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May 1, 2004
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Surveying on the construction site.

Numerous surveying companies perform construction survey services. A small number of educational programs are available that focus on this important subject. Some of you may remember that POB magazine sponsored numerous seminars nationwide centering on construction surveying in the 1990s. Many of the topics taught in those seminars are still quite relevant, perhaps even more significant today than when they were first presented. Since construction surveying is such an important part of many surveying businesses, let's review some construction issues.

The Differences of Construction Surveying

One of the main differences between construction surveying and other types of surveying is the increased liability. But there are ways to control liability. The No. 1 issue that makes construction different from boundary work is the interaction among surveyors and the other companies on the construction site. When doing boundary surveys, a surveyor is often the only person present and decisions made only affect his or her work. On a construction site, every decision made by a surveyor af-fects several other people working on the site. Faulty decisions can result in verbal or legal conflict, or even litigation during or after the completion of the project.

A major problem for the surveyor on the construction site is being dependent on data supplied by others for construction layout. This is a growing concern of construction surveyors. A surveyor may be supplied with a digital terrain model to be used for developing grades for construction. But, is the surveyor being paid to provide this service, or is the service expected as part of the job?

Another area of great concern is employee safety. A highway improvement project constructed while under traffic can be a dangerous place as we all know. Federal governmental records show that an increasing number of workers with the designation of surveyor or engineer are killed each year nationwide. And this does not take injured workers into account. The best way to address these issues is with a written contract. Contracts can clarify the services expected of the surveyors and can protect employees on a construction site.

When conducting POB seminars, I used to ask attendees what the most important issue was of having a contract. Getting paid was always the most prominent answer I got. But the correct answer, at least in my view, is to have a comprehensive scope of work. It is so important to have a well-written scope of services that lays out-in detail-the role and services to be performed by the surveyor on the construction project site. Included in this contract should be specifics of when the surveyor will get paid and according to what terms, and detailed guidelines regarding safety and liability issues.

Contracts for construction work can be a surveyor's best friend. I find it useful to collect copies of contracts I come across and utilize their best points. Another idea is to have an attorney review or prepare a standards contract for construction surveying, including the laws revolving around construction, which can vary from state to state.

Another important issue related to the liability of the surveyor on the construction site regards the equipment owned and operated. Many surveyors don't check (on a regular basis) to make sure their equipment is performing according to the standards as outlined by the equipment's manufacturer. The client often expects the professional surveyor to bring equipment to the project site that will result in work of high quality and dependability. It is wise for companies to design a set of procedures for field checking equipment monthly or any time a new construction project is started.

It is wise for companies to design a set of procedures for field checking equipment monthly or any time a new construction project is started.

Challenges Facing the Construction Surveyor

One of the changes faced by many companies providing construction services is keeping up on the available new technology. Today surveyors not only use total stations and data collectors to provide services, but also utilize other newer technologies, including GPS and laser instruments. Some of these newer technologies can be a great step forward for a surveying company performing construction surveys. Some equipment allows surveyors to provide services with fewer employees and most equipment provides for increased accuracy. While improved speed and accuracy can be an asset, one of the problems I see with newer technology is that cost-savings are passed along to the client without the company being able to recover the cost of the equipment. Some of the new technology is quite expensive, but clients still only want to pay hourly rates for crew work based on salary and some overhead. How do we recover the cost of this highly efficient equipment? This is one challenge facing surveyors: charging appropriately for office work and the data preparation that gets the construction project ready for field work.

Another challenge is to provide training to field crews that operate new technology. Not many years ago, a fellow surveyor and I provided training to young field crew members. We presented material we felt appropriate for their skill level. When we got little response from them, we asked them what areas they were curious about. One young man told us that he did a lot of construction stakeout with a total station and a data collector. He used these things provided by the office in the data collector called coordinates. He wanted to know more about these things called coordinates and how they worked. Needless to say, we backed up a number of levels in our training to explain things for these young surveyors. Are you guilty of sending employees to the jobsite who are only button pushers, who don't have the math skills to be able to calculate an independent check in the field?

There is a lot of opportunity for surveyors in the construction arena. And there is a lot happening in the area of new equipment for construction jobs. It is important for surveyors working on construction sites to be safe, work from an agreed upon scope of services, keep updated on new equipment and technology, and properly train employees on the ins and outs of surveying basics. In a future column I will review some of these new equipment options.

Important items to include in a construction contract:

  • Outline terms of payment including penalties for late payment.
  • Specify that services may be halted if payment is delinquent by more than 60 days.
  • Specify that destroyed construction stakes will be charged to the client.
  • Specify the right to remove employees from the construction site until safety issues are corrected.
  • Specify the right to not cross picket lines on a site that is undergoing a union strike.

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