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Civil Engineering and Structural Engineering: What are the Differences?

Time:2021-03-25 15:17:37


While all structural engineers are civil engineers, not all civil engineers are structural engineers. Find out why!

Over the course of history, humans have learned how to solve problems in our landscape which would have been impossible to achieve in the past.

We’ve built bridges to help us cross oceans. We learned to build tunnels through mountains to get to the other side. We learned how to build apartments to solve cramped spacing problems.

These ingenious constructions came from the minds of people we know today as civil engineers.

In 1826, civil engineer Thomas Telford designed and led the project of building the Menai bridge which connected the smaller island of Anglesey to Great Britain. Although almost 200 years old now, the bridge is considered to be the first modern suspension bridge and still stands today as a testimony to how far civil engineers have come in the development of human infrastructure since the Roman Empire and beyond.

While civil engineering might be well-known as a respectable career path, you may have also come across other similar areas of study, such as structural engineering. Though the 2 areas may sound similar, certain qualities distinguish them in terms of their focus in the construction industry.

Want to know what makes them different? Read on to learn more.


Civil Engineering

The study of civil engineering, in a nutshell, is concerned with the development of buildings and large structures for different purposes. 

As a civil engineer, you will directly influence how the human world is shaped and its infrastructure. These include the cities and towns people live in, bridges used to cross rivers and oceans, underground tunnels used for subway lines, highways across countries and more.

During your studies, you will build up a range of technical skills and knowledge which will be valued in different industries, such as construction and real estate. 

You will learn how to design, create and oversee the building of structures efficiently, making the most of the materials and budget you have. Your studies will equip you with specialist knowledge across other areas, such as engineering mechanics, material science, geotechnical knowledge and mathematical calculation.

You will also spend time working with computer models and simulations to understand the principles of engineering, as well as to design digital models of structures.

In the workplace, your specialist skills as a civil engineer will always be in high demand. Whether its design new living spaces for growing populations or new structures to house facilities for medical research companies, a civil engineer on any construction-related project will be needed.

Furthermore, new technology and concepts like sustainable-development or smart-homes will continue to develop and enter the construction industry. In short, as technology develops and improves, so will you!

To sum up, civil engineering is concerned with the development of different types of human structures which can serve different functions. During your studies, you will cover a range of different areas, but you will have the option to specialise in a certain area of your liking down the line. 

Structural Engineering

Structural engineering on the other hand is considered a branch of civil engineering.

As established earlier, civil engineering covers a wide range of different specialisms in construction and structural engineering is one of them. It focuses on the framework of structures and designing them in a way where they can withstand the stresses and weathering conditions from the environment. In other words, a structural engineer looks over the safety and stability of the structure during its usage.

The range of modules you learn at university as a structural engineer are similar to civil engineering. The skills and knowledge are largely the same, with mathematics, physics and mechanics begin among some of the important topics you will learn from both.

However, you will acquire some specialist knowledge during your studies which will help you tune your education pathway to structural engineering.

You will learn about the properties of different building materials (eg. concrete, wood, etc.) and how they perform under different conditions brought by the natural environment, such as temperature, air pressure or weather.

You will also learn about the different conditions which could affect the integrity of built structures, such as terrain, wind, water and traffic volume.

During your career as a structural engineer, you will build more expertise towards a certain type of building or structure as you work on more projects. This will help you become more familiar with the typical challenges of each type of structure and how to develop the right solutions for them. Most commonly, this would include airports, bridges, railways, highways and power plants.

In summary, structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering which focuses on the aspects of safety and durability of structures. In industry, you would be working with other professionals on construction projects to provide your expertise knowledge which will help inform the design of the structure and what materials will be used.

So how are they different?

Civil engineering studies human infrastructure as a whole package. It covers just about every aspect of the construction industry and the different kinds of structures used to solve different problems. It focuses on how the structure is designed so that it can efficiently serve its purpose.

Structural engineering, simply put, is a sub-discipline within the study of civil engineering. It focuses on providing specialist knowledge in construction projects to make sure structures are designed safely for use. This includes making sure that the materials used in a project can withstand the pressures put on it.

Let’s use the construction of a highway as an example to highlight their differences.

When constructing a highway, civil engineers focus on the big picture of how it would function efficiently. They would consider different factors such as distribution of traffic, connections to other roads, the land it would be built on and how to avoid collapse.

Structural engineers provide specialised knowledge of the right combination of construction materials to be used in the project. They would provide advice on how they should be used to make sure they can withstand heavy loads (eg. cars, trucks) and surrounding environmental conditions, such as weather.

In projects, these two roles may collaborate together to make sure the end-product is designed both efficiently and safe for use.

If you are thinking about studying structural engineering, it's important to note that it is very rarely offered as an undergraduate degree. Typically, students would first study a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and take on a Master’s degree in a specialist area afterward, which includes structural engineering as a well as a range of other options.

In other words, a structural engineer may have all the skillsets a civil engineer has, but a civil engineer won't have the specialist skills a structural engineer has.

In the UK, universities offer integrated Master’s courses which combine a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with a Master’s degree in a specialist area, providing you the opportunity to gain specialist knowledge early on. This will help you take a step in the direction towards your interests and equip you with the skills you need to break into the industry at a younger age.

If you would like to explore the options in civil or structural engineering available, click here today to discuss your interests with an education counsellor.