It’s wonderful that civil engineers get excited about design work. There is a thrill in planning the new shopping center, industrial park, 400 lot subdivision, “Giant Mall” land development, waste treatment facility and a host of others. They enjoy the office environment, calculations of detention ponds, estimating drainage areas, reading the municipal codes, finding new manhole details and so much more. Plus, they feel great going to public meetings and defending designs in front of a room full of people who don’t understand what they see on the plans or those who would like to stop the world from building new subdivisions, now that they are in a new five-bedroom home with a pool and tennis court. 

As a case in point, while I was working on a two-acre lot topo, a woman stopped by and rolled down her car window. She expressed to me that she hoped whatever I was doing was not going to create a subdivision and ruin her country living. It was calming to her when I explained I was only working on the lot I was in front of and that the owner probably wanted to build an addition, landscape, put in walks, or make some driveway changes. As she pulled away, I took the tax map from my pocket and showed my apprentice that the subdivision we were working in, or “her” subdivision, was the one that really ruined the countryside and was surrounded by very large tracts. So often engineers hear arguments of that sort while trying to promote the destruction of the wilderness.

Survey as a Foundation

There was a time when I did lots of that design work because I had to stay in business. Now I prepare boundary and topographic surveys and let civil engineers enjoy the planning work while I enjoy the great outdoors. In one township meeting, a neighbor to the new subdivision was voicing concern and asking, “What about all the deer that live in those woods?” My client said in a loud whisper, “I will kill the deer!” I told him to sit down and stop speaking and let me do the talking. The project went through fine. The neighbor never considered that her house had driven the deer from her subdivision next door.

While working for a Methodist Church camp covering 190 acres, I prepared a land development plan of their new overnight facility building. It was smack in the middle of the large wooded tract. The camp management wanted to construct their new one-story building where a barn once stood. The entire area of disturbance had been graded to build the barn and they had every bit of 15 percent slopes. The Planning Commission pressed if maybe the slopes were greater than 15 percent, and I insisted no. 

When it came to the discussion of installing lamps along the trails, the shocked camp manager said that was just the thing they did not want and kids love having flashlights. It did have to be discussed because it was in the code. The reviewing engineer’s letter kept getting a little longer each meeting because they never removed an item from the review and just stated each item in turn had been dealt with appropriately. 

Feeling I had divine inspiration, I tried to show what 15 percent slopes looked like at the next meeting. At the long table where the township engineer sat, I asked her, “If I measure 10 feet down this table edge and then up one-and-a-half-feet and stretch a string from the end of the table to my one-and-a-half-foot height, would I have a 15 percent slope?” She agreed, and I pulled my string taut. 

Next came a loud interruption by a planning commission member, “That’s a fraud, you are tricking us, that’s not right, I’ve seen plans and it does not look like that at all.” This well-meaning person was employed by a land trust group and mowed lawns, fixed drives, etc. He has seen a 4-by-40 scale profile plan, recalled the slope and thought it was actually a 15 percent slope on the development plan. 

I turned and saw the tape recorder capturing all those accusations and then turned back to the township engineer and said, “What I am showing is correct? Right?” She agreed, but all in all, it did not go well. Leaving the meeting that night and heading to my car, another surveyor chided me about my trickery and deceit, then he expressed what a great idea it was for showing that slope, so people could understand it better. Too bad it went over so badly.

Be Careful What You Say

Back to the aforementioned meeting, while the members of the planning commission were humming over the slopes, I said, “This is not a big building. It’s in the middle of 190 acres, and nobody other than the campers will ever see this building.” Years later, an old transit man called me and asked if I would like to go on a hot air balloon ride with him. The tickets were a gift from his brother. He asked me, and I happily accepted. As the balloon rose up in the sky, I looked down and there was the building from my design. I thought back on my words at the meeting. It was apparent people do see that building because it is a popular balloon route. 

In Pennsylvania, land surveyors can design under their seal if they want to. Of course, understanding how to design land developments and subdivisions is very important for surveyors to know. For that reason, and because it’s on the test, young apprentices are fortunate when they have great courses in which to learn, and hopefully good employers who allow them the opportunity for designing all that goes into development as allowed under a surveyor’s seal in their respective states.

Where I have chosen to prepare the base plans, I feel that what I produce are the canvas upon which architects and engineers can practice their “art.” The good book says a house should be built upon a rock, so it is with engineering work. If the plan is faulty, they are not building on rock, they’re building upon sand. 

Our boundary and topographic survey plan will become their “existing conditions” plan. It will also be the base for most of the other plans in a set. The demolition plan clearly shows what will be removed. The title sheet uses our boundary with their new lot and street lines. The site plan, lighting and landscaping plan, and the general site design plan are built on the information we provided. 

Land surveying is also an art, but the civil engineers paint all over it. Later, we return and prepare as-built survey plans and recreate our beautiful plan once more, all fresh and clean. 

If you were a talented artist of fame and fortune, would you choose cheap materials, paints and canvas if you had the option of starting with the best? When engineers and architects show clients bids from surveyors for base topography, should they encourage the cheap work or the finest? I think it’s in the best interests of architects and engineers to only send a request for bid to those who produce the best work/canvas for them to design from. If your client comes with an existing map from someone you would never allow to bid, are you going to accept it and try to make it work? An accurate and quality survey is the foundation on which you will build your design. Try to never beat the surveyor down on their price or you might encourage them to cut corners.