Heavy Civil Construction vs. Commercial: 6 Key Differences

Published Categorized as Construction
Heavy Civil Construction

As an entity that involves the building and assembling of infrastructure, the construction industry has three sectors that include heavy civil construction, building construction, and specialized industrial construction. Building construction, in turn, is further subdivided into residential or non-residential.

Commercial construction falls within the non-residential sub-category of the building construction sector. It is the business of designing, building, and renovating buildings that can generate income for the owner. On the other hand, heavy civil focuses on projects meant to minimize any inconvenience to the public, motorists, and the local community.

This article will break down both heavy civil and commercial construction to help you understand what each sector entails. It will also delve into the major differences between the two sectors.

What Is Commercial Construction?

Commercial construction refers to building projects consisting of business structures such as offices, warehouses, retail centers, and manufacturing centers. On a small scale, it involves projects like rebranding or updating the look of a building. As such, it is commonly referred to as light commercial construction.

Medium-scale projects involve remodeling, expanding, and restructuring the business buildings to keep them in their prime conditions. They consume much more time and effort than small-scale projects. On the other hand, large scale projects are extensive and start from the ground up. They consist of projects such as high-rise buildings, warehouses, factories, malls, and dams.

While all forms of construction rely on strong communication, commercial construction relies heavily on communication with clients before the start of any project. Only once the contractor understands the owner’s vision for the project will they be able to deliver. Conversely, failure to uphold communication with the client throughout the project can lead to client dissatisfaction.

What Is Heavy Civil Construction?

Heavy civil is a sector that deals with complex construction projects that include highways, tunnels, waste management, telecommunication, airports, and other massive city or government projects.

Heavy civil is also known as infrastructure construction or civil engineering. It is one of the oldest engineering disciplines that involve the construction and maintenance of the naturally built environment.Heavy civil construction is responsible for the construction of major structures that aren’t owned by a private owner—the structure ranges from dams, wastewater treatment centers to walkway construction projects.

Commercial construction focuses more on establishing communication between the contractor and the client. However, heavy civil tries to reduce the inconvenience or troubles of the public and the local community.

As such, an expedited construction schedule is often required to meet any critical goals. Still, you have to ensure that the work you provide is of top quality to last long.

If you are unsure of what to look for, you may fail to see the two construction sectors’ differences. However, each of them bears its own set of unique challenges. Even though the two construction sectors are quite different, their construction process is very similar.

Here are some of the top key areas that the two projects differ in.

1. Uses

In terms of use, the definition of the two sectors fully explains how they are different. Heavy civil construction refers to an industry classification that revolves around big government and community projects.Some project examples include constructing water structures, waterways, and heavy industries such as a shipyard. The projects that heavy civil handles are usually very heavy, hence the name.

On the other hand, commercial construction relates to the construction of buildings for business purposes. Some examples of building projects include commercial offices, malls, factories, and stores.

Commercial contractors place a lot of effort on ensuring that a building potentially satisfies every business that may run within the structure. In contrast, heavy civil contractors put more effort into ensuring they can deliver an economical, environmentally friendly structure, and one that the general public can count on for several decades.

2. Design

As seen above, the commercial construction sector revolves around, ensuring that the structure provides the client with maximum satisfaction. Therefore, the floor plan’s design helps ensure smooth foot traffic into the building.Moreover, both the interior and exterior aesthetics of the project have an important role in commercial design.

Heavy civil construction deals with general infrastructure and massive government-funded projects. They focus on improving their coordination and reducing the time and cost it takes to build a structure.

3. Supporting Infrastructure

Commercial construction infrastructure involves a group of services for an entire structure, such as an electrical, HVAC, and plumbing system. The network is centralized to be able to satisfy all the tenants in the building.

The supporting infrastructure of commercial construction is quite different from that of heavy civil engineering. It is geared towards the support of heavy equipment that helps manage a project’s complexity with minimal disruptions and negative impacts on the community.

4. Type of Equipment Needed

Regardless of how large the buildings are in commercial construction, they use standard equipment and engineering approaches. Large commercial buildings may use a crane and other pieces of heavy equipment during construction.

Therefore, there needs to be personnel that are properly trained to handle the machinery and prevent any unnecessary accidents from occurring.

Projects by heavy civil construction are different since they require specialized equipment and civil engineering capabilities that you cannot find with commercial construction companies. A good example is the use of dredgers. Every construction process stage uses high-quality equipment that ensures the project’s perfection and top-notch quality.Moreover, professionals from every stage of the construction process work as a team even though the construction stages are considered individual contracts.

While most buildings fall under commercial construction, there are some exceptions, such as when there is a need for civil engineering services during construction. For example, you may require civil engineering during the construction of an unusual foundation slope.

5. Work Pace Timelines

Ideally, there is a need to complete every commercial construction project as fast as possible. Partly, the speed of construction is due to the large amount of investment that is required. Speeding up the construction process also helps to improve the expectations of the commercial clients.

Heavy civil construction, on the other hand, takes a long time to design and build. Depending on the project, the timeline may be up to 30 years or longer. Part of the reason is that such projects are built to last several years with minimal wear and tear.

Moreover, the construction pace may be slow since heavy civil companies are very cautious to balance innovations with safety and risk.

6. General Oversight

Commercial construction is always under scrutiny by investors since their money is behind the projects. They always strive to cut costs and speed up the construction process to either rent out or sell the commercial property.

Heavy civil construction mainly falls under the sponsorship of the government or big corporations. Consequently, large projects are likely to fall victim to politicization leading to an increase in oversight and regulatory pressure.

Bottom Line

While both heavy civil construction and commercial construction are part of the same industry, the two sectors are very different. Commercial construction tends to be more profit-driven. Meanwhile, heavy civil construction focuses on infrastructure development for the benefit of the community.

The two have very different timelines, with civil engineering taking the longest construction period due to the project’s heavy nature. While commercial construction projects may have a short timeline, they are very keen on maintaining high safety standards. Therefore, all commercial projects address handicap accessibility, burglar and fire alarms, and egress requirements.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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