During an interview for what would be my second position as a party chief, the boss told me, “There is only one way to go around a tree.” He then drew a picture of an equilateral triangle and quickly explained the method of turning 60 degrees off line and going the design distance, then setting up on a nail or other temporary marker. I think you know the rest. I nodded my head and said nothing. I had never seen or heard of that method used, although I’m sure it was valid. While working for him, I never employed his approach, and he never brought it up. I believed there were better ways to go around a tree, depending on the circumstances.street signs

At a previous job, I had learned how one of the party chiefs would actually stake out a scaled version of the desired layout when faced with an obstacle between his setup and the place to set the pin. This was before the hand calculator, and it’s the only time I’ve heard of this method being used. First, he placed a stake on the desired line at, say, half the required distance. Next, he turned off the property line on an angle he knew worked to get around the problem object and then measured out along that line a distance that he guessed would work. He then divided the long distance on that offset line by his chosen factor (.5 in this example). He would then set another point on the offset line at that distance.

After setting up on his offset line at his proportional mark and turning to the mark set at the proportional distance mark on the original line, he would backsight his last setup. Next he’d turn the angle to his point on the desired line and record the angle and distance. Using the measured angle and distance, he then only needed to proportion the distance using his chosen percentage of the desired measure. He knew how to set on the long offset point so he could use his “calculated” angle and distance.

Though this was a smart way to handle the problem, it was never one of my personal choices.

In my early days of surveying, my first party chief showed me his Army Book of Construction Surveying, which said something like, “The best party chief is the one who correctly does the work in the shortest amount of time to the precision required.” That same chief would set a point on the desired line and move the instrument there; turn 90 degrees while on the new point and go about 10 feet and place a nail; go far out on that line of sight, turn up a set of angles and set a backsight. Then the instrument person would set on the offset stake, backsight the far temporary marker, turn up angles, go another 10 feet, etc. This method worked, of course, but all those setups took too much time and effort.

One clever method that I have used was shown to me by an old Missouri land surveyor. We were in a development staking out the new lots, and something was in our way. My boss looked at the plan, made a few subtractions and took us back to our setup point. He told me to set the bearing into the instrument and backsight with that bearing locked on the line. We then turned due north, measured out a distance and placed a nail. On that nail, we set up and backsighted our last setup point, and then turned 90 degrees and measured the other distance he calculated from the coordinates provided on the plan.

As soon as the desired pin was placed, I stopped him and demanded to know what he had just done. The explanation was simple. The steps to learning trigonometry were very short, and a few months later, I was a junior party chief. No calculator, no trig tables; just a pencil and enough base information on his field sheet allowed us to do the stakeout job. Will I ever use this method again? It depends on the circumstances.

Much of what I saw there still remains with me. Along my journey from novice to professional, I learned many things. Some of the simple tools of our trade, like a screwdriver or pliers, may appear rudimentary, but if you need a hammer, pulling out an electric drill instead will have terrible consequences.

With the help of my robot, I am perhaps more mindless in my work now than ever. Something in the way? Just set a point anywhere, locate the point, set on it, and turn and set the desired point. In some ways, I have become the junior party chief to my robot. She tells me what to do, what the elevation is and the cut to write on the stake. She makes very few mistakes and remembers everything.

For a while, I was taking in work from a large engineering firm. One of these projects was an expansion to an existing school in an urban area. I had been there for some time, perhaps several days, when the owner of the company doing the block work approached me. He said I was not like the other guys he typically saw on jobsites. I asked, “What do you mean? How am I different?”

The mason explained that he had been watching me work. He could tell that from time to time, I was stymied by his huge stacks of blocks and he had observed me going around them. In addition to my offsetting, he saw several of the contractors ask me to stake out points for which I was not prepared prior to arriving. Although these were extras, I was being paid by the hour and therefore happy to oblige. Since I was concentrating on my work, I never noticed his watchful eye. He asked for my business card.

This contractor went on to tell me how the party chiefs for some of the large firms only staked out the points the engineers had set up in the office. They put a number on each stake and would at some later time produce a stakeout sheet with the cut/fill amounts. I found this baffling since the party chief should be confident that the written cut/fill on a stake is correct. This is perhaps the last chance to catch an error before the phone call saying it was set at the wrong elevation.

For example, consider a cut mark on a stake for a proposed curb where the road exists and is to be widened. If the cut puts the proposed top of curb well below the pavement, you might think that would be obvious. But with piles of earth, blocks and forms in the way, it may not be easy to see the difference if you take the shot on the edge of pavement. Simply observing the stakeout before leaving a site can prevent costly errors.

My old teacher in Missouri once told me, “If a man says he never makes a mistake, he must not be working.” We all make mistakes. Being closed-minded about alternative solutions shouldn’t be one of them. There is always more than one way to get around obstacles and jobsite problems. Likewise, there are many approaches to the various aspects of our profession.