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Construction Layout Duplicity – Lessons Learned

I can remember it like it was yesterday.

1992. The Kennedy Expressway. The inbound lanes between Logan Boulevard & Fullerton Avenue.

George Bartishell was Consoer, Townsend & Associates survey crew chief where I worked. We were in the field office and George came up to my desk.

“Hey Bob, have you done any surveying before?”

“A little bit on the I-355 tollway project” I told him.

“Good. Come on with Dave & I” George said.

Dave Miketinas was another surveyor on our crew. The 3 of us headed out to the Kennedy Expressway to layout pavement. I had never done anything like layout before, but it was time for this 20-something young, energetic civil engineer to be baptized.

Little did I know that the skills that I learned working with George & Dave would be the start of an entire section of my resume.

I have spent a good portion of my construction & engineering crew behind a survey instrument. I have run my own survey crews. I have done tons of level work. I even laid out an entire strip mall complex by myself with a robotic total station.

It is a tough living. It’s not just physically taxing on your body, but it is even tougher on your mind.

The stress that surveyors & construction layout technicians have to deal with on a daily basis can be excruciating.

You have to be right. All the time. You can’t miss. Your layout needs to be accurate sometimes to the 0.01 ft in 3 dimensions. The guys building the projects from your layout expect you to be precise. And they want the layout 2 hours ago….

It is not a job for the faint-at-heart.

I’ve lived the life of a survey crew chief. While I loved the physical nature of the work, the ability to look at a site and actually see my or our crew’s work living as lath & flagging & hubs, PK nails & cross-cuts, I did not enjoy the pressure. The pressure of having to be right every single time. It is a lot to bear for 1 person.

But that is the life of a surveyor.

I believe that the construction layout crew has the toughest, most-stressful job on the site. You can debate me and tell me that tradesmen have a tougher job. Or that they get beat up much more than engineering tech’s do. I’ll tell you this much: I’d much rather be behind the controls of a Bobcat, or in the bottom of a trench setting storm sewer, because at the end of the day, the day is over. If you are a surveyor, the work is always in the back of your mind….

 

 

I wanted to start this article by laying some groundwork for this post-mortem look at construction layout. I needed you, the reader, to be able to capture the weight of what surveyors on construction projects feel. When things are going right, layout is a ton of fun and a great way to earn a living. But when things go sideways and stuff is laid out in the wrong place, sleepless nights are born.

I wanted to share the story of one of those sleepless nights. I slept OK that night, but I don’t know if Larry did….

Let’s Head Back Bensenville, Illinois

In a couple of previous articles, I chronicled some of our crew’s goings-on in Bensenville, Illinois where we were involved with constructing a 2 track railroad bridge for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. All-in-all, it was a good job to work on. I think that everyone involved with the project was happy at the results despite the numerous schedule delays that we experienced.

For the most-part, the structure was not very complex. Although we had challenges with much of the abutment piling (CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE), erection & installation of the structural steel went without a hitch.

I credit much of that to one of the specifications that the designer included that required the Contractor to pre-assemble the structure prior to its delivery. If you want the parts of a bridge to fit together before you start to build it, the best way to accomplish that is to put it together before you ship it.

The Center Pier

In addition to the abutments, we needed to construct a center pier. The work zone was pretty tight: We shifted traffic on either side of the pier. Irving Park Road’s vertical profile would ultimately be lowered by about 3 feet from where initially was, so the excavation for the piling & footing created a pretty deep excavation that required shoring.

Despite the tight access to the work area for equipment & materials, getting the soldier piles & lagging was time-consuming, but the Contractor got the excavation completed. The next step: Piling.

Meet Larry

I first met Larry, the Contractor’s surveyor, I had already heard great things about him from the Contractor’s project manager. He had raved about Larry’s work, how conscientious he was about his layout, and how he had circumvented numerous problems on the last project they worked on together. Larry was a keeper, which was the reason why he was on our project.

So first impressions are lasting ones. When I met Larry on the site, he was in full layout mode: Survey pouches on, backwards hardhat with a railroader’s bandana on head. It was 730am and he was already in a flop sweat. A hard working guy by every stretch. I could tell in a couple minutes that Larry was Good-to-Go.

How Construction Layout is Performed

In this article’s opening story, I told a quick story about the Kennedy Expressway. That was back in 1992, and at that time, the layout of the construction work fell on the hands of the Resident Engineer and his crew. As time passed, most agencies shifted the responsibility of physically laying out the job onto the Contractors, leaving the Resident to be responsible for just checking the Contractor’s layout.

I have always had mixed emotions about this. While the shift in responsibility ultimately brought with it a shift in the respective liability from the Resident to the Contractor, it took away a front-line diligence of the Resident needing to have a solid grasp on how the job was fitting together. When you do the layout, you know where things are, and you are in a position of being the “First Responder” to problems. Checking layout is much different than providing layout.

Layout requires a three-pronged attack:

1. Calculate the points that need to be laid-out

2. Physically layout the points

3. Re-check, or cross-check, or have someone else check your layout to see that it works

In government construction contracts, the Contractor performs #1 & #2. He also (if he’s good & conscientious…) with do #3 himself, but the Resident Engineer’s crew will also perform #3 to confirm that the layout is correct.

You may be surprised to hear me say this: The hardest task of those three is NOT physically laying out the points but calculating the points. It is time consuming. It is often-times done by the surveyor by hand on his lap in the front seat of his truck. It is sometimes done by a person in the surveyor’s home office who is calculating & developing the point files for the survey crew to layout. There are checks & balances in the system MOST of the time.

But sometimes, the surveyor is put under duress. Time is of the essence. Equipment & labor forces are standing idle, waiting for layout. The surveyor might be in his truck, using a calculator & a magnifying glass, trying to read reduced-sized copies of the prints. The clock is ticking. Money is being spent. And the surveyor holds all the cards.

I can’t stress it enough: Being the guy in-charge of the layout can really take a toll on you….

Back to the Center Pier

After the Contractor finished with the excavation, Larry laid out the offset marks for the pier’s footing & piling lines. Our survey crew came behind Larry and shot his marks. Just another day at the office.

That afternoon, our surveyor, Dave, swings into the office. He explains that, well, something isn’t checking. He ran his numbers in his truck by hand and wondered if I could jump onto Microstation and see if I could pull some lines & offsets as a check.


I remember spending a couple hours working with the electronic files. I remember having to do some correlation work between the bridge plans & the roadway plans. The designer had often switched the layout information between the railroad & roadway alignments, so there were occasional encumbrances that this back-and-forth caused.

When it was all said-and-done, I plotted what I believed to be the layout offsets for the pier’s footing. And what I found had me rattled.

I told Dave, our surveyor, that I was missing Larry’s points by, like, 11″. That never happens, Larry is always spot-on. And Dave was getting the same numbers: 0.88′ to the west.

Now I’ll give you a little secret into the way my brain works: When something is wrong, I almost always assume that I’m the one who’s wrong. Catholic guilt? Anal retention? Some sort of psychosis? I wish I knew what makes that happen….

I thought I must have something wrong. But then that would mean that Dave would have too?

I stayed in the office for a couple extra hours that night, re-running the numbers.

The next morning, Dave was on vacation and Joe, one of our other surveyors was on site. I gave Joe the scoop and asked him to come at the layout check from another angle, shot the layout points and see if his shots were matching Dave’s from last week.

About 2 hours later I got a call from Joe: Yup, same answer. I’m hitting Dave’s numbers the same.

I can’t find it. Something’s not adding up. I had to elevate the issue.

I called the Contractor’s project manager and reported what we were finding. I told him that I would be totally happy if we were all wrong and that Larry had it right. But if he could let Larry know that it might be good for him to do a double-check, then at least we could find where our bust was.

And oh, by the way, the Contractor was planning on starting pile driving tomorrow….

The Phone Call

There isn’t a surveyor who wants to get “The Phone Call.” It’s the call that makes your heart palpitate.

As a surveyor, when you leave the site, after getting your layout points in, you are onto your next task. You aren’t looking backwards, you have too many other tasks to get to.

When the call comes in from the field reporting that something with the layout doesn’t seem right, your world turns upside down.

What did I miss? Did my control point get disturbed? Instrument calibration? Did my rodman have the backsight set up correctly? Did I double check my offsets? How did I run my calcs? Did they build anything yet? Are the guys standing around waiting?

It is un-nerving.

I followed-up with an email to the Contractor’s PM. I had to formalize the potential issue. The next morning, he sent an email to Larry:

You don’t even need to actually be Larry to feel the gravity of that request….

So After Some Digging….

I got a phone call from Larry. I don’t remember if it was late Monday night or very early Tuesday morning. And the exact details that we discussed didn’t matter. What I remember was the outcome.

Larry and one of his engineer’s re-ran their numbers. They found the problem: They had to make some corrections to how the layout points were calculated. Larry already had his new points calculated and he would be getting them re-laid out.

He got them laid out. We checked them. We were within 0.02 ft of each other.

Phew.

As much as I don’t recall the specifics of that phone call, I remember Larry thanking me. And it wasn’t the run-of-the-mill “Thank You” like you say to a clerk in a store to be polite. It was a heart-felt, from-the-pit-of-the-soul “Thank You.” That “Thank You” came from a deep place from Larry’s soul. It was the kind of “Thank You” that, now, 3 years later, I still remember and that I won’t forget.

Stepping back, anyone who here’s this story can appreciate the outcome. A problem was averted. Nobody needed to be patted on the back, no parades with circus animals & marching bands. And nobody needed to be called-out, blamed for a problem, or be made to feel like the job was going to spiral out of control because of it. This was simply professional people working together to solve a problem. No strings attached. No egos to check. No arguments or accusations to be had. Problem. Solution. Solved.

Lessons Learned

This article has been one that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It is a great example of collaborative effort.

A lot of what is going on in the industry today doesn’t run like this. I work with so many people, companies, contractors, suppliers who are afraid of being wrong, afraid of taking responsibility, afraid of admitting that they made a mistake.

I’m growing sick of it. I don’t work that way, regardless of the tenor of the job or the industry.

Say what you believe in. Admit when you are wrong. Help a man when he needs help, regardless of what side of the contract you are on. A man’s handshake, in my world, still means something. Be trustworthy.

Let me run through some notables that we can all glean from this story:

1. Back Checks are Essential

Do you know why traffic signals have multiple lights? When one light is out, there are others that are working. That’s “duplicity” in action.

Construction layout depends on having more than one person, crew or entity involved. To depend on a single source of information is to run the risk of having that single source be wrong. And in construction, wrong means $$$.

Any good contractor & any good Resident Engineer appreciate the need for comparative checks of the work. Humans are imperfect creatures. Unfortunately, the contractual clause that lawyers write & expect us to follow don’t allow for anyone to be wrong, lest there be consequences. As construction engineers, our job is to do our best to eliminate & avoid things being wrong.

As an RE, you need to establish a high expectation for back checks. The Contractor’s layout needs to be checked. Sure, you could find the contract clauses that make the Contractor 100% responsible for his work. And those clauses are enforceable. But when things go sideways and work is installed in the wrong location, everyone near the fan gets shit sprayed on him.

It’s pretty rare when Contractor’s don’t want their work checked. Most guys appreciate the 2nd look at their layout. Here’s the takeaway: If you’re not implementing it already, make survey back-checks Standard Operating Procedure for your crew.

2. Demand the Control Points are Compared

When it comes to control points & benchmarks, one of my tenets is to ALWAYS run independent control point checks and compare them with the Contractor’s surveyor. NEVER assume the control points & benchmarks are 100% correct. Do you own control loops and check them for yourself.

It is inevitable that you find out that some of your control points & benchmarks don’t close when looped. Control points get hit. They get damaged. Utility companies tear them out on accident. There is time that passes between the time the job’s designer did his topo survey and when you started construction.

Your survey crew needs to run its own, independent control point checks. Then, you need to do an independent comparison with the Contractor’s surveyor’s measurements of common points.

Write this down: NEVER blindly “just give” your control point data to the Contractor. ALWAYS compare your data with him.

I write that directive, not from a point of being a jerk, it is simply to maintain data integrity. Surveyors have gotten pissed at me for being “so selfish” with my/our data. You know what: Tough Shit. Go ahead and call me an asshole, I don’t much care about you getting your feelings hurt because you have to do some work instead of me just giving you my answer key to the questions on the quiz….

I want to compare my data with the plan data. I want to compare the points with the Contractor’s data. I don’t want to assume that your data is right, and I don’t want you to just take my data and apply it. We always want to make sure that we are all working from a similar, comparable control point system.

On my projects, I’ve made it a habit of running the cross-comparisons. This is an easy check. It validates duplicity between survey crews. It’s performed independently. It maintains the theory of checks & balances. You never have to worry about layout points not checking because of control point differences.

3. Drop Everything and Help Your Surveyors

As I hope I have emphasized throughout this article, construction layout is a pressure cooker. The layout crews are constantly under duress. They are pushed by the Contractor. They are pushed by their home offices. They have to hit the beach-head running.

Support the surveyors at all costs. Drop what you are doing and help them when they need it.

I am a rare breed: There aren’t a lot of construction engineers who have worked on both as management / technical engineers AND muddy-booted grunts. I have a unique perspective in being able to proficiently use Microstation, survey equipment AND still be a technical engineer & administrator. It is from that perspective that I understand how much goes into preparing a survey crew for layout work.

While your acumen may not have the depth as mine, you need to be able to pool & use the resources that you have available to you to get issues resolved. When your surveyors need help, use all of your tools to jump into the foxhole and help the team. When you can apply your personal knowledge & efforts, do it. And when you are over your skis, get the questions answered. Don’t leave the survey crew to fend for themselves – Run towards the proverbial gunfire and get the problem solved.

4. Don’t be the Asshole Surveyor….

I have worked with some outstanding surveyors in my day. When your surveyors are getting the layout points in the right place on a consistent basis, it’s like a weight off your shoulders. Great survey crews will keep you and your project out of harm’s way more times than you will ever realize.

But, for every 100 great surveyors, there are always a few assholes. I’ve worked with them. Straight-up, down-right classic assholes.

For whatever reason, surveyors can be very off-putting. Some guys don’t want their work checked. THEY ARE RIGHT. They are ALWAYS RIGHT. They’ve been doing this for 70 years, using chains & railroad spikes before you knew where Sesame Street was. They are never wrong. So listen here, lad, now, you just take your new-fangled GPS Total Station bullshit back to your office and let me handle this.

Shit you not: I’ve been stuck dealing with assholes survey crew chiefs. And like I’ve said many times over – I don’t deal well with assholes.

Don’t be that guy. Please. Please. Do yourself a favor. Nobody likes to work with assholes. There is a lot at stake (no pun intended). There are people who want to build the project right. They want to make sure things are in the right place. I’m not here to make you make you look like you don’t know what you are doing because I’m sure you do. I just want to help get it as right as we can. We are here to help if we can. Use our expertise to your advantage.

Some surveyors have this knee-jerk reaction: My layout is right. You must be doing something wrong. Let me tell you: That’s the Kiss of Death.

Believe me: You want to be an asshole? You’d rather I not back-check your work, Mr. I Don’t Make Mistakes? Okeedokee. Good luck to you. Hope you get everything in the right place today, because if it’s not, well I guess the Contractor who is paying your bills will be spending money to rip things out and do them again. I don’t have time nor inclination to deal with assholes in my life anymore. I guess you’re on your own, pal. Don’t screw it up…

Nobody wants to work this way. I sure don’t. And the majority of surveyors I’ve worked with don’t. If I find something wrong, all I want to do is get it fixed. And if I’m wrong, tell me. I’d rather me be wrong than you. But just know that they are out there.

And this leads to my last point:

5. Put Your Ego Aside

The reason I wanted to tell the story of Larry and this situation was because of the carry-over its theme has in so many spheres.

If you can put your own ego in check, listen to those around, and work towards a common solution, your world will be a lot more enjoyable.

Larry didn’t have an ego. Larry wasn’t upset when we asked him to double-check his numbers. Larry wanted everything right just like we wanted it right. Larry knew that we weren’t challenge his integrity. Or his skill set. Or his expertise. Larry acknowledged that a mistake can happen to any of us, and that all we want to do is get things right.

What if Larry was an asshole? Would I have responded differently to the problem?

Probably not. I’d have done the right thing. I’d have still let the Contractor’s PM know there was a problem.

But would I have gone the extra mile? Would I have forgone seeing one of my son’s baseball games so I could stay late in the office trying to help him? I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.

The story had a happy ending. And I attribute it to a bunch of guys who had the right mindset just wanting to do a good job. Nobody was out to prove anything. No one got an A+ and the other guy got a F. Collaborative effort in action.

Close-Out

In summary, we all have to remind ourselves that the surveyors have a very tough job. Never take them for granted. Always support them. Check them. Lend them a hand, both physically & technically, when they need help. Offer to get in the field with them and to work with them. Learn the trade for yourself. Don’t be bashful. Get behind the instrument. Pound stakes. Learn how to layout line & grade. Expand your skills. Every day, strive to be one step closer to mastery.

Get after it!

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