What is Civil Engineering? Types, Challenges, and Materials

Civil engineering is a branch of engineering that designs, builds, and maintains structures that are vital in modern society, including bridges, roads, buildings, water-supply centers, and transportation facilities. It is a foundational discipline that lies at the center of modern infrastructure and urban development because it shapes the physical world around us. Civil engineers play a crucial role in ensuring the safety, functionality, and facility of these diverse projects, which makes their expertise invaluable in today’s world.

What is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering is a unique discipline in the engineering world that involves works related to the community. It is distinct from other branches of engineering that focus on specialized industries or private sector projects. Even the term “civil engineering” shows this relationship. In this context, the word “civil” shows that this branch of engineering deals with projects and activities related to public works, infrastructure, and facilities that serve the community as a whole.

The practical effects of civil engineering have existed for centuries in the form of roads, bridges, aqueducts, and ancient buildings, but it did not have a distinct name or a recognized school where common practices developed. The Europeans and British led the way in developing an education and code of practices for civil engineering in the 18th century. The Americans quickly followed suit in the 19th century with colleges that taught civil engineering practices. Civil engineering is the second branch of engineering, created to differentiate it from the first branch, military engineering.

Types of Civil Engineering

Understanding what a civil engineer does is vital in understanding the practices of the civil engineering field. Civil engineering is a diverse field with many specialized sub-disciplines.

Structural Engineering

Structural engineering is the sub-discipline in civil engineering that focuses on the design, analysis, and construction of buildings in order to ensure their safety, performance, and durability. Structural engineers create efficient structures that can withstand diverse environmental effects like wind, water, and high heat and can resist forces like high pressure and heavy loads. Some of the structures that they build are tunnels, bridges, dams, towers, and buildings.

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering involves the study of the behavior and properties of soil, rocks, and other geological materials related to building. This sub-discipline focuses on the study of these elements in order to design safe and stable foundations for a variety of structures. Key aspects of a geotechnical engineer include site investigation, foundation planning, slope stability analysis, earth-retaining structures, and soil improvement techniques.

Transportation Engineering

Transportation engineers are civil engineers that focus on the planning, design, and building of transportation systems to ensure safety and efficiency in the community while they travel. This branch involves the analysis of various modes of travel, including railways, highways, waterways, airports, and other public transit systems. They aim to optimize the performance of these systems in order to enhance the economic and social growth of the community.

Water Resources Engineering

Water resources engineering is a specialized sub-discipline of civil engineering that focuses on the management, utilization, distribution, and acquisition of water for the community. Water resources engineering involves designing and implementing plans that supply clean water for human consumption, manage water for agricultural and industrial needs, control flooding, and protect the safety of the environment and surrounding people.

Construction Engineering

Construction engineering focuses on the management and execution of building projects. Construction engineers plan, design, coordinate, and supervise the structures to see that they are safe, durable, and completed on time. This process involves working with clients, architects, builders, city officials, accountants, and health and safety experts.

Environmental Engineering

This branch of civil engineering focuses on solving environmental challenges within the community to ensure the safety of community members and the responsible management of outdoor spaces. Environmental engineering involves the application of both scientific and engineering principles. This discipline addresses issues related to water pollution, waste management, resources, air quality, and sustainability.

Coastal Engineering

Coastal engineering is a civil engineering branch that focuses on coastal regions where the land meets the sea. This discipline addresses the unique challenges and dynamics that exist along rivers and oceans, including the impact of wind, tides, currents, erosion, sediment transport, and sea-level rise. This includes building coastal infrastructure such as harbors and ports and ensuring coastal protection with seawalls and revetments. More recently, their job also includes helping to mitigate the impact of climate change on the surrounding community and the coastal land.

Materials Engineering

This discipline, also called materials science, focuses on the nature and properties of various materials so that they can predict how they will behave in a given circumstance. Materials engineering studies existing materials but also work in developing new materials that have unique properties and meet specific requirements. Their jobs include material analysis, testing, characterization, environmental impact, and classification.

Urban Planning

Urban planning involves the development and design of cities to ensure efficient, safe, and attractive spaces for community living and use. This is a strategic and systematic process that involves considering growth, sustainability, and longevity over the long term. Urban planners consider all aspects of urban life, including land use, transportation, infrastructure development, housing and community development, economic development, community space planning, historic preservations, and community engagement.

Challenges in Civil Engineering

Civil engineering practices directly impact the lives of people and their development as part of a larger community. Their designs and procedures shape communities in both positive and negative ways. As community centers like cities are growing, civil engineers face important challenges in developing their communities toward growth and progress.

  • Aging infrastructure – Much of the infrastructure in cities like bridges, roads, and buildings is aging and needs to be repaired or replaced. Ensuring the safety of these structures while repairs are ongoing and with tight budget restraints is a problem that civil engineers must work through.
  • Climate change and resilience – In the modern era, cities are facing challenges as a result of climate change such as rising sea levels, higher temperatures, and more frequent natural disasters. Civil engineers must plan infrastructure that can weather these environmental conditions.
  • Sustainable development – Balancing urban development with sustainability is a constant problem for civil engineers. It is a challenge to create an infrastructure that is energy efficient and eco-friendly, but still durable and cost-effective.
  • Urbanization and population growth – Rapid urbanization because of migration and population growth places heavy burdens on existing infrastructure. These can lead to heavy traffic congestion, inadequate transportation, and less housing.
  • Water management and scarcity – Water resources are becoming scarce in some regions and too much in other regions due to climate changes. Civil engineers must focus on sustainable and efficient water management to provide clean water to their communities.
  • Digital transformation – Civil engineering, like other modern industries, is undergoing a transformation from analog to digital technology. This is a challenge for older engineers who are used to different processes and those who are less technically savvy.
  • Infrastructure funding and financing – Funding is always a problem as engineers try to balance their budget between their needs and available resources. Private financing is another viable model but this needs to be balanced to make sure public interests are protected.
  • Changing regulatory environment – City regulatory codes are constantly changing to comply with new safety and environmental concerns and best practices.
  • Human-centric designs – Civil engineers must always design infrastructure so that people can use them efficiently and safely.
  • Geopolitical and socioeconomic factors – Civil engineering projects are not isolated from global events like pandemics, wars, unrest, and economic struggles. These directly impact funding, implementation, and processes.

Materials of Civil Engineering

Civil engineers use a variety of materials for their design. The selection of materials depends on the specific application needs, the environmental conditions, desired performance, and the budget constraints.


Steel is a metal alloy made from iron and carbon. It is a flexible and strong construction material that is used to create beams and columns and provide reinforcement in concrete. It has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, making it an ideal material for long span structure and high-rise buildings.


Wood types, including both hardwood and softwood, are useful in civil engineering to build frames, interior elements, and decorative features. Wood has a good strength-to-weight ratio and it is a renewable resource. Varieties of wood also provide good insulation for energy and sound.


Asphalt is the most common substance that engineers use in road and pavement construction. It is a combination of aggregates like gravel and bitumen, which together provide a smooth and durable surface for cars and people.


Aggregates are granular particles that provide strength and durability in mixes like concrete and asphalt. Aggregate types range in size from fine to coarse-grained. They also come in a variety of types including gravel, stone, sand, recycled concrete and composite materials.


Geosynthetics are synthetic materials that civil engineers use to stabilize slopes, reinforce soil, and control erosion. Geosynthetic materials include products like geotextiles and geogrids.


Plastic materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) are used for constructing pipes, drainage systems, and other applications that have a low weight limit and require resistance to corrosion.


Glass is useful in creating windows, facades, and architectural features that are transparent. Glass provides natural light which gives aesthetic appeal but protection against the elements.

Composite Materials

Materials engineers are always developing new materials that provide new benefits for modern construction. Civil engineers consistently use new composite materials like fiber-reinforced polymers to reinforce buildings and other structures. These provide higher corrosion resistance and a better strength ratio.


Natural stones like granite, marble, sandstone, limestone, and slate are useful for adding aesthetic appeal to buildings and landscapes. They also provide historic appeal and longevity to structures.


Bricks and blocks individual building units made from clay and concrete. Engineers use them for construction structures like walls, facades, and load-bearing structures like foundations and columns. They come in various shapes and sizes, allowing versatility in structure size, shape, and color.



Concrete is one of the most valuable materials in modern construction. Concrete is a composite material, made from cement, aggregate like sand and gravel, and water. Concrete is durable, cost-effective, strong, and versatile, making it useful in various applications including bridges, buildings, tunnels, and roads.