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An expert in civil engineering?

An expert in civil engineering?

To many, this is a difficult concept; given the breadth of civil engineering they see a conflict with the principle of being an expert on such a broad topic. Of course, I do not see it quite like that, but it is probable that most would say I am biased!

To support my case, I offer the following: It appears to me that the crux of the concern relates to the definition of civil engineering. The term civil engineer was first coined by John Smeaton in 1750 to contrast between the engineer working on civil projects and military engineers. Interestingly, he is also considered to be the first expert witness to appear in an English Court, when he testified on the silting-up of a Norfolk harbour in 1782.

Author: Colin Smith, Technical Expert, Diales, London, UK.

Over the years I have come across many definitions of civil engineering. When I first started work, there was the traditional description by Thomas Tredgold which was essentially adopted by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in their Royal Charter:

“.....being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man, as the means of production and of traffic in states, both for external and internal trade, as applied in the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation, and docks, for internal intercourse and exchange; and in the construction of ports harbours, moles, breakwaters, and lighthouses, and in the art of navigation by artificial power, for the purposes of commerce; and in the construction and adaptation of machinery, and in the drainage of cities and towns.”

Arguably, this definition may well have been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, when he said: “Civil Engineering is a noble profession that should be pursued for the public good.”

In the 1980s, anybody who needed a hole bored could have found a somewhat insulting listing within the London Yellow Pages as: “Boring: see civil engineers” Thankfully this has now been changed and the ICE definition has also been updated. Turning to the modern day, I asked ChatGPT:

“Civil engineering is a branch of engineering that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the infrastructure that we use every day. This includes buildings, roads, bridges, airports, dams, water supply and sewage systems, and other communal facilities. Civil engineers use technical and analytical skills to plan, design and construct these structures in a way that can enhance public safety, promote longevity, and minimise environmental impact. Their expertise is also required to evaluate and manage potential risks and contingencies associated with natural disasters and other emergencies.”

Given all the above, I would make two points: Firstly, in broad terms, there seems to be something of an overlap with structural engineering. Traditionally, of course, there are close linkages. In my view, structural engineering is a specialised branch of civil engineering that focuses on designing and analysing structures such as buildings, bridges, and other constructions to ensure their safety, stability, and durability. To me, the main difference between the two is that structural engineering focuses on the design and analysis of structures, while civil engineering encompasses a wider range of disciplines; combining sustainability, resilience, safety and security, and involving the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure. Civil engineering is everything you see, and much you don’t see, that has been built around us and the kinds of things we take for granted but would find life very hard to live without. It is the profession of planning, designing, and executing works that serve society such as roads, railways, airports, ports, schools, offices, hospitals, water, sewage systems, power supply and other infrastructure.

The second point is that none of the above descriptions provide any guidance as to what technical disciplines are covered within civil engineering. This highlights further uncertainty in identifying precisely what skills a civil engineer possesses, and the misconception that all civil engineers possess the same knowledge. 

With such a broad description, it possibly explains why civil engineers do not always come from a conventional engineering background of having mainly studied maths and physics – with many having come from backgrounds comprising planning, geography, science and the environment. Such diverse backgrounds provide an ideal wealth of wider knowledge, characteristic of a civil engineer.

Such a wide background available to civil engineers not only enables them to successfully grapple with the challenges of co-ordinating specialists but it also means that their own individual specialisms may be taken from a far broader spectrum. Significantly, as major infrastructure projects are getting bigger and more complex, with a seemingly ever-increasing range of specialist disciplines, the co-ordination and integration often (at least in terms of engineering) falls to the civil engineer, making use of their broad-based skills. Often labelled as project managers, these civil engineers have a broad breadth of experience that is frequently tested as an expert.

The overall educational standard for engineers is a subject in which I have become increasingly involved with over recent years. My involvement with the UK Engineering Council, Joint Board of Moderators and International Engineering Alliance particularly with accreditation of university courses both in the UK and overseas, has enabled me to appreciate the link between the demands of society/industry and the university curriculum.

The construction industry is changing rapidly not least due to issues such as sustainability, health and safety etc., but also in the context of emerging technology with the increasing development of computer software including BIM and most excitingly, AI.

In my view, AI will not only impact design and construction but will inevitably need to be embraced by expert witnesses and indeed the courts.

My involvement with engineering education has also given me an insight into how civil engineering can be reasonably categorised under four main headings, each of which covers several sub-disciplines. I summarise this in the following table and in the absence of anything more definitive commend its use in demonstrating the range of skills that fall under civil engineering.

Of course, the disciplines / sub-disciplines shown can be further sub-divided, for example a highways expert may have chosen to specialise in pavement or alignments or lighting. It follows that a civil engineering expert can be expected to have specialised in one (or more) of the discipline skills shown with a generalist more likely to have their knowledge and experience spread across a far greater number of disciplines/subdisciplines. These specialisms within disciplines seem to me to be very similar to the way that a structural engineering expert may have chosen to specialise in, say, the design of high-rise building within seismic zones.

To help further illustrate the breadth of civil engineering, and what a civil engineering expert may become involved in I provide, via superscripts below, a selection of examples from my own experience: 


  1. Airports: 
    Expert report on the design, co-ordination and supervision of civil engineering and utilities, in an arbitration relating to a major international new-build airport.
  2. Railways: 
    Expert report for inquiry into the Great Heck train crash, covering the suitability / adequacy of highway barriers limiting incursion onto the railway. 
  3. Metro / LRT: 
    Expert reports and provision of evidence at a public inquiry on transportation and traffic impacts for the original TWA Environmental Assessment of the Thameslink 2000 Rail project.
  4. Ports 
  5. Roads: 
    Expert report and Joint Statement on road humps that had been constructed on a private road which provided access to a specialist car repairer, who claimed their vehicles were being damaged by the humps. 
  6. Traffic: 
    Expert report on the adequacy and safety provision of service yard facilities at a major superstore, where an employee had been crushed to death by a lorry reversing. Evidence given in the Crown Court.
  7. Pedestrian and cyclist


  1. Power: 
    Expert report concerning the forecasting of demand and identification of reinforcement of power and water supplies, to sustain growth in operations of a major international airport.
  2. Water, including fire water 
  3. Chilled water 
  4. Communications 
  5. Oil and gas 
  6. Renewables


  1. Foul water: 
    Expert report commissioned by insurers relating to the damages incurred to commercial property arising from foul drainage problems occurring during the construction of an adjacent by-pass.
  2. Surface water 
  3. Irrigation / TSE 
  4. Rivers / open channels 
  5. Hydrology 

Structures and Geotechnics 

  1. Buildings
  2. Bridges
  3. Retaining walls 
  4. Dams
  5. Tunnels

In conclusion – civil engineering provides a canopy under which there are many specialisms, disciplines and subdisciplines. It is quite normal for civil engineering experts to practice in, at least, one particular specialism whilst still bearing the title of civil engineer. Other civil engineering experts have developed their background skills over a much wider range of specialisms focusing more on overall co-ordination. As with choosing any expert, it is vitally important to ensure their attributes are well matched to the task.

Given the diverse range of specialisms within civil engineering, finding an appropriate expert can be especially demanding. The selection process may not be helped with having to contend with the detailed technical jargon and, for example, whether the subject is best addressed by an electrical engineer or a civil engineer who has specialised in power. Of course, when looking for more of a co-ordinator, it is clearly important that they have at least knowledge of the various disciplines involved.  

This article was written for issue 26 of the Driver Trett Digest. To view the publication, please visit: www.driver-group.com/digest-issue-26


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