Choosing a Civil Engineer

Discover How These Professionals Can Save Valuable Time and Money.

Experienced developers know that unforeseen problems can turn a profitable project into a money funnel. Unknown circumstances lurking below the topsoil quickly can cause costs to double or even triple. But it is possible for commercial real estate professionals to avoid such surprises or at least figure them into the purchase price. With adequate time to review a proposed project, a civil engineer can evaluate a host of site issues before closing on a property.

A civil engineer provides the critical skills necessary to assess raw land and the infrastructure that supports development. But profiling a site is only a small part of the civil engineer's role, which can encompass all aspects of commercial development projects from concept through completion. The services these site design professionals offer include evaluation of zoning restrictions, analysis of existing utility capacities, design of the building pad, and the determination of appropriate building maintenance.

Providing ValueMost importantly, civil engineers help commercial development teams maximize the value of the land while minimizing costs. For example, a company decided to move its headquarters from the city into a rural area. The company anticipated needing no more than 50 acres for its new campus; but when an available parcel provided almost double the space, with first-right options to triple the land purchase at a very low land price, consulting engineers convinced the company to purchase the land — even though its wildest projected needs didn't require the parcel's full use. Today the company occupies more than 2 million square feet of space and recognizes the benefits of not only the ability to control its own expansion, but also to have control over adjacent developments that might detract from the campus environment.

Civil engineers also can perceive problems early in the development process and save companies money. For instance, a company used a civil engineer to help assess the financial feasibility of expanding its existing facility versus developing a new one to accommodate multiple buildings and parking. The existing facility had the necessary infrastructure, security, centralized mechanical equipment, and information backup resources to make it the logical choice. However, the civil engineer's evaluation revealed that the costs for the earthwork necessary to expand the facility nearly exceeded the benefits. Specifically, the topography and rock conditions prevented placement of certain buildings and posed various restrictions for developing structured parking. These costs alone pushed expansion of the existing facility well beyond those associated with developing an alternative location.

Which projects need civil engineers? Any project that disturbs the site should involve a civil engineer as required by the local jurisdiction. Projects that do not extend outside the building, such as interior renovations, mechanical upgrades, or even some small additions, typically do not require a civil engineer's expertise.

Jurisdictions vary widely in the amount of disturbance allowed prior to the use of a civil engineer. For example, the District of Columbia requires a civil engineer to provide signed and sealed plans for site disturbances as small as 50 sf, whereas the outlying suburban jurisdictions allow up to 2,500 sf of disturbance. Other jurisdictions allow surveyors and landscape architects to sign and seal development plans. It's important to be aware of local regulations relating to site design professionals. Refer to the local zoning ordinance, facilities manual, or building standards to determine the location's limitations.

New DevelopmentsOn new projects, a civil engineer is part of a design team that typically includes an architect, specialty engineers, landscape architects, and specialty designers.

When brought in during the site selection and acquisition phase, a civil engineer can identify many of the technical issues relating to the property such as the topographic, environmental, or utility constraints. The engineer's explanation of these issues may result in a different development strategy for the property — one that provides a better project at a lower cost. For example, civil engineers can suggest methods for preventing flood, drainage, and soil problems.

As members of design teams on new projects, civil engineers identify and compile all of the local, state, and federal land requirements, assist in the coordination of elements external to or penetrating through the building envelope, and complete a set of accurate design documents that reflect all of the above.

During the design phase, the engineer's primary responsibility is to ensure that site plans are in compliance with local zoning ordinances and property encumbrances, provide for adequate utility connections and proper designs for safe roadway access and right-of-way dedications, evaluate problem soils including rock and clays, and oversee mitigation of environmental conditions.

A civil engineer specializing in land development also can design the project's full infrastructure — including roads, utilities, and grading — before the site plans go through the jurisdictional review process for building permits and zoning variances.

Hiring FactorsHiring the right civil engineer for a project involves consideration of a number of factors. Knowledge, experience, and support staff play into the decision.

Land-Use Knowledge.

Unlike other disciplines, the civil engineering profession constantly is affected by new land development laws. Land-use regulations and review processes used to enforce those regulations change faster than any other design discipline. Civil engineers must be up-to-date on the most recent local, state, and federal land regulations. To help assess a civil engineer's knowledge, ask the local jurisdiction's site plan department to disclose how many and what type of submissions the engineer has filed recently. Be wary of firms or civil engineers that haven't filed submissions within the past two years, as the land-use regulations can change dramatically in that period of time.

Currently, coastal and environmentally sensitive areas are most vulnerable to evolving site development requirements. For example, the determined effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay has produced complex and yearly changes to storm water management regulations for the states within the watershed. This is only one environmental factor among many that can affect site design approvals. Depending on the geographic location of the site, others might include wetlands issues or conservation programs.

Look for a civil engineer who also has a strong working knowledge of proposed regulatory changes. For example, a developer may purchase a property based on the assumed value of a developable land area. After the purchase, he discovers in the site plan review that half the land once thought to be developable is subject to a proposed tree conservation plan and can't be disturbed.

The result is the same for new environmental, controlled-growth, and conservation regulations recently enacted in many jurisdictions. These site development regulations range from proof of infrastructure adequacy to steep slopes to air and water quality. The list of these development restrictions in most urban or suburban jurisdictions can be burdensome even for sophisticated development teams, but a civil engineer must have a full working knowledge of all regulations and proposed regulations.

Civil engineers also need to know current and proposed federal regulations to avoid enforcements for flood-plain or wetland violations that supersede local regulations. Ignorance of these may cause dual disasters to the landowner through major fines or even incarceration.

Many jurisdictions encourage involvement from the design community and benefit from the interaction with the designers. Therefore, an engineering company that is recognized by the local jurisdiction as being actively involved in the site plan review process will be aware of the ever-changing requirements involved in the submission and processing of commercial development site plans.


The amount and quality of exposure to design teams that the engineer recently has accumulated also is a sign of experience and knowledge. An aggressive development team may complete only a few projects each year, but a civil engineer could be involved with 20 or more projects each quarter from a host of design teams. Each experience adds to the engineer's expertise and broadens his association with other design and engineering professionals in the area.

Developers also should look for a civil engineer with diverse experience across a broad spectrum of project types. A civil engineer with large-scale planning and detailed landscape-design experience blends skills that cannot be duplicated: A single individual with a grasp of multiple disciplines often can process design options faster and with more acuity than independent designers struggling to understand restrictions levied by others.


Although not often thought of as an engineering trait, creativity is a solid skill of quality civil engineers. In supporting the architect and other design professionals, they constantly challenge old ideas and push new ideas about how the architecture fits within the site. Good civil engineers do not sit idly at design meetings, waiting to provide input into just the infrastructure; they add to the discussion of the intricacies of financial restraint and often develop site concepts that significantly increase the land's value.


An engineering company that has a substantial staff integrated into project teams instead of departments is likely to provide better and more responsive service. In terms of technology, engineers today use computer-aided design programs to increase the speed with which they can produce and modify designs and concepts. Most engineers also use a variety of Internet-related tools, such as file transfer protocol sites, to assist in design development and construction administration. Some tech-savvy engineers are utilizing FTP sites and high-speed Internet access to make real-time updates to their clients' drawings. In addition, project management software such as Buzzsaw and Constructware is gaining popularity in the civil engineering industry because it allows the design team to coordinate documents, update files, check schedules, and verify receipt of file transfers. These tools also are used during the construction administration process to view and approve site-work submittals and respond to requests for information.

The size of a civil engineering company is a matter of preference. Big is not necessarily better since most projects require teams of four to six individuals. However, civil engineers work on a number of projects at one time, so project deadlines sometimes must wait in line.

Real estate professionals who are actively involved in development projects should establish a long-term relationship with an engineering company that they trust. Those who only occasionally need the services of a civil engineer should seek referrals from development professionals.

Joseph P. Mensch

Joseph P. Mensch is managing partner in charge of engineering operations for Wiles Mensch Corp. in Reston, Va. Contact him at (703) 391-7600 or Who\'s Qualified? When seeking a civil engineer, look for the following qualifications. Education. Civil engineers must have a bachelor\'s degree in civil engineering from an accredited college or university. Professional Engineer License. The National Society of Professional Engineers licenses candidates who complete the requisite amount of education, the initial fundamentals test, a minimum period of time practicing in an engineering discipline, and the final licensure exam. Licensed PEs offer credibility to any development project. Experience. Engineers who have local experience with multiple projects of similar scope, scale, and complexity help expedite and enhance the design and approval process. The engineer\'s type of commercial development experience is not as important as it is with an architect or mechanical engineer since the site work is not as design-specific. Basic Due Diligence A civil engineer\'s basic due diligence report covers the following aspects of commercial real estate developments: • location; • site characteristics, including size, structures, soils, civil drawings, topographical survey, and the surrounding developments and streets; • topography/layout, including potential building location, possible ingress/ egress and parking layout, and significant grade considerations; • easements; • deed restrictions/restrictive covenants; • zoning — if a zoning change is required it will define the process including submission dates and requirements, total anticipated time frame from submission to approval, and cost; • setbacks; • building height; • parking, including required total spaces, required handicap spaces, provided spaces, loading spaces, and means of calculation for required parking; • signage; • landscape; • time requirements to complete the site plan review, architectural and engineering review and design, production of construction documents, and permitting; • utilities; • contacts, such as the city engineer and inspections and development department; and • applicable codes, including general building, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire regulations.


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