The Differences Between Civil and Structural Engineering

Published on January 23, 2019 by Structural Innovations in Structural Engineering

Recognizing the ways in which civil and structural engineering companies differ is important when you are planning to hire out for a construction or renovation project. However, it is equally as important to understand how these two unique types of engineering companies work in conjunction with each other to create and manage infrastructures.

The terms “civil engineering” and “structural engineering” are often innocently misused in conversations about building and city design and construction. Most people tend to be confused about the distinct functions of these two engineering sectors, and oftentimes believe that these two branches of engineering perform interchangeable roles in the design, fabrication, and maintenance processes.

However, there are quite a few significant differences between civil and structural engineering, and knowing what distinguishes one professional field from the other could help you properly plan for your next construction or renovation project.

Common Misconceptions about Civil and Structural Engineering Companies

For those who are unfamiliar with the many different branches of engineering, it is important to clear up a few common misconceptions surrounding this multifaceted area of study—specifically between civil and structural engineering.

Misconception #1:

Civil engineering companies are the only ones involved in designing, constructing, and maintaining buildings, highways, bridges, and other vital structures in and around urban areas.

When you see a massive skyscraper going up in the heart of your city, a new bridge being constructed over one of the rivers separating the suburbs from downtown, or even a new portion of highway being built to ease evening commutes, it is important to realize that civil engineering companies are not the only firms involved with these projects.

Sure, civil engineering companies take the lead in planning for these large-scale infrastructure projects, and actively manage all aspects of these new construction and renovation sites. However, it is structural engineering companies that play an integral role in designing and fabricating office buildings, bridges, tunnels, and the like to ensure that these structures can handle loads and resistance like gravity, added weight from objects like cars, or even withstand severe weather events.

When it comes to new construction and large renovation projects, it is the structural engineers who are responsible for calculating the strength of the materials—like steel or concrete—being used for fabrication, and to ensure that newly erected buildings, bridges, and highways are stable and safe for public use. So, the next time you see a bridge being repaired or a twenty-story office building being constructed in your city, know that the civil engineers who planned the project are working in collaboration with structural engineering companies, architectural engineering companies, and other similar firms.

Misconception #2:

Civil engineering companies are exclusively used for city planning purposes.

Although civil engineering is an appealing career field for those who desire to go into city planning, there is a need for civil engineers in rural areas, too. For example, those bridges that span across the Mississippi River, and the tunnels that take you through the Appalachian Mountains were planned by civil engineers, and designed to be structurally sound by structural engineering companies.

Where engineers plan, design, and construct does not change their engineering classifications. Civil engineers, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, and the like can operate in both urban and rural areas while remaining part of their distinct engineering subgroups.

Misconception #3:

Civil and structural engineering companies are incredibly similar, so it should not matter which one I hire to plan, design, build, and maintain a new tunnel, railway, or skyscraper.

By far the most common misconception about civil and structural engineering companies is that they perform similar functions and are essentially interchangeable disciplines. However, this notion could not be further from the truth. So, what exactly differentiates these two branches of engineering?

What is a Civil Engineer?

A civil engineer is someone who plans, creates, and manages projects related to infrastructure and public use. When you see a new highway being paved, a reservoir being excavated, or even an art museum being constructed, you can bet that a civil engineering company is behind the planning and managing of the jobsite. These firms are also generally responsible for creating grading and erosion control plans along with researching and adhering to city, state, and federal zoning and building guidelines.

Although civil engineers seem to perform and oversee nearly every task on jobsites and behind the scenes, it is important to note that there are multiple different types of engineers involved in any project. Simply put, civil engineering is an overarching field that includes numerous subsets like geotechnical engineering, environmental engineering, structural engineering, transportation engineering, and the like.

What is a Structural Engineer?

Considered a subdiscipline of civil engineering, structural engineering involves designing and fabricating buildings, roads, bridges, tunnels, and similar structures to ensure that they are both strong and stable. Structural engineers make precise calculations while designing both small and large structures to make sure that the materials used for fabrication can withstand environmental stressors like high winds and earthquakes, and bear the weight of people and cars without giving way over time.

Structural engineers are the subset of civil engineers who take every precaution to make sure that roofs, foundations, and walls can bear the weight without caving in. Through their extensive knowledge of building materials like steel, wood, masonry and concrete, and their abilities to easily identify the respective tolerances and densities of these materials, structural engineers are able to decide which is the best medium to use for building many different types of structures.

How Civil and Structural Engineering Companies Work Together

Although structural engineering is a subset of civil engineering, these two different groups of engineers are often seen working together to plan, design, and build structures that improve infrastructure. Structural engineering companies can work in collaboration with civil engineering companies by inspecting buildings and other structures that civil engineering companies are wanting to renovate for public use to ensure that the structure is—or can be made—stable and safe.

Civil and structural engineering companies can also work in conjunction with one another on new construction projects. Once the civil engineers lay out a plan for a new building, bridge, railway, or road, the structural engineers—along with the architectural engineers who design the structure’s outline—can take the reins in making sure that this new construction is fabricated with the appropriate load-bearing materials, and designed to for overall structural stability.

While civil and structural engineering companies differ from one another, they function best when collaborating with each other. Structural engineering firms like Structural Innovations works alongside many other subsets of engineers and can provide superior design and inspection services in any area of the country. Give our Charlotte, North Carolina headquarters a call at (704)837-0337 to discuss your next structural design project today.

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