Construction Supervision and Other Specialties

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Civil engineers involved in supervising and managing construction activities in the field, either as agents of owners or developers or as construction company owners or supervisors, take the plans and specifications from design engineers and transform them into a finished product. To call this a challenging task is an understatement. The plans for major structures often consist of hundreds of pages of drawings, varying from simple overall sketches of a proposed facility to complex diagrams of structural details. They also may include hundreds of pages of written specifications describing the construction methods to be used.

As if this weren't enough, construction supervisors and managers are responsible for meeting tight construction deadlines with a minimum expenditure of money, materials, and labor. They must schedule the delivery of materials; rent or subcontract heavy construction equipment; and oversee machines, such as tower cranes, that require extended setup time and cost thousands of dollars a day to operate. They supervise and coordinate the work of large numbers of craft workers and laborers, usually employed by several different companies. The reward for bringing these complex projects in on time can be millions of dollars in early completion bonuses. The penalties for project delays likewise can mount into the millions of dollars.

Obviously civil engineers who are attracted to construction supervision and management are enticed by a work environment where the adrenalin runs high, the responsibility and accountability level rivals that of wartime commanders, and the payoff includes the immense personal fulfillment of successfully meeting daunting challenges.

Construction managers and supervisors attempt to select the method of construction which will be the most economical. Certainly, they must minimize the cost of construction activities, but first they must be able to make preliminary estimates of those costs in order to identify excessive expenditures. Engineers working for owners or developers of proposed facilities also must be able to evaluate the bids of the contractors wishing to do the work. Likewise, engineers working for the bidding contractors must be able to make accurate cost estimates for the preparation of bid prices. Construction contracts are almost always awarded through competitive bidding. This means owners and developers are looking for contractors who can offer the lowest bids along with strong assurances that the work will be done properly and safely. (Developers and owners are justifiably leery of contractors or subcontractors who offer enticingly low bids and then complain midway through a project that they need more money.) Meanwhile, contractors strive to offer bids lower than those of their competitors but still sufficiently high enough to guarantee a respectable profit.

Once a contract is awarded to a company, the construction engineer is responsible for supervising and managing the actual field work. The first step in the process is the actual layout of the project on the site by an engineering surveying party. The survey party places stakes and markers to show the construction crew where to remove soil and rock to establish the proper base elevations for the proposed structure. Next, the construction engineer must supervise the building of access roads to the project site. Depending on the type of construction activity, structures may need to be built to house the labor force and to shelter equipment and supplies used on the project. In many projects, false work must also be constructed. These are temporary structures built to accommodate workers and machines, to support portions of projects while foundations are built, or to serve as molds or forms for concrete or other structural materials.

The construction engineer must be in constant communication with members of the design team so that they can modify plans and specifications if conditions on the site turn out to be different from those assumed before construction began. In addition to staying in close communication with designers and other office personnel, the construction engineer must supervise and manage the workers at the field site. A successful construction supervisor puts great effort into maintaining good relations with the individual workers on the site and with the group of workers as a whole. He or she must be constantly aware of the workers' needs as well as their safety at all times. At the same time, the construction supervisor must be firm in ensuring that work is being done properly and at the proper pace. In this regard, the role is not much different from that of an athletic coach who is expected equally to support and discipline a group of athletes who must function as a team to be successful.

Other Specialties

A number of other specialty areas attract limited numbers of civil engineers. For instance, some civil engineers specialize in the design, construction, and operation of power plant and transmission facilities; the design and construction of ocean floor and offshore facilities, particularly structures related to petroleum exploration, removal, and transport; and software development with engineering applications. Indeed, civil engineers find little difficulty in using their basic science education along with their accumulated civil engineering experience to achieve success in these and many other areas of activity.
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