Point of Beginning

Learning What Works

November 1, 2004
Robotic technology and good communication help to build a school in rural Connecticut.

Since GPS wasn't a viable option for the layout of this elementary school site, site contractor Dalling Construction called on land planner Spath-Bjorklund to apply robotic technology for its layout phase.
In the quaint, quiet town of Easton in Fairfield County, Conn., surveyors and contractors are learning what works to build a large-scale school facility.

The construction of Easton Elementary is part of a 103-acre site the town of Easton acquired several years ago. The town has experienced a shortage of classrooms, and is striving to better serve its students' needs. "Easton is a rapidly growing town," says Dave Bjorklund Jr., PE, president of Spath-Bjorklund Associates Inc. in Monroe, the surveying/land planning company on the project. "There's not a community in Fairfield County that hasn't built a new school, and some have built two and three new schools. We've probably done five in the last five years."

In 2000, Spath-Bjorklund Associates performed a boundary and topographic survey of the site, subdivided the area and obtained approvals for building. They were called back to the site earlier this year by Dalling Construction of Stratford, the contractor on the project, to lay out base lines and provide coordinate files-not so different from other projects. But Rich Dalling, the company's vice president, had another angle for the project: he asked Spath-Bjorklund to help his field staff to transition into a robotic layout of the site.

"What was a little different about this [project] was when Rich"¦ was considering automating the stakeout services and he was considering either going with robotics or putting a GPS receiver on some of his equipment to handle the grading," Bjorklund says. "I can't say we swayed him, but because we'd already been using robotics for several years, Jason [Spath, chief of surveys] and I were really high on it and said "˜Boy, if you could take our experience with robotics and transfer it to your field guys"¦' we thought that would be the way to go. He'd already been talking with [local dealer] Superior Instrument [about robotic instrumentation]."

Although Spath-Bjorklund has five GPS units and a great deal of knowledge about GPS technology, it was not the appropriate instrumentation for the Easton school project. The accuracy obtained with GPS was not acceptable for the project, and the particular area of Connecticut has dense leaf coverage for six months out of the year, which interferes with signal lock.

Bjorklund says the company hadn't trained a contractor on robots before. "If there was a catch basin to be staked out, we would stake it out," Bjorklund says. "What we developed here is we said "˜Ok, we'll lay out the base lines [and] we'll give you a coordinate file and we'll provide the checks that you're going to need, but if you can get your equipment and get your guys on-board [then] we'll give you a hand getting them on-board [and] you should be able to do the stakeout yourself."

Robotics to the Rescue

Rich Dalling had gone to the right guys. With five years of experience with robotics, Spath-Bjorklund understands the technology and knows its benefits. "Our Fairfield office initially does a lot of plot plans in heavy residential areas, and we just thought that robotics would work well," Bjorklund says. "It's been real hard to find good help in the last five years. We [thought] that if we could field a one-man crew with a robotic gun, it would help in our "˜help crunch.' We've gone from a three-man crew to a two-man crew in the last 25 years to a one-man crew. We found that in the right situation, [the robotic unit] really was an asset and it really did work well. We just started acquiring more of them."

The Easton Elementary school site covers approximately 20 acres and consists of an 82,600 sq ft building, access roads and athletic fields. In April, Spath-Bjorklund crews headed out to the site with their robotic total stations-two Topcon (Pleasanton, Calif.) GTS-815A units and one 802A unit. Along with staff members from local dealer Superior Instrument in Milldale, they provided training on the instruments to Dalling employees.

"They [Dalling crewmembers] usually do 90-degree angles," Spath says. "We basically were showing them how to use the [data] collector as well as the robotic instruments. With robotics, [users] have more knowledge. You need somebody out there that knows what he's doing. We can train somebody new in about a week's time."

On the Easton school project, that person is Jimmy Kurtz, Dalling Construction's foreman. Kurtz has worked some with conventional total stations in the past, but says he isn't very seasoned. "Once you remember how to do it, it's a piece of cake," Kurtz says, adding that the advantage of a one-man crew saves time. "What used to take a week, [now] takes one guy two hours."

Once ramped up, Dalling bought its own Topcon robotic unit, a GTS-825A, for the project. Kurtz's experience with the robotic unit is rudimentary compared to many seasoned surveyors, but it's made a mark on him and Rich Dalling. Dalling puts it simply: "It's a definite time-saver in the layout end of it." Kurtz hopes to learn more of the instrument's features when he has time. "I'm not fully capable on it yet," he says. "I don't know how to use the offsets program yet. I'm still learning, but I'm very impressed. It's a good product."

Kurtz, who uses the instrument on a daily basis to check points, claims it proves accurate most every time it is used. "They [Spath-Bjorklund] put a bunch of stakes out here initially," he says. "This job is so open, I can set up on the same point every day and I can see everything. I just go to some point that they set up, I just double check to make sure I hit those as I always do, [and] every day I hit them right to a quarter of an inch. I put my point in and then before I shut my machine off, I just go back to one of their points that was already known, a good point that was already put in, and it always checks out. We're trying a new thing. As far as I'm concerned, it's the greatest thing we've bought."

Proving to be a "definite time-saver," to Dalling Construction, the company transitioned into a robotic layout of the vast school project site with a Topcon GTS 815-A robotic total station.

Communication is the Key

The cooperation between Spath-Bjorklund and Dalling has proven strong in regard to stakeout services, and the application of the appropriate instrumentation and technology. Another strong element between the two companies is that of effective, ongoing communication. Many construction projects are plagued by inefficient communication between the contractor, site contractor and the surveyor. On the Easton school project, the coordination between project managers Turner Construction, Dalling Construction and Spath-Bjorklund has been an example in good business practice.

"There have not been any major problems," Spath says. "It is, for this office, a very straightforward stakeout job. With Dalling handling the day-to-day stakeout, the panic phone calls for survey crews to provide or replace stakes have been eliminated."

Spath-Bjorklund, in its 27th year of business, has worked with two generations of the Dalling family on a variety of road and site projects; each party has a good understanding of how the other manages projects.

"They've been very understanding with us," Spath says. "It is a very busy time for everybody. They've never called and expected something the same day. They'll call a few days in advance or sometimes even a week in advance, and say "˜in the next five days we're going to need some information. We'd like to get some coordinate values on drainage structures so we can stake them out.' We would set it up and either transfer data to them if they were staking it and give them printouts of what we set out and what everything is. Or we would be using it for ourselves if we're going out to help them if they were in a crunch. When they get to the end of a deadline, they'll ask us to help them stake out"¦"

Bjorklund commends Dalling's planning steps on projects. "We let all of our clients know that we hold scheduling meetings every Monday morning and that we set up work for the week and sometimes the following week," Bjorklund says. "Dalling gets that. They've been good at looking forward."

In addition to appropriate instrumentation and training, communication between Dalling and Spath-Bjorklund has been a driving force behind the successful progression of the Easton school project.

Giving Away the Shop?

Spath and Bjorklund aren't worried about the possibility of losing business to contractors-like Dalling-because of the training they've provided field crews on robotic technology. They simply know their business-and the laws of the state.

"Are we providing some services? We are," Bjorklund says in reference to training Kurtz on the robotic technology. "But there's lots of room out there for everybody. As I said, help has been such a problem. Out of this office, we field three crews. Every Monday they've got two weeks of work in front of them. The fact that Dalling put his own people on-board [means that] we can provide better service to our other clients. It's where the future is. I'm sure others would say I'm giving the shop away."

"Specifically with Dalling, their layout person understands that we're still the surveying company [on the project]," Spath says. "They have no intention of trying to do it all on their own. And they can't. Most projects need a licensed land surveyor on board. For construction companies to go out and hire that person, it's not always feasible."

Lessons for Tomorrow

While Easton remains a quiet and rural residential town, it grows increasingly progressive thanks to the work of area surveyors and contractors who have learned what works to build tomorrow's schools. Next September, students of Easton Elementary will begin school at a new facility. They may never know how "robots," good communication and progressive business practices helped build their school, but their school will stand as an example of what works and they'll reap the benefits just the same.