The ecosystem engineering concept focuses on how organisms physically change the abiotic environment and how this feeds back to the biota. While the concept was formally introduced a little more than 10 years ago, the underpinning of the concept can be traced back to more than a century to the early work of Darwin. The formal application of the idea is yielding new insights into the role of species in ecosystems and many other areas of basic and applied ecology. Here we focus on how temporal, spatial and organizational scales usefully inform the roles played by ecosystem engineers and their incorporation into broader ecological contexts. Two particular, distinguishing features of ecosystem engineers are that they affect the physical space in which other species live and their direct effects can last longer than the lifetime of the organism – engineering can in essence outlive the engineer. Together, these factors identify critical considerations that need to be included in models, experimental and observational work. The ecosystem engineering concept holds particular promise in the area of ecological applications, where influence over abiotic variables and their consequent effects on biotic communities may facilitate ecological restoration and counterbalance anthropogenic influences.