Articles & Case Studies

From the Surveyor’s Desk: An Interview With Civil Engineering Pro Mike Douglass

Recently, Zia had the opportunity to interview land surveyor and civil engineering professional Michael Douglass. With decades in the field, Mr. Douglass is the Vice President Survey Project Manager for Smith Engineering based in Roswell, New Mexico. Mr. Douglass offers some key insights into the importance of site photography for land surveying and project management.

Zia Mapper (ZM): Give us an overview of Smith Engineering and your role in the company.

Mike Douglass (MD): We’re a civil engineering firm, so we work mostly on infrastructure projects, streets and utilities, and drainage. We have about 60 employees in three offices in Roswell, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces, New Mexico. I’m in charge of the surveying to support the infrastructure projects, as well as boundary surveys, subdivision work, and ALTA surveys. We have a two-man crew that does most of the surveying, so I’m in the office a lot of the time, but I go out in the field occasionally.


ZM: Once you’ve finished surveying, what deliverables do you bring to your clients when working on a job?

MD: It’s normally a 24″ x 36″ full-size project plan set with construction drawings. Our half-size set, an 11″ x 17″ plan, includes our existing-condition topographic survey and a boundary survey. And then the different construction drawings may be included.


ZM: So, throughout this process, you’re preparing all the final deliverables for the client. What are some of the typical problems you’ve encountered within the workflow?

MD: Sometimes we have experienced issues related to how the design survey is completed and how things are documented. We normally run a GPS base with two rovers, so we have two people actually doing the survey, walking around in different directions collecting field points and typing in the corresponding code. For example, to mark the top of a curb, we type in ‘TC’. This process means you either end up with some overlap or some gaps in the survey. The surveyors try to communicate before they get started, but then as they’re out running around on different sides of the project, it’s difficult to keep talking to each other.

Then all that data is brought into a drawing in the office using CAD technology. What the draftsman is going to see is a dot with the ‘TC’ [top of curb] code. He’ll connect all the TCs from the code and then draw that line as a curb. Some of that can get confusing, so it’s best to either draw sketches or take photos on site to help out the draftsmen so they can see how those dots are supposed to connect.


ZM: What can you tell me about the importance of photographs in civil engineering & surveying?

MD: I use photographs for anything that I could possibly think might be confusing to the draftsman or a designer. Before they came out with camera phones, we’d go pick up a disposable camera to use in the field, but now that you’ve got a camera in your pocket all the time, there’s no reason not to use it for anything that could confuse a draftsman or a client, especially if the site is a ways out of town.

A lot of our projects are 80 miles or more away from our office, so if a draftsman needs clarification, it’s not easy for him to go out to the site and check it out directly. Even when the surveyor is out in the field, the codes he’s typing in may make sense to him as he’s on site, but they won’t necessarily make sense to him once he gets back to the office. Additionally, we often go to multiple projects a day, so sometimes it’s hard to remember what it was I took a picture of or what site I was at.

We also do construction observation, although I don’t personally get involved with much of that. But the field crews on those projects take a ton of photos to document construction progress.


ZM: How do you use photos for documentation purposes, communication purposes, and then creating the deliverable?

MD: A lot of our focus is on documenting what we’re seeing out in the field so that we can better communicate to the designer or draftsman what it is that we’re shooting and what the codes describe. And for the deliverable, sometimes we’ll include photos with an ALTA/NSPS survey (land title survey), so it’s helpful to have very clear documentation of those photos to know which image corresponds to which survey point.


ZM: How would you say technological advancements have impacted the industry?

MD: I’ve been around since before any of this was around, but it just makes it so much easier with the new technology. There are ways to get that information in the field without the new technology, like doing it the “old school” way with a level and a tape measurer and drawing a bunch of sketches, but it takes way more time to complete. It’s possible to survey without it, but it sure is a lot easier having phones and GPS cameras.


ZM: Does your firm have a system in place for project photo management?

MD: No, we don’t. It would be great to be able to manage photos in the field, but we don’t currently have a system in place or any technology that we use to manage project photos. That sounds like a good idea.


ZM: So, how important would you say is the use of mobile apps in the field in the civil engineering industry?

MD: I would say very important.


Finding the Right Tech for Civil Engineering Professionals

When it comes to project management and the organization of site photos, the right technologies save us valuable time. And, in a business as fast-paced and detail-oriented as civil engineering & land surveying, that often means the difference between accurate, high-quality work and subpar deliverables. Whether it’s avoiding duplicate field points or photos, catching important details, or delivering thorough surveys to a client, the right tech can make all the difference.


Thanks to Mr. Douglass for his time and expertise!

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