What is the Difference Between Civil Engineering and Architecture?

If you’re wondering what the differences are between civil engineering and architecture, it’s a valid question. These career fields share a lot in common, and architects and engineers commonly work together on the same construction project. However, there are some distinct differences in the role each one plays in bringing a building or another project to fruition.

If you’re considering a career in architecture or civil engineering, read on to learn about civil engineering vs architecture.

Difference Between Civil Engineering and Architecture

Both architecture and civil engineering involve the design and planning of new structures and critical infrastructure

But, while architects are closer to the aesthetics and intended purpose or functionality of the work, civil engineers are more focused on the structural stability and safety of a given project. 

Civil engineers do contribute towards the initial design stage, but architects have more influence over the final design of the planned work. Architects are responsible for kicking off the project and creating the initial design ideas, including the look and feel of the structure, use of space, colorization, and so on. 

At this point another difference between architect and civil engineer is revealed – a civil engineer steps in to analyze the design and work out how it can be brought to life. They source materials and make recommendations for changes to the design where necessary to meet building codes or improve stability and safety. Engineers design, yes, but it a different way than architects.

Civil Engineer vs Architect: Which is Better?

This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends on the reasons for which you’re comparing these two disciplines. Perhaps you’re trying to decide which subject would be more interesting to study or which would lead to a more successful career. Or perhaps you’re money-driven and trying to find out which career will lead to better prospects and a higher salary ceiling.

Let’s start with the question of job security and wages, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes it very easy to compare the earning potential for both fields. A quick search of the BLS for difference between civil engineer and architect salaries reveals that:

  • According to the BLS, in 2023, civil engineers earned a median salary of around $88,050 annually, which is approximately $42.33 per hour. The BLS also looked at the projected job growth between 2020 and 2030, which is about 7 percent, or roughly as fast for all occupations.
  • According to the same data source, in 2023, architects earned a slightly lower median pay of around $80,180, or $38.55 per hour. Job growth is projected at 3 percent, which is slower than average.

Looking at the extremes of these pay scales, the top 10% of architects earn more than $129,980 per year. Meanwhile, top-earning civil engineers made more than $133,320 per year. So, based on these figures from the BLS, it would be very difficult to base a choice between these two careers on money alone – they’re just too close.

In terms of how interesting each field is, well, that’s up to you! Some people are more naturally inclined to be an architect. Others have aptitudes that are better suited for civil engineering. How well you like a job and how interested you are in it is often related to your ability to perform your job well. That being the case, it’s necessary to consider what your specific skills and interests are, and select architecture or civil engineering (or both!) based upon those skills and interests.

Civil Engineering and Architecture are Both Highly Complex Fields

A common question among prospective architecture students is, “is architecture harder than engineering?” Rather than thinking of one subject as being harder than the other, the reality is that both are complex roles that have a demand for similar skill sets but in different capacities.

As a student of architecture, you’ll take a lot of the same courses as engineers. But rather than being down on the ground carrying out the work, you’ll be more involved in directing the project and the engineers working on it. Imagine the composer who directs the many instruments of an orchestra. You’ll need to be adept in problem-solving, with strong creative and critical thinking skills; the role of an architect is very much a combination of art and science.

A civil engineer, on the other hand, is more technically focused. As opposed to being a combination of an artist and scientist, an engineer requires a strong technical and scientific background and skill set. And while an architect is usually the director of such projects, a civil engineer will also often take the lead. Particularly for projects that concern public infrastructure, civil engineers will often run the project in addition to contributing to the work, with no architect consulted whatsoever.

When it comes to the academic side of these two disciplines, both are generally considered to be challenging programs of study. From an architect vs.civil engineer education standpoint, they are pretty equal. You’ll need to successfully graduate from a four-year accredited college or university with a bachelor’s degree to be eligible to work within these fields. And depending on the employer and the state in which you reside, you may need licensure or certification to work as an architect or civil engineer.

What’s more, you may need to gain experience in the role before you can work independently. For example, if you’re pursuing a career in civil engineering, then your first role after graduation could be as a civil engineering technician. These professionals work for a number of years under supervision by a qualified civil engineer. This can be a good way to get experience while being paid before gaining the confidence and experience you’ll need to run large-scale projects.

What Do You Study in Architecture and Civil Engineering School?

If you enroll in a degree program in architecture, you can expect to take typical general education requirements like math, science, humanities, and so forth. Your major area coursework will focus on architecture and related topics. For example, you might take courses in:

  • Interior design
  • Architectural design
  • Project management
  • Sustainable design
  • Architectural history

You’ll likely also take courses in physics, modeling, and landscape architecture.

Usually, a bachelor’s in architecture (B.Arch) includes at least 120 semester credits of study, which can take four to five years to complete.

As a civil engineering student, you will take the same general education courses as your colleagues in the architecture program. However, the major area courses are quite different. For example, common courses for civil engineering students include:

  • Structural engineering
  • Environmental engineering
  • Architectural engineering
  • The construction process and construction management
  • Computer-aided design

Likewise, civil engineering programs often include engineering courses that focus on structural elements, water systems, and infrastructure projects.

Of course, in either degree program, you can take elective courses in order to tailor your education to your areas of interest. So, you might take a design skills course or graphic design course in your architecture program. If you major in civil engineering, you might take an elective in geotechnical engineering or building construction. You might even take courses usually reserved for mechanical engineers, like applied fluid dynamics. The beauty of electives is that you get to choose!

If you decide to continue your education and get a master’s degree, which one is best for you?

Again, choosing your educational path depends heavily on your interests and aptitudes. But, choosing a graduate program includes factoring in your undergraduate educational experiences. If you’ve got a bachelor’s degree in architecture, then a master’s degree is the obvious choice. This doesn’t mean that you can’t change majors and pursue a master’s degree in civil engineering, but doing so would likely require years of prerequisite work. The same is true if you major in civil engineering in undergrad and want to pursue a master’s in architecture.

Can You Be an Architect Civil Engineer?

If you have a passion for both architecture and civil engineering, there’s nothing stopping you from majoring in both and graduating with two degrees. Of course, doing so will take a lot of time, effort, and money.

As noted above, an undergraduate degree in civil engineering can take anywhere from three to five years to complete. Meanwhile, an undergraduate program in architecture usually takes four to five years to complete. Pursuing these degrees separately results in two distinct degrees. In some cases, you might be able to get a dual degree in both subjects at the same time. This allows you to count some courses towards both degrees. So, if 124 credits are required for a typical architecture degree, you might have to complete another 33 credits to also graduate with a degree in civil engineering. Again, this requires more time, effort, and money than a single degree, but it’s cheaper and faster than pursuing the two degrees separately.

Once you have the proper education and credentials (e.g., architects must pass the Architect Registration Examination while it’s a good plan for civil engineers to get a Professional Engineer license) you can begin work as a civil engineer and architect. You might concentrate more in one area than the other, or you might split your time more equally between the two. As an expert in architecture civil engineering, there’s little doubt that your services will be in very high demand.

What is Your Career Path?

A civil engineering degree opens up all sorts of career options. You might manage construction sites, ensure the safety of water resources and infrastructure, or contribute to the completion of massive structures like skyscrapers. You might work for yourself, for civil engineering firms, or government agencies. You can work in urban or rural areas, at home or abroad, or a mixture of both. Civil engineering jobs can be found anywhere!

The same is true of following the architecture path for your career. You might get into the construction industry and design homes or even entire neighborhoods. You might work on teams that are responsible for building structures for individuals or communities. Your skills might also be used to build structures that are more accessible or sustainable.

Again, the path you choose for your career depends on a wide range of factors. Your interests and skills are certainly a large part of it. So too are your financial goals. You’ve taken a great first step, though, in learning about the differences between architects and civil engineers. Now you have a good foundation for exploring more about these topics so you can make an informed decision about your educational future.