Apr 30, 2020

Civil or structural engineering?

  • Article
  • civil engineering
  • structural engineering

What is the difference between civil and structural engineering? This is a question that is asked often and causes confusion, even in the engineering community.

In an engineering firm, the civil department may normally consist of both civil and structural engineering disciplines, sometimes it may also include geotechnical, transportation, environmental and hydraulic engineering disciplines, all of which are traditionally considered subspecialties of civil engineering.

The difference between civil and structural engineering can be tricky. They were even synonyms at one point. To discern these two terms, one must first understand the concept behind each field.

  1. Tradition and reality

    Throughout ancient and medieval history, most architectural designs and construction were carried out by artisans. Structural theories did not exist, and an understanding of how structures remained standing was extremely limited and based almost entirely on empirical evidence from past experience. Until modern times, no clear distinction was made between civil engineering and architecture. The terms “engineer” and “architect” were often used interchangeably.

    Civil engineering is one of the oldest trades in existence: it first started when humans began building shelters for themselves. It developed into several branches as knowledge increased and became a speciality on its own.

    Traditionally, structural engineering was classified as a subdiscipline of civil engineering, but over time, as science and architecture developed, it became a discipline in its own right.

    Although many disciplines are rooted in civil engineering, it lives on as a distinct technical specialty and remains closely related to structural engineering. They often have similar battery limits, as both deal with analysis, design, installation, erection and maintenance of construction and infrastructure. They also range from private to public facilities, small to large projects in the fields of light and heavy industry, e.g., mining and metals, energy and petrochemicals, as well as other sectors, such as residential, commercial, institutional or public projects.

    However, they hold vital differences, both in terms of scope of coverage, school studies and jobs after graduation. For example, when studying at university, all main civil engineering subjects are taught at the beginning of the program, but students may choose to focus more on their areas of interest by selecting suitable complementary courses, which may lead to specializing in infrastructural, geotechnical, environmental, structural or transportation engineering.

    Civil engineering

    In fact, it is now more appropriate to call the discipline infrastructural engineering rather than civil engineering. Traditionally, civil engineering was defined as any engineering unrelated to military engineering, but these days, it is used to distinguish infrastructural engineering from other disciplines like structural, mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering.

    A civil engineer’s work mainly consists of designing underground or surface utilities, like surface water management systems, waste water and sanitary systems, aqueducts and fire water, roads, parking facilities, earthworks and other infrastructures. More specifically, civil engineers:

    • Plan site preparation work.
    • Ensure optimal grading for good surface and ground water management.
    • Plan and design roadways and circulation areas.
    • Optimize cut and fill of earthworks.
    • Design underground utilities, drainage systems and various civil infrastructures.
    • Prepare technical documents for environmental permitting for underground utilities and storm water management.
    • Prepare plans and specifications to deliver civil infrastructure works.
    • Prepare or participate in construction cost estimates, bills of quantities, schedules, budgets and reports on civil infrastructure works.
    • Perform site supervision.

    Structural engineering

    Structural engineering deals with the design, analysis, inspection, construction and maintenance of load-bearing or resisting structures. It subdivides structures into small elements based on the load-bearing mechanisms they use, such as columns, beams, girders, connections, walls, trusses, rafters, plates, shells, arches, diaphragms, and so on. Structural engineers need to define the layout arrangement, shapes, sizes, and grades of material to reflect their capacity, deflection or fatigue issues. Structural engineers must then perform a structural analysis of the divided elements based on all possible combinations of applied loads and effects, including dead, live, vibrational, wind, snow, ice load and seismic or temperature effects, etc.

    A structural engineer’s work consists mainly of designing underground structures like foundations or pilings, and superstructures like building structures, house structures, industrial equipment supports, pipe racks, walkways and platforms. More specifically, structural engineers:

    • Design foundations.
    • Design steel, concrete and wood structures.
    • Coordinate design activities with other disciplines, such as infrastructural, mechanical, electrical, etc.
    • Prepare estimates, technical specifications and reports on structural works.
    • Help prepare estimates, schedules and budgets on structural works.
    • Participate in site management or supervision.


    It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; below is an image that illustrates the differences between these two engineering disciplines:

  2. BBA has a solid background in civil and structural engineering and provides constructability analyses and technical assistance during construction, in addition to providing expert services to clients. You can count on the BBA team to help you get the job done.


    1). OIQ – Guide de pratique professionnelle [French only]: http://www.gpp.oiq.qc.ca/

    2). McGill University – Civil Engineering Department: https://www.mcgill.ca/civil/undergrad/areas

    3) Polytechnique Montréal – Département des génies civil, géologique et des mines [French only]: https://www.polymtl.ca/cgm/programmes-d%C3%A9tudes/baccalaur%C3%A9at/g%C3%A9nie-civil

    4) Wikipedia – Civil engineering: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_engineering

    5) Wikipedia – Structural engineering: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_engineering

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