Civil vs. Structural Engineers: What's the Difference?

Published on Fri, 10/30/2020 - 11:35
civil engineers and structural engineers in a meeting

Civil engineering and structural engineering are two disciplines that are commonly confused. Say you're working on a commercial building project or are designing a bridge to be built in your city. Do you need a civil engineer or a structural engineer for these projects? Your first instinct may be to assume that the commercial building project requires a structural engineer because it is… well, a structure. Likewise, you may assume that the bridge requires a civil engineer, because it's "relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns" (as goes the definition of 'civil'). But the answer isn't that simple! The difference between civil engineering and structural engineering is tricky if you don't have an understanding of these two lines of work. To try to put it simply, all structural engineers are civil engineers, but not all civil engineers are structural engineers.

Defining the Difference in Areas of Expertise

The difference between civil engineers and structural engineers depends on their area of expertise. Civil engineers can be involved in different types of projects and aspects of projects than structural engineers.

Civil engineering includes the following areas of expertise:

  • Structural
  • Urban planning
  • Environmental
  • Geotechnical
  • Water Resources
  • Transportation
  • Construction
  • Material

Structural engineers are specifically involved in some of those areas of expertise, as they can help design:

  • A dam wall
  • A bridge structure for a road system
  • Structures for a water treatment plant
  • and more

Structural engineers are essentially focused on the materials used for constructing structures and they help select and design the appropriate construction material for a given class or type of structure. Some of the most commonly used structural materials, which will be selected based on the needs of the project, include timber, concrete, steel, and masonry.

Structural engineers ensure that bridges don't collapse and are structurally sound, while civil engineers ensure that things like annual flooding and potential traffic bottlenecks are taken into consideration during transportation planning.

The Difference in Education between Civil Engineers and Structural Engineers

Civil engineering is a four-year bachelor's degree program offered by most colleges and universities and covers all or most of the areas of expertise previously mentioned (depending on the college or university). These areas of expertise are typically what an engineer would focus on in their junior and senior year of undergrad and can be furthered in their graduate studies if desired. They can be advanced specializations that are obtained after a student has attained their civil engineering bachelor's degree and become a civil engineer. This means that most structural engineers are civil engineers with a structural engineering specialization and most likely have at least 6 years of educational experience in the field.

When it comes to licensing and professional certifications, the United States requires all professional engineers who work for the public to hold a license that certifies they have the knowledge and skills required to design, construct, and maintain infrastructures. There are differences and overlaps between the licenses and certifications needed by civil engineers and structural engineers.

Both civil engineers and structural engineers, under the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying are required to complete a specified number of hours of field experience (with the amount varying by state).

Professional certifications that they can acquire (but aren't required), respectively, include:

  • Civil Engineers: Can receive certifications for 8 or more years of post-licensure experience and a Master's degree, awarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • Structural Engineers: Can receive certifications for additional education, skills, and experience in structural engineering from the Structural Engineering Certification Board and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Differing and Shared Types of Work

Civil engineers and structural engineers will often be found working together to design and build efficient and safe infrastructures. The civil engineers are often responsible for the overall site design and coordination, while the structural engineers ensure that load-bearing members are appropriately sized and positioned to support the intended loading.

Civil engineers generally work in a variety of locations and conditions. It is common for them to split their time between working in an office and working at construction sites so that they can monitor operations or solve problems onsite. Civil engineers work closely with contractors, clients, and employees to ensure cohesiveness and efficiency. You'll typically find them working on projects such as:

  • Roads
  • Bridges
  • Buildings
  • Sewage Systems
  • Railways
  • Airports
  • Dams
  • Canals
  • and Pipelines

Structural engineers are typically called on when they are needed to approve materials for a design or need to help solve a structural problem. While many structural engineers would also be considered civil engineers, their education and experience allow them to focus on structural elements of projects, such as:

  • Beams
  • Columns
  • Girders
  • Shear walls
  • Rafters
  • Trusses
  • Support systems
  • Foundations

Functions of Civil Engineers vs Structural Engineers

As we said before, structural engineers are civil engineers, but not all civil engineers are structural engineers. This means that their functions differ.

Civil engineers functions primarily include:

  • Site investigations and analysis
  • Technical and feasibility studies
  • Design layout and materials proposals
  • Preparation of construction documents and cost estimates
  • Construction site management
  • Regulatory compliance management
  • Risk management

Structural engineers functions can include all aspects of the civil engineer functions, plus:

  • Area inspections and site appraisals
  • Construction materials evaluations
  • Building code implementation
  • Building inspections
  • Demolition management
  • Damage assessments

Which Do You Need?

So the burning question you probably have is- which do you need for your project? The answer is that you likely need both! Civil engineers and structural engineers work together to produce the most efficient, safe, and structurally sound projects. Contact us to discuss your project and we'll work to ensure that you have the best engineers working on your project from start to finish.