What is environmental engineering?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines environmental engineering as "the branch of engineering that deals with the application of technology to the management of a specific indoor or outdoor environment or the natural environment as a whole, esp. in the reduction of pollution, management of waste disposal, and mitigation of the impact of human industrial activity." (Oxford English Dictionary, no date).
There are many kinds of indoor environments, and not just those needed to support human habitation. The purpose and use of a space will heavily influence the materials used to design and build it. For example the British Library has specific environmental controls to help preserve items in their collections which include low light, humidity regulation and reduced oxygen (Airey, 2022).
For human habitation, air quality, sound (such as soundproofing and sound reduction), temperature, and humidity are key areas to make a working/living space comfortable. In addition you will have other considerations such as viable escape routes in case of fire for example. A key element to designing such spaces is the use of standards, and adhering to the legislation. This can a particular challenge when working with old buildings that are being renovated - can modern materials and ways of working cope with the regulations of a listed building?
The are also various "extreme" environments such as cold spaces for food preservation, hot spaces for metals works, and shielded spaces for protection from radiation. All of these environments require careful design in order to achieve their purpose. Use of appropriate materials that can withstand such extreme conditions is vital to avoid accidents.
As with internal environments creating buildings that can survive external environments can be tricky. In these cases it's not just the purpose of the building, but where you choose to build it. The considerations for building in the middle of the ocean (oil drilling platform for example) will be vastly different from those in a desert. In addition there are various pieces of legislation which protect the external environment, and will have to be considered before a single piece of foundation is laid. These range from protecting rare animal species to thinking about the waste products a building may produce and how they are disposed of.
Mother nature is also a consideration - sun, water (as in rain or rivers etc), wind, earthquakes, or lightning strikes can all impact on the design used to construction a building.
To the future
Environmental engineering has a lot of challenges, and sustainable building is one of the buzz areas. Making "green" buildings that are made of renewable materials, or powered by renewable sources are interesting challenges.
As well as climate change, helping to construct buildings that are flood proof, earthquake proof, able to withstand rising temperatures and keep occupants cool are all areas where environmental engineers come to the fore.
Airey, T. (12 Mar 2022) Building a bigger home for the British Library collection. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-60668721. (Accessed: 2 February 2023)
Oxford English Dictionary (no date) environmental, adj, Compounds. Available at: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63090?redirectedFrom=environmental+engineering#eid5307670 (Accessed: 31 January 2023)