A Complete Guide to Civil Construction

heavy civil construction infrastructure

Civil construction truly shapes the world around us–it’s responsible for the majority of structures we use that aren’t privately owned. From massive bridges for transportation to walkway construction and wastewater treatment centers to dams, the civil field encompasses some of the most important building projects in our world completed each year. The sector truly helps humans get where they want to be in addition to what they need.

Given the highly complicated nature of their logistics, civil construction projects are commonly over budget and schedule. For instance, construction was eventually halted on the highly public Virgil C. Summer (V.C.) nuclear power station in South Carolina. Intended to be one of the biggest and most expensive civil construction projects in U.S. history, many problems lead to the power station being billions over budget and years over the projected completion date.

Many civil construction projects run into these kinds of problems due to the complexity of designing and building a massive and essential public structure with so many various stakeholders. Nevertheless, this guide will break down the challenges that civil construction companies face and address how they can deliver projects on time and under budget.

What Is Heavy Civil Construction?

Instead of being considered a branch of construction, civil projects are usually classified under the umbrella of civil engineering. This is due to the need for extensive planning and coordination between a variety of engineers and design specialists before any construction can begin. Surveys such as Jurovich Surveying describe the sector as “a branch of Civil Engineering involved with the maintenance, design and construction of both natural and physically built environments.”

So, civil construction companies do more than build structures. They’re also experienced in handling natural and existing environments like water reservoirs, hillsides and mountain ridges, in addition to other areas that interface with human-made infrastructure. Contractors bidding on civil projects need to know about grading, erosion control, access rights, public impact, legal regulations and much more to understand what’s involved in any given request. If the company can’t handle every step themselves, they must at least know how to subcontract properly to manage the engineering and site surveying steps.

What Kinds of Projects are Handled by the Heavy Civil Sector?

Basic civil construction often involves structures like city halls or public libraries, but the heavy civil sector takes design and construction to another level. Some of the most common projects handled by the heavy civil sector include:

  • Bridges, from basic roadway crossings to the massive replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River.
  • Railroads, including tracks for light rail, high speed, and streetcar systems growing in popularity within major cities like Denver and St. Louis.
  • Roadways, ranging from simple-level residential streets to complex overpasses and tunnels.
  • Canals and river stabilization or widening projects, for both shipping and recreational goals.
  • Wastewater treatment plants, holding tanks, settlement ponds, and other essential processing structures.
  • Dams and corresponding reservoir tanks or lakes, including systems designed for power generation.
  • Airports, ports, and other major transportation hubs.
  • Earthwork projects like capping landfills, reshaping flood-prone areas and building new levees.

How Could a Civil Construction Boom Improve Infrastructure?

Many of the country’s bridges, roads, tunnels and other infrastructure projects are full of unforeseen hurdles and challenges, creating significant cost and schedule overruns. But these overruns impact more than the construction companies building.

Delays in fixing and building infrastructure not only costs the companies doing the work, but it also burdens the taxpayers who need and use these features every day. Potholes, closed roads and overcrowded airports cost the average household about $3,400 a year in lost disposable income. From time lost during inefficient commutes to higher than usual electricity costs, aging infrastructure affects everyone in a community.

Poorly maintained roads and dangerous bridges or overpasses can directly damage both vehicles and public transportation. The Committee for Economic Development estimates that U.S. motorists spend $112 billion per year on car and vehicle repairs due to poor road conditions. Congestion alone from a lack of new roads and lanes wasted over three billion gallons of fuel in a single year.

Companies that can deliver new roadway, tunnel, bridges and other infrastructure projects within strict budget and time frame constraints not only stand to see higher returns on profits–they also enrich the communities in which they’re working. In turn, these communities attract more businesses, which will drive the need for more civil construction in the future. A win-win for all involved.

4 Ways Construction Companies Can Succeed on Civil Construction Projects

Knowing where to look for new opportunities and how to stay on top of complex civil projects is essential for capturing a piece of the pie. With a needed $4.5 trillion required to develop U.S. infrastructure through 2025, construction companies must invest in new techniques in order to address those needs cost-effectively and efficiently.

Learn more: The Highway to Success: How to Improve Road Infrastructure

1. Build Public-Private Partnerships

External contractors and subcontractors have always played some role in civil construction projects, but now public-private partnerships (P3) are getting them even more involved. A P3 arrangement allows a state or federal body to authorize a civil project that is managed and even financed by private companies rather than public services.

As of now, 35 U.S. states allow for this kind of arrangement, and many others are actively considering changing their laws regarding private-public arrangements. Successful P3 projects include the George Deukmejian Courthouse in California and an I-595 lane expansion in Florida.

2. Develop Projects with Low Tax Investment

While many U.S. residents know they need their roads repaired, they don’t necessarily want to pay higher taxes to cover the costs. This leads to one of the most compelling benefits of the P3 structure, which is the opportunity for infrastructure improvements with little to no cost to local taxpayers.

The I-270 expressway project in Maryland is an excellent example of this in practice. Despite the widening of four new toll lanes that will cost a projected $9 billion, the taxpayers of Maryland will pay precisely $0. Private investors are financing the work in exchange for repayment through a percentage of collected tolls. The rest of the tolls will go to the state, generating a steady source of new income.

3. Explore and Embrace New Digital Technologies

Since heavy civil projects are so much more complicated than other forms of construction, you need to embrace the latest digital technologies to keep everyone on the same page. An entire team of different professionals and subcontractors is needed on a civil job, and keeping them all in touch with a range of stakeholders can seem impossible.

Collaboration software that is tailored to the needs of the construction industry prevents information gaps and communication breakdown. Software that relies on the cloud to remotely store all the relevant documents, plans, meeting notes and other pertinent information allows everyone to access what they need at any time. This speeds up construction, prevents delays, keeps everyone under budget and helps you catch mistakes before they’re expensive to fix.

4. Improve Internal Processes

Don’t stop at collaboration and communication software when optimizing your construction company’s approach to civil construction projects. There are plenty of ways to simplify the design and site prep process without investing in expensive new equipment. For example, geotagging is a tool that has been available for years to indicate exactly where photos were taken. When you’re working on laying out a road, bridge or other structure without any unique visual markers, it can be challenging to determine where a progress photo or video was captured. GPS-linked and geotagged photos and documents specify the exact placement of structures and access points for fewer costly mistakes during construction.

Embrace the Complexity to Win Heavy Civil Construction

The heavy civil construction sector will always be complex and present plenty of challenges to the contractors working within it–but there are just as many opportunities for growth.

Furthermore, building the infrastructure our world needs can be incredibly rewarding, especially when it comes at no to little extra cost to those who benefit from it. Upgrade your company’s approach to technology and collaboration to win more infrastructure bids and keep your projects within the tight limitations for cost and time. Doing so will not only benefit your company, it will benefit communities for years to come.

Grace Ellis

As Manager of Content Marketing Strategy at Autodesk and Editor in Chief of the Digital Builder Blog, Grace has nearly 15 years of experience creating world-class content for technology firms. She has been working within the construction technology space for the last 6+ years and is passionate about empowering industry professionals with cutting-edge tools and leading strategies that improve the quality of their jobs and lives.