For soldiers experienced in land surveying, joining the army could lead you to a great job as a forward observer. I was told that the error for an artillery shell in 1970 was plus or minus 500 meters. That would mean that an army surveyor lying in the bush armed with a walkie talkie and maps could be 1,500 feet from the target coordinates he just radioed to the big guns and put himself right in harm’s way.

While in Vietnam, my first party chief worked running control lines at night to avoid the heat of day in the jungle. Imagine being on a tower using a T2 and lights. He sure learned a lot, and brought back his expertise and shared it with me and the other guys at work. Although I probably will never again use an alidade and plane table, he taught me the shape and nature of contour lines in a way I doubt new surveyors today could easily grasp. There is nothing like walking the contours and reading stadia to make pencil marks on Mylar and then to draw the contour lines. Because of his expertise, we were assigned some of the best survey projects the company ever performed.

Those of you who never had the pleasure of learning to use such a nice piece of equipment as the alidade could not understand the beauty of what we were doing back then. You certainly could learn the technique were it not that technology is robbing you of the pleasure. One of these days I plan to teach my employees to set up the transit, level the four thumbscrews, and read the Vernier.

Moving forward to this month, I was asked to prepare a boundary and topographic survey plan on an urban parcel. With a brief look at the tract, it was obvious that there would be many engineering issues for the designers. The existing single house would be demolished and in its place as many townhouses as could be crammed into the site would be proposed.

On my initial site visit I found and located boundary controls. Back in the office I made some preliminary calculations and set up files for the party chief, and researched a possible benchmark. Then I went over the requirements of the field work. When we surveyors have designed land development plans and subdivisions, we will understand what is needed to put together final plans. Once we perform construction stakeout work, we know where our topographic survey plans will lead, and the improvements required to develop lots and commercial sites.

The party chief was told to locate the manhole at the left rear of the site where they will connect the new sanitary lines. There was also a need for topo to the right and left of the site for a distance far enough to calculate standard safe stopping distances (SSSD), and the uphill retaining walls in case they would need to be accounted for in the proposed grading. Using his robot in reflectorless mode, he would locate the surrounding buildings to document their relationship to property lines in case a zoning variance was necessary. And lastly, the roofs of surrounding buildings would be noted so that should they want to build a high rise building, they will have the data to argue the case for why their new building can be so tall.

Land surveyors are the forward observers for the design staff. We could do the minimum, have them digest meager information and then be told, “Go back out in the field and get more locations,” or we can learn to go the extra mile when we first walk out on the site. When a party chief understands what is necessary for preparing building plans, he or she will mentally assess the property and spend the extra half hour in their initial work.

Think of yourself as scouting out the new territory... Realize that many engineers may never walk the site and still they design improvements.

There are architects who ask for proposals, which minimize the survey work and save their clients’ money. That sounds good, except that they charge hourly, and while they are working to get a low survey bid they are charging their client a rate of $100 to $200 an hour to cut our costs. Cutting down our bid by $400 might make them $400 more profit. They mean well for us and for their clients. If we provide the quality plans for their designs, they will continue to allow us to serve their needs and they will advise clients to accept our bids because they know our complete plans are worth more than those of our competitors. After all, they don’t want to have to negotiate the cost of other people’s “extras” to get what is our normal work.

When we are standing on the grassy knoll overlooking the lot we will survey, we can see with experience, we see how a house addition or new building might be constructed, where swales can carry water away from that house, how a new drive might be cut into the grade and where the utilities can be connected. We consider if there is an existing water valve, if sanitary cleanouts already exist, and if there are septic tanks, and possible sink holes and underground tanks. Offering the planner a clear picture of what is happening on the site complete with digital photos makes us worth our salt.

I have prepared bids which allowed for contours and trees within 75 feet of the dwelling. This helps me to have limits for the minimal field work architects might request so as to protect myself from run-on surveys. However, having designed stormwater control features, I may survey much farther downhill so that they have a place to direct stormwater flows to underground or above-ground structures without them asking me to return to the site for added costs. Some might plan on minimal bids in order to secure hourly costs for “extras,” which earn big bucks, but that’s not my style.

For those of you who have little design experience, please start thinking about the construction stakeout you are already doing. You are staking the outfall of stormwater basins so you know designers had to know the existing elevation for the downhill swales or inlets. If the builder told you the approximate location of the new home, then you also know that they would like to have a septic system or sanitary system downhill since wastewater goes downhill. That means you need some contours so pipe runs can be installed with proper cover. Then there are the nearby utility poles, the water valves down the street at the intersection, and those brightly colored AT&T underground utility markers. Just because you did not say you were locating all the good stuff does not mean you can ignore them and still keep your client happy.

Think of yourself as scouting out the new territory. Going solo and using a robot, GPS or scanner, you could be as Lewis or Clark. Realize that many engineers may never walk the site and still they design improvements. If you are a party chief in a company with other crew leaders, then you are being compared to your peers. Do the minimum and you will make them look good.

During the second world war, my father was rushed through college so he could be drafted into the army. In Portland, Ore., they taught his unit the fine art of aerial photogrammetry. Some of those army engineers were shipped out to Manilla to create topographic maps. They were creating topographic documents to aid America in winning the war. Their work was important and had to show all significant features in areas where the military leaders had not gone. From the skies, my father documented the height and breadth of the earth and his unit possibly saved lives. It was there in Manila Dad saw the war end. Afterwards, the local people used those fine maps to wrap bread. So even when we are careful to make our plans the best they can be, not every surveyor’s map is bound for glory forever, but maybe just long enough to win the war.