modern utilities that we take for granted such as water, electricity, gas, broadband and sewage.

 

Civil Engineering Modern Falkirk Boat Wheel
Falkirk Boat Wheel

With such a wide-reaching remit, today’s civil engineer tends to be a specialist, not the Jack (or rather Master) of All Trades we saw with the likes of Brunel.  Although having a good general grounding in many of the areas mentioned above, he or she will tend to specialise in a few select areas.

 

“So What Do You Do?”

I have more than 20 years’ experience as a civil engineer, but that is not to say I know it all, I certainly don’t.  Ask me to design a bridge or a multi-storey car park and I wouldn’t know where to begin, although I have a reasonably good idea about how they work and what would be involved.  My specialisms are in water and environmental engineering.  Those who know me will know that I design, amongst other things:

  • sewers and pipe networks;
  • sewage treatment plant;
  • roads and site layouts;
  • drainage and flooding solutions;
  • sustainable drainage systems;
  • erosion protection systems.

 

Civil Engineering Sustainable SUDS Infiltration Basin
Stormwater Pond

But even these seemingly simple titles are catch-all terms that include a whole range of other things.  To take an example from above: sewer network.  It’s just two words – sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  But a sewer network can contain a whole host of different elements: pipes, manholes, control structures to hold back flows, storage tanks to contain those flows, overflow structures to relieve the system & prevent flooding, pumping stations to make water flow uphill, river outfalls, the list goes on.  Drill into each of those other simple terms above and you will find they too are far more involved than they first seem.

Perhaps it is the fact that civil engineering covers such a huge remit that we should not be surprised that the general public don’t know what we do.  Perhaps that is why I find “what do you do?” to be such a difficult question to answer when talking to non-engineers.  However, hopefully these few words have gone some way to spreading the word.

 

SP Civil Design’s specialism is water and environmental civil engineering, with a focus on sustainability.  If you would like to discuss a potential project with us, or have any comments or questions about this article, then please get in touch via our Contact section or email steve@spcivildesign.co.uk.

Save the frogs! How to Prevent Pollution on Construction Sites

Many construction activities on site can cause watercourse pollution and damage to local wildlife.  This article briefly explains how construction activities lead to pollution, the effects this can have on the aquatic environment and how pollution prevention can be achieved on site through proper planning and control measures.

 

 

How does construction cause pollution?

Just excavating or breaking ground on site exposes loose soil, which is then prone to be mobilised by subsequent rainfall.  Movement of construction plant creates gullies and drainage channels, which increases exposure of this loose soil and provides a pathway for pollutants within the soil to be washed into the aquatic environment.

Mobilisation of large amounts of sediment can also cause local drains to become blocked, which can cause flooding of the local area.

Excavations often need to be pumped out or de-watered to allow work to be carried out in them.  In clay or fine silty soils this water is often laden with sediment suspended in the water which, if not properly treated, will result in pollution.

Spillages of oil and diesel from construction plant can also cause pollution off-site, as can washout from concrete pours.

 

What effects does this pollution cause?

When sediment enters watercourses, it causes pollution and puts stress on the wildlife.  Typically it increases turbidity, causing the water to appear cloudy.  High levels of turbidity over time kill fish, which of course impacts the whole aquatic ecosystem.

 

Image c/o lakeaccess.org

 

Oil and diesel, even in very small volumes, is a major pollution risk on site as hydrocarbons are extremely toxic to aquatic life.

When still wet, concrete can cause a huge amount of damage to the environment as it is highly alkaline.

Fish kills can result in large fines from the Environment Agency.

 

 

How can pollution from construction sites be prevented?

It is easy to ignore where site run-off ends up because it is often remote from the site and not instantly obvious.  However, causing a pollution event is illegal and, as already stated, can result in very large fines.

Effective planning and monitoring are essential in controlling the sources of pollution on site and should be included in the site’s environmental management plan.  Control of pollution AT SOURCE is key.  It will always be cheaper and easier to prevent or control a pollution event on site rather than allowing it to spread off-site and then trying to manage the impact once the pollution has been released into the environment.

Silt fences are often used to capture sediment, but they must be installed properly and maintained frequently, otherwise the sediment will still be carried off-site and cause pollution.  Similarly, natural straw, jute or coir barriers can be used to trap the sediment.

 

 

Surface water drains are a major pathway for pollutants to enter watercourse and so must be protected against pollutant entry.

Storage of materials and waste on site, both hazardous and non-hazardous, is also very important in minimising environmental impacts.  For example, skips should always be covered to prevent waste getting into lakes & rivers.  Storage of oil and diesel should always be in bunds so that any spillages are contained.

Spillages from construction plant can be absorbed by special plant “nappies”. More serious and extensive spills can be cleaned up using spill kits, which should always be present on site.

Water from excavations should be passed through a settlement tank or stilling pond, which can also be filtered.  If necessary, flocculants can be added to make the suspended solids settle out of the water more quickly.

Image c/o andrews-sykes.com

 

SP Civil Design’s specialism is water and environmental civil engineering, with a focus on sustainability.  If you would like to discuss a potential project with us, or have any comments or questions about this article, then please get in touch via our Contact section or email steve@spcivildesign.co.uk.