The term “civil engineering” was coined in the early 18th Century to encompass all aspects of engineering that were not associated with the military. Until then, there was no clear distinction between architecture and civil engineering, and the terms were used interchangeably or defined jointly, as still happens in Malta with the term Perit today.

Civil engineering is primarily concerned with how development projects connect and relate to their external environment. Civil engineers work closely with surveyors and other specialised civil engineers to:

  • design gradings, excavation and pavings;
  • design infrastructure systems for sewers, water supply, electricity and communications; and
  • certify land or property divisions.

A number of specialisations have developed within the civil engineering discipline over time, in response to the ever increasing complexity and technological advancements. These include:

Coastal engineering

Coastal engineering is concerned with managing coastal areas. In some jurisdictions, the terms sea defense and coastal protection mean defense against flooding and erosion, respectively. The term coastal defense is the more traditional term, but coastal management has become more popular as the field has expanded to techniques that allow erosion to claim land.

Construction engineering

Construction engineering involves planning and execution, transportation of materials, site development based on hydraulic, environmental, structural and geotechnical engineering. As construction firms tend to have higher business risk than other types of civil engineering firms do, construction engineers often engage in more business-like transactions, for example, drafting and reviewing contracts, evaluating logistical operations, and monitoring prices of supplies.

Control engineering

Control engineering (or control systems engineering) is the branch of civil engineering discipline that applies control theory to design systems with desired behaviors. The practice uses sensors to measure the output performance of the device being controlled (often a vehicle) and those measurements can be used to give feedback to the input actuators that can make corrections toward desired performance. When a device is designed to perform without the need of human inputs for correction it is called automatic control (such as cruise control for regulating a car’s speed). Multidisciplinary in nature, control systems engineering activities focus on implementation of control systems mainly derived by mathematical modeling of systems of a diverse range.

Earthquake engineering

Earthquake engineering involves designing structures to withstand hazardous earthquake exposures. Earthquake engineering is a sub-discipline of structural engineering. The main objectives of earthquake engineering are to understand interaction of structures on the shaky ground; foresee the consequences of possible earthquakes; and design, construct and maintain structures to perform at earthquake in compliance with building codes.

Environmental engineering

Environmental engineering deals with the treatment of chemical, biological, and thermal wastes; air and water purification; and the remediation of sites contaminated by earlier waste disposal or accidental pollution. Topics covered by environmental engineering include pollutant transport, water purification, sewage treatment, and hazardous waste management. Environmental engineers can be involved in pollution reduction, green engineering, and industrial ecology. They also gather information and assess the environmental consequences of proposed actions, to assist society and policy makers in the decision-making process.

Environmental engineering is the contemporary term for sanitary engineering. Other terms in use include public health engineering and environmental health engineering.

Fire protection engineering

Fire protection engineering, also called “fire safety engineering,” is the application of science and engineering principles and experience to protect people and their environments from the destructive effects of fire. The underlying branches of science are fire science, fire dynamics, and chemistry.

Fire protection engineers are often civil engineers by training. They typically design safeguards that aid in fighting fires, such as alarm, sprinkler, and smoke-control systems. They are also involved in structural design, providing expert advice on choices of materials and the protection of structural components. In addition, they are also employed in forensic investigations.

Forensic engineering

Forensic engineering is the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury or damage to property. The consequences of failure are dealt with by the law of product liability. The field also deals with retracing processes and procedures leading to accidents in operation of vehicles or machinery. The subject is applied most commonly in civil law cases, although it may be of use in criminal law cases. Generally the purpose of a Forensic engineering investigation is to locate cause or causes of failure with a view to improve performance or life of a component, or to assist a court in determining the facts of an accident.

Hydraulic engineering

Hydraulic engineering is concerned with the flow and conveyance of fluids, particularly water. Hydraulic engineers design structures for water collection and distribution networks, storm water management systems, sediment movements, and transportation systems. The structures include bridges, dams, channels, canals, culverts, levees, and storm sewers. Hydraulic engineers design these structures using the concepts of fluid pressure, fluid statics, fluid dynamics, and hydraulics, among others.

Hydraulic engineering is related to environmental engineering, transportation engineering, and geotechnical engineering. Related branches include hydrology, hydraulic modeling, flood mapping, catchment flood management plans, shoreline management plans, estuarine strategies, coastal protection, and flood alleviation.

Geotechnical engineering

Geotechnical engineering studies rock and soil supporting civil engineering systems. Knowledge from the field of soil science, materials science, mechanics, and hydraulics is applied to safely and economically design foundations, retaining walls, and other structures. Environmental efforts to protect groundwater and safely maintain landfills have spawned a new area of research called geoenvironmental engineering.

Identification of soil properties presents challenges to geotechnical engineers. Boundary conditions are often well defined in other branches of civil engineering, but unlike steel or concrete, the material properties and behavior of soil are difficult to predict due to its variability and limitation on investigation. Furthermore, soil exhibits nonlinear (stress-dependent) strength, stiffness, and dilatancy (volume change associated with application of shear stress), making studying soil mechanics all the more difficult.

Materials science and engineering

Materials science is closely related to civil engineering. It studies fundamental characteristics of materials, and deals with ceramics such as concrete and mix asphalt concrete, strong metals such as aluminum and steel, and thermosetting polymers including polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) and carbon fibers.

Materials engineering involves protection and prevention (paints and finishes). Alloying combines two types of metals to produce another metal with desired properties. It incorporates elements of applied physics and chemistry. With recent media attention on nanoscience and nanotechnology, materials engineering has been at the forefront of academic research. It is also an important part of forensic engineering and failure analysis.

Municipal or Urban Engineering

Municipal engineering is concerned with municipal infrastructure. This involves specifying, designing, constructing, and maintaining streets, pavements, water supply networks, sewers, street lighting, municipal solid waste management and disposal, storage depots for various bulk materials used for maintenance and public works (salt, sand, etc.), public parks and bicycle paths. In the case of underground utility networks, it may also include the civil portion (conduits and access chambers) of the local distribution networks of electrical and telecommunications services. It can also include the optimizing of waste collection and bus service networks. Some of these disciplines overlap with other civil engineering specialties, however municipal engineering focuses on the coordination of these infrastructure networks and services, as they are often built simultaneously, and managed by the same municipal authority.

Structural engineering

Structural engineering is concerned with the structural design and structural analysis of buildings, bridges, towers, flyovers (overpasses), tunnels, off shore structures like oil and gas fields in the sea, aerostructure and other structures. This involves identifying the loads which act upon a structure and the forces and stresses which arise within that structure due to those loads, and then designing the structure to successfully support and resist those loads. The loads can be self weight of the structures, other dead load, live loads, moving (wheel) load, wind load, earthquake load, load from temperature change etc. The structural engineer must design structures to be safe for their users and to successfully fulfill the function they are designed for (to be serviceable). Due to the nature of some loading conditions, sub-disciplines within structural engineering have emerged, including wind engineering and earthquake engineering.

Design considerations will include strength, stiffness, and stability of the structure when subjected to loads which may be static, such as furniture or self-weight, or dynamic, such as wind, seismic, crowd or vehicle loads, or transitory, such as temporary construction loads or impact. Other considerations include cost, constructability, safety, aesthetics and sustainability.

Transportation engineering

Transportation engineering is concerned with moving people and goods efficiently, safely, and in a manner conducive to a vibrant community. It involves specifying, designing, constructing, and maintaining transportation infrastructure, including streets, highways, rail systems, ports, and airports. It includes areas such as transportation design, transportation planning, traffic engineering, urban engineering, queueing theory, pavement engineering, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), and infrastructure management.

Water resources engineering

Water resources engineering is concerned with the collection and management of water (as a natural resource). It therefore combines hydrology, environmental science, meteorology, geology, conservation, and resource management. This area of civil engineering relates to the prediction and management of the quality and quantity of water in both underground and above-ground sources, such as aquifers, lakes, rivers, and streams. Water resource engineers analyze and model areas of the Earth ranging from the very small to the very large, to predict the amount and content of water as it flows into, through, or out of a facility. The actual design of the facility may be left to other engineers.