Over several years, I subcontracted topographic survey work from a large engineering firm. They expected a lot of information on every survey, but were consistent as to the requirements. On one of the first surveys, they asked me: “Where is the detail of the sign?” From then on, I made a detail of existing signs showing their height, width and post dimensions. These people paid well and quickly, but eventually wanted me to work directly for them and so the relationship came to an end.


Article Index:


There were some projects that might be a few hours away and they, like a few other clients, wanted me there because they knew the quality of my work and did not want to hire a local surveyor whose work might not be acceptable. They showed me a plan they ordered from a surveyor that was badly hand-drafted and left them feeling it might not be a good survey. They did not say it was a bad survey;  it looked bad. It was an “aha” moment for me. This company worked for high-end clients and so the appearance of quality was very important.

I like to have field people come in and draft up their work in CAD much like their own dot-to-dot sketch and to do it right away while the memory is fresh. They know what shots were taken, and can take fewer or better locations and have a terrific result. Onsite, we generally also take photographs for drafting use and the party chief who took those photos also knows what site details were important.

This concept of the field person doing the drafting was told to me by a surveyor whose former employer always had an extra party chief and they rotated managing crews. When field work was done, the party chief came inside and drafted up the survey, and the crew went out with another party chief. I’ve worked using old plans by that company and they are very good.


Additional details helpful

While training CAD operators, I have told them to feel free to put in a bit of detail. I believe that if a plan looks complete and is used, say, as a Zoning Hearing Plan, the people at the meeting will feel it is better than a bare-bones drawing. With reflectorless locations on building fronts across the street to show porches and utility poles, one can get a lot of information in only 10 more minutes in the field and the plan broadens in scope by its appearance. Recently, an engineer asked if I could do this, as he knew I had the capability and expressed that it looked good on previous plans. He was not asking for much and it was easy to provide. It also spoke loudly to me that he noticed the details.

On my field sheets, there may be a point designated as BH which stands for birdhouse. Sounds silly? Perhaps, but if in the field it is obvious that the owner is an avid bird lover, they might enjoy the touch. On a free survey for an environmental center, I showed the birdhouses on posts in the fields so the designers would have some fixed objects to rough-measure from to lay out possible improvements. Without them, it was wide open grassland. Even for free, I can see the need to show details to help people use a topographic survey.

This display of odd details can contain temporary items like tall lath. Having these on plans, an architect can go into the field and rough-layout a house for their client by pulling distances from two laths and double chaining in a proposed building corner. If they don’t want them on the final drawing, they can be easily turned off. I am sure to mention to them that the laths exist in case they want to use them. Those laths were specifically placed for the use of architects and builders, and are not protecting my magnetic nails or hubs.

On hand-drafted plans, surveyors were able to show off the art of drafting. I know architects who still hand-draft plans because they like the art in architecture. They still use my CAD drawings for base sheets and add their line work. The use of details can allow us to express ourselves through our plans.

Occasionally, an architect will ask for a detailed plan of a smaller area. On those, I like to go to a 10 scale. Most of my work can be used at 20 scale even if I am forced to draft it at 40 scale due to sheet size. On a 10-scale plan, you can actually scale an inch, so it’s important to know when that precision is desired prior to the start of field work.

A small topo that comes to mind is the survey of an escalator for SEPTA (Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) that had to show the ground or sidewalk level on one sheet and the subway level on another. Although the area was small, drafted using a 10 scale it filled the sheet. As long as I can keep it on a 24-by-36-inch drawing, the architects in this area like the product.


Every inch counts

For an even smaller project done many years ago, the head of surveys sent me on the survey of a hallway. It was a basement-level restaurant in the city and this particular hallway connected the kitchen to the dining area. Customers came down a flight of stairs and turned left, went a few feet, and then down more steps to the seating area. Had they turned right, they would have entered the kitchen. This was an exhibit plan for a lawsuit, and I was not informed as to who ordered the plan. I drafted the work up using an architect scale, and I believe it was a quarter-inch to a foot horizontally and vertically.

What had taken place in the restaurant was an accident. A hard-working waiter was anxious to get the check to a customer and was running fast from the kitchen to the seating area, and instead of taking the stairs one at a time, he leapt forward, skipping the steps entirely. This resulted in him catching his head on the step-down in the hallway ceiling and hitting it so hard his feet swung up to strike the ceiling forward of where his head struck and then he fell flat on his back to the floor. He was permanently and severely injured. It was a simple area, but we tried to show as much detail, including step rise and run, handrails, and the floors and ceilings with elevations using an assumed benchmark.

At the time it was probably better we did not know for whom we were working. I believe the suit was over the design of the hallway ceiling in relationship the top of the steps and was enough distance allowed horizontally from the top of the step to the drop in ceiling height. We were never informed by the attorneys hiring our company as to the outcome of the trial or settlement. I remember thinking that I would have liked to hear comments about our plan, whether it was helpful and why it was good or poor. Unfortunately, with many lawsuits settled out of court, we are not permitted to know the details. It was a case where inches did matter and you could easily scale those inches.


Site-walking reveals hidden features

I am currently working on a seven-acre topographic survey plan of a farm from the 1850s. While walking the site and taking readings, there are many things I came upon that one would not get in an aerial topographic survey plan. There were several lids and manholes of unknown purpose that had I not walked near them would be missed. Ruins existed under brushy growth. The seasonal stream was partly under tall canopy and having many twists and turns with pipes coming into it from unknown origins, and there were several old failed dams. Having walked the site, there were many features added that would not have been seen from above.

One of the pluses in a land surveyor preparing a topographic survey plan is the fact that an experienced eye is involved. Those of us who have been around will see items that require wisdom and judgment to know whether or not they should be included or ignored. Also, in the case of my current project, I found in rubble a failing manhole and alerted the owner to the potential danger to the public so it could be remedied.

I know of many shortcuts using techniques like free contours (with no guarantee) via the Internet, tracing from Internet images, and utilizing trick language like “BOUNDARY SHOWN FROM DEED PLOT” so as to avoid doing real boundary work. As long as I can make a profit, and engineers and architects will allow, I will show my work in the details.


Jeffrey P. Turner, PLS, began his career in surveying in 1971 and became licensed in Pennsylvania in 1987. He was co-owner of a surveying firm for six years before launching his own firm in the Philadelphia region in 1995. He is passionate about leaving footsteps for future generations of surveying professionals. He can be reached at qj57@verizon.net.