Engineering 101

Engineering plays a critical role in many construction and development projects. You may have found yourself requiring the services of an Engineer, but are not quite sure exactly what is entailed. The Engineering 101 series has been developed to provide easy-to-understand explanations of some of the more common facets of engineering. The following is not intended as professional advice and you should talk to your Engineer or Project Manager to ensure your specific requirements are being met.

Engineering Disciplines


Essentially, engineering uses a scientific and mathematical approach to finding the most appropriate technical solution to your problem. In designing construction solutions, factors that Engineers often consider include: safety, strength, durability, legal liabilities and cost. The effect of external forces, both natural and man-made, also has a major bearing on engineering design.

When developing land, building or making significant alterations, there are a number of engineering disciplines that will be very important to the project. While some disciplines are quite specialised, there are often occasions where engineering disciplines impact or overlap each other.

Here are some of the engineering disciplines you may come across when looking at development and construction in New Zealand…

Civil Engineering

Civil engineering is concerned with developing and improving infrastructure and common utilities. This may include the design and supervision of: driveways, storm or waste water systems, drinking water supplies and bridges or roads (plus many other structures).

As well as considering safety and cost, a Civil Engineer will work within relevant national and local council regulatory requirements, and also be concerned with the environmental impact and possibly even social impact.

Structural Engineering

Structural engineering is primarily concerned with structures that are required to withstand vertical loads and environmental forces (including earthquake plus wind and snow). This typically includes designing the structural component of houses, buildings or bridges. Structural design involves ensuring that both the strength and stiffness of building elements are within government mandated standards.  Structural Engineers often work very closely with Architects and also have an in-depth knowledge of regulations and building codes.

A common approach for a Structural Engineer in today’s economic environment is to utilise the least amount of materials in order to produce the most stable structure. Effective structural engineering not only avoids costly failures to the structure in the future, but can also provide immediate savings through innovative design.

Geotechnical Engineering

The ground throughout New Zealand is dynamic and can change slowly over time, or even quite suddenly due to natural forces such as earthquakes and floods. Even in areas of relative stability, the clearing of vegetation for the development of agricultural land or urban development, can significantly alter the stability of the ground (especially on slopes). Without adequate ground investigation, the ground should be considered a hazard!”

Geotechnical engineering is concerned with the physical and changing nature of rocks, minerals and other elements in the ground – the Earth’s geology. Geotechnical Engineers deal with investigating the soil and rock properties of the ground both at and surrounding the site, and also how natural materials and construction techniques affect each other. 

Where ground is steep or of low strength, building foundations are likely to be specifically designed.  The parameters for such designs are provided by Geotechnical Engineers in their reports following on-site investigation and testing of the soils.  The Geotechnical Engineer and the Structural Engineer should work collaboratively to ensure the most cost effective and appropriate foundation can be designed.

Earthquake Engineering

Most of New Zealand is vulnerable to earthquakes to some degree. Covering certain aspects of geotechnical, civil and structural engineering, Earthquake engineering is extremely important to ensure the protection of valuable assets such as bridges, houses and commercial buildings. It is also critically important for the prevention of serious injury or loss of life to people in earthquake-prone areas.

Significant earthquakes in the last decade have prompted government to change laws to increase the structural requirements for buildings. This can often require existing properties to undergo improvements to the structure. As well as the moral obligation to protect people that may occupy a building, the owner may have a legal requirement to make structural improvements. Earthquake engineering requires both geotechnical and structural input.

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering is concerned with protecting or reducing the impact of development on the environment. In a practical sense, applications in New Zealand might include: integrating storm water systems with the natural landscape, developing effective ways to ensure the construction process has as small an impact on the surrounding land as is practically possible, or investigating potentially (or known) contaminated land and helping land owners mitigate both environmental damage and costs.

Fire Safety Engineering

Fire safety engineering is concerned with building design and construction factors that can impact the safety of people in the event of a fire. It also deals with the protection of neighbouring properties from the spread of fire across a boundary.

This could involve the design of alarm systems, stairwells and exit routes, insulation, ventilation and the prevention of smoke or fire spreading throughout the building. Fire Safety Engineers may also be involved in investigating the causes of a fire and analysing what could have prevented it.