Sunday , 23 October 2016

Measured survey – how to measure a building


For my day job recently I have been carrying out a lot of measured surveys – measuring buildings and drawing up the plans, elevations and sections. This is something that we touched on briefly during my course at unit but now a few years down the line and with a fair few surveys under my belt I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt with you.


The kit

Firstly there are a few essential items you need when you carry out a measured survey.


I tend to use an A3 sized clipboard if it is a large building, and a smaller A4 if it is a small building. Use what works best for you, obviously the larger paper you use, the easier it will be to get all your measurements down without getting into a total mess.


Lots of paper!! Don’t underestimate how much paper you might need. Sometimes you may draw a general layout, but need another few pages for things like column positions, elevations, services etc

Pens and Pencils

I always make sure I have a good selection of pens and pencils on a survey. I have started using one of those three colour pens now which is really helpful – more on that later.

How to measure buildings

Laser measure

In an ideal world you need to get yourself a laser measure. I don’t know how I would have done half of my surveys without one. They are super simple to use and really accurate. They save so much time as well.

Don’t forget spare batteries too!

Tape measure

Sometimes you just need an old fashioned tape measure. Moreover, if you don’t have a laser measure then you will need to make sure you have all sorts of suitable tape measure equipment.

How to measure buildings


Totally invaluable for a site survey – make sure you have a reasonable camera with full charge.

Site Gear

Depending on the site, you may need your hard hat, high visibility jacket and site boots.

Before the survey:

Before even going to site, try and find out as much about the building as you can. Check out google maps to get an idea of shape, orientation, street view etc. In some cases you can almost sketch out the building before you even arrive on site. Its nice to arrive to do a survey with a bit of familiarity.

It is also important to know why you are measuring the building, as this will determine how detailed your final drawings will need to be. Are you only required to draw plans? Or will you need elevations and sections? Is the drawing for internal renovations, external extension? Is it for planning permission, construction? Will you require visuals? If so good photographs will be important.

The process:


The first thing I do when I arrive I site to do a measured survey is have a look around the entire building first, so you can get a feel for the layout, where the rooms are, stairwells, etc. This is helpful for when you start to draw out the building.


Depending on the size of the building you are surveying, you may want to break it up into sections, so each page you have a section, so that you can draw it out at a large enough scale to add your measurements/dimensions. You can either draw each section as you go – draw, measure, next area, draw, measure, next area etc. Or you can draw out the whole building then go round and take your measurements. Whatever works for you.

If you only have a tape measure, it is usually best if there are two of you, but you can do it alone, it will just take a bit longer. With a laser however, it is pretty easy to get everything measured alone.

I don’t tend to draw a huge amount of detail as generally it doesn’t really add anything. Here are a few of my drawings. Not the neatest in the world, but I can generally make sense of them!

A tip on drawing, I use a three colour pen to draw out my surveys. I use one colour for general drawing and measurements, then another colour for window details (cill height, head height), and finally another colour for all heights and levels – ceiling heights, floor levels, steps etc. This is really useful when you are back at your desk trying to figure out what the random numbers are floating around on your drawing.



Start your measuring in one corner of the room and work your way around in a clockwise/anticlockwise direction. This way you won’t miss anything. It is also wise to take a few diagonal measurements to help with accuracy.

Take your measurements at a height where you will pick up the features like windows and doors. It is helpful to take running measurements, along with a full measurement of each wall. Running dimensions mean that there is less chance of making mistakes. It may be more time consuming on site, but I always try and take as many measurements as possible, I would rather spend an extra hour on site doing this, than having to go back again the next day when I realise I have missed vital dimensions.

Don’t forget to measure ceiling heights, and if possible pick up the floor thickness (usually possible to do in a stair area), which will help with elevations and sections. Make a note of wall thicknesses, which will vary internally and externally.

Roof measurements:

Finding roof heights and details can be difficult and is very dependent on the building. Here are a few tips on how to measure the roof height. If possible it is best to have a disto/laser measure when taking dimensions for roofs.

Externally, try to take a floor to underside of eaves measurement. In addition to this, if the building has a gable, try to take a floor to underside of ridge measurement too. This can be hard in daylight with the laser, but persevere!

Next, if the building is brick built or has a uniform facade (regular stonework, blockwork etc), take flat good photographs, and use these to count bricks/block and then work out distances from there.

Internally, make sure you are thorough with your floor to floor, floor to ceiling measurements. If you can gain loft access this is ideal – you can then get underside of ridge measurement from the top of the ceiling joists, and take measurements of the rafters etc. With this information you will be able to work out the approximate height of the roof, and consequently the angle.

Hipped roofs are more tricky, but often come together when you have floor areas, eaves heights and internal measurements from the loft access.


Usually after measuring either a room/area I then photograph the entire room – focusing on any difficult or complicated areas. I tend to take far too many photos but I’m sure it pays off. It is always a great help when you are back at your desk trying to draw up the scribbles!


Sketch out the elevations and measure key features to help you. If you are using a laser measure, try and measure the eaves and if possible ridge height. If the ground level varies, take a constant feature on the elevations, for example a window cill, and measure to the ground from this point around the building. This will show the changes in ground level. Most of your elevations will be possible to draw from the floor plan, but pick up any features that are external only. Again, take loads more photographs.

How to measure buildings
How to measure buildings

Measuring Angles:

One method we use to measure angles of strange shaped buildings is triangulation.

How to measure buildings

The image above shows how to carry out this method. Pick a point on one wall (A) and measure to the corner. Pick a point on the second wall (B) and measure to the corner. Finally, measure the distance between the two points on the wall (C). This will give you the measurements of all three sides of the triangle. From this you can either work out the angles, or draw it up in cad more easily.

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Here are some things to make a note of or check:
  • Ceiling heights
  • Structural – beams and columns
  • Floor levels
  • Steps – changes in levels
  • Door heights
  • Chimneys
  • Window cill heights and window head heights
  • Rainwater pipes
  • Foul drainage pipes
I hope this helps you when you have to carry out your measured surveys. If anyone has any other tips to help – please comment below!
Useful links:
This is the laser measure I use, makes life much easier!


Colour pen

Tape measure

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Landscape Architecture Resources

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  1. James Jones-Hughes

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    • Great info, I agree with everything you’ve written. I would also add…

      I would personally never trust a room to be 90 deg in the corners, so triangulate every room to ensure it is within the tolerance you’ve set (based on the scale of the finished drawing & its usage).

      Always get overall dimensions of rooms, if you have missed a dimension you can often work it out from the overall dimensions.

      Always measure at a consistent height (chest height is normally good), old buildings may not have vertical walls, this evens out the measurements.

      Always take some duct tape & stiff card if going out solo, that way you can tape up a target for the laser measure when you cannot see the end of the wall with the laser.

      I always have a small pocket knife with me, to remove the odd leaf (with owners consent) if the laser cannot see where I need it to outside.

      however many photo’s you want to take, take some more! you can never have too many, try to get as many as possible square on to the building, often you can work out a missed dimension using a photo & the rest of the dimensions as a guide.

      Always try & get a photo of the whole elevation to help you work out where the other photo’s are from & try to make your photos overlap when you take them (inside & outside), this again makes them easier to locate them & helps you to catch the vital detail you didn’t know you needed to get a photo of.

      If you are taking a lot of photos that will look the same, particularly outside, consider sketching a site plan up & marking each photo with a sequential number and an arrow (40 trees or garden walls all look the same when you get back to the office!). When you get back to the office, just list out your new numbers against the ones the camera used, they should obviously list out in the same order.

      Finally, sort out your hundreds of photos into folders… outside, inside, the patio, etc. whatever works; its far quicker searching through 20 shots of the patio, rather than all the photos, and you wont have time to rename them all to logical names (but consider renaming things like the full front elevation, again to save time later).

  2. Great Advice. I am starting of drawing plans for Planning and Building Regulations applications. I am ok with measuring floor plans etc thanks to your advice, but really struggling with measuring roof heights, hip sizes, pitch of roof etc.

    Can you pass on any advice?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Mark, Thanks for your comment. Good question – roofs! Often dependent on the building. As a rule I try to get a measurement from ground to eaves (need a disto for this), and ground to underside of ridge if you can get to a gable. Another thing is counting bricks. If you can’t take a measurement to the underside of the ridge, but you can get a measurement to the eaves – you can count bricks on the gable and work out the height from there. Obviously if the building is rendered this is not an option. Another thing is making sure you are thorough with your floor to floor heights internally, and if you have loft access you can then measure the ridge height, measure rafters, and work out from there the height of the roof. I will gather a bit more information and update the post with some more details of roof measuring. Thanks again for your comment 🙂

      • Thanks. I will try to implement these tips on my next project. With regards the disto, i have been looking at these. Which would you recommend? Jobs haven’t took off yet so really cant afford the expensive ones.

  3. Sorry another question. How do you measure the thickness of the floor joists?

  4. Thanks for all your advice

  5. Hi,

    This is a great article….I’ve been trying to get the hang of measuring up houses and sketching and taking measurements its going really well but for some reason when I start to draw it in CAD the measurements never seem to line up perfectly…always 20-40mm out somewhere! I go back and double check but all seems ok. It’s very frustrating as I can’t for the life of me figure out why??

    Is it because some walls are angle slightly? If so is there a way of accurately and easily finding this out?

    Any help would be appreciated

    • Hi Tom, Thanks for getting in touch. I think you will always find there are slight discrepancies. This could partly be to do with your measuring (if using a laser you could be holding it at a slight angle sometimes which will alter the measurement etc) – or it can also be that rooms just aren’t always perfect. I find the best thing to do is to take a few extra measurements – for example, room diagonals, so that if one doesn’t seem right you can check it against another. I have come across this a few times and it depends on the type and age of the building you are measuring. I would never expect an old building to be completely square/aligned etc. Also you need to consider how important those 20mm are on the scheme of your project….? More often than not it doesn’t make a huge difference, and it will be resolved on site. Hope this helps. 🙂

      • Hi Tom and Emma,

        Another thing to take note is the wall thickness. The wall cladding and sometimes framing can change dramatically, 10mm gib, 13mm gib, 90mm framing – 120mm framing etc (NZ standards). If you’re out by 20-40mm, this can be accumulated across parallel walls and will easily throw you out if you don’t have them there to reference or re-measure. Just a thought anyway.
        Hope you find those missing measurements with ease in future measures.

  6. This is a great resource for architect’s starting out! I have one other question, though. When you measure a multi-story building, especially one with a basement, how can you check that the foundation walls are aligned with the walls of the stories above?

    • Hi Jake, thank you for your question and your comments 🙂
      Foundation walls/basement walls should generally line through with the walls above, as they are providing the support for the walls above.

      However, sometimes this may not be the case. I would suggest you find a common factor on the basement floor and the floor above – for example a lift shaft or stairwell. You will then have a constant position that you can measure from. Then you can take a measurement from this constant to an outside wall on both levels – you will then be able to check that they line through. If they do not line through, there should be some indication of this – i.e., additional structure – columns, beams and so on. So this will also help you figure out where the walls are situated in relation to the stories above. Sometimes there may be external clues, for example access stairs to the basement, or perhaps light wells. These will help you get a feel for what is going on between the ground and basement level.

      Hope this helps – any more questions don’t hesitate to ask. All the best, Emma

  7. Hi.

    Could you explain how or give an example of how to use the triangulation method of finding out an angled wall? Maybe a picture and your working outs?

    From the picture above I understand the principle but unsure how to actually use it and input it into cad.

    Any help would be appreciated.

  8. I work for a Building Surveying and Planning Consultancy Firm called A1 Planning Services Ltd. as a Construction Technician. Over the years I have completed a BTEC Level 3 NVQ in Construction and the Built Environment; a BTEC Level 4 HNC in Construction Management and Design and I am currently in my third year studying BSc (Hons) Degree in Building Surveying at UWE.

    One of my modules I am undertaking this year is “Procedures and Practice – Work Based Learning.” By the end of March 2016 I am required to produce a 2500 word project report on a chosen work-based procedure in which I have to critically review it in terms of relevant statutory requirements and professional/industry good practice. I have selected to explore and critically analyse Measured Building Surveys as it is an activity I engage with on a regular basis.

    For the report I have to include at least 5 sources of reference that will act as the basis of the critical analysis. I have just read this article and have found it most useful for my report. I am enquiring as to who has written this article so that I am able to reference it?

    Thanking you in anticipation,
    Charlotte Rea, SCIOB, SIConstM.

  9. Hi there. I found your article very useful. It is a great starting point for someone who gets into building surveying.
    I carry out measured surveys for big retailer. My problem is that they require detailed RCP with lighting fixtures , services, emergency lights etc. I find it very difficult especially with lights position. Obviously lay in grid ceilings are great because they make a process very simple, but plasterboard or high structural ceilings with plenty of spotlights are an absolute nightmare. Please can you give me some advice for accurate ceiling surveys?

    • Hi Greg, thanks for getting in touch. Agreed, reflected ceiling plans are a tough one, and to be honest I have not needed to carry out these types of surveys. I think that often these would be sub contracted out to a survey company with the specialist equipment to deal with such issues. If I was to carry out a RCP survey, I would absolutely make sure I had my disto/laser measure. This would be very useful in plotting light positions, as you can accurately place the laser below the light fitting by using the laser beam to position correctly. You can then turn the laser horizontal to find a point of reference to take a dimension. I think I would probably do this for services too. It all depends on level of detail and accuracy required – what will happen to the existing building, is your survey for renovations etc? If a highly detailed plan is required I would assume there should be room in the budget for specialist surveys to be carried out – or there has to be a degree of acceptance to tolerances with a more basic measured survey. Hope this helps a bit – all the best with your surveys. If you come across any other ways to do RCPs let me know – it would be great to hear any other ideas. Thanks, Emma

  10. This is good article. I’m a Architectural Technician, I do lot of measured surveys of residential buildings for extensions, conversions and alterations, I use a Leica Disto D510 on a tripod it has a lot of useful functions for measuring roofs.

  11. Great article – but please can you explain how you would measure the thickness of a floor ? And what are standard thicknesses of typical floors, both residential and commercial properties.

    Once in a blue moon I might have to do a site survey, and floor thicknesses are something I always wonder how the pros do !

    Thanks once again for a great article – I’ve subscribed to your site 🙂

    • Hi Jez,
      You’re welcome. Floors can be tricky – but there are a number of ways you can figure out the floor thickness. First place to look is stairs. Stairs create an opening in the floor that often means you can actually measure the floor thickness. This isn’t always the case but useful if you can use that. Another thing you can do is use the windows. If you measure window to ceiling height on the ground floor, then window cill height to floor on the floor above you get an overall distance (excluding floor thickness). You can then go outside and measure the distance between ground floor window head and first floor window cill. Subtract the first measurement you did from the external measurement and you will be left with the thickness of the floor. Tricks like that can be handy if you are struggling to find the measurements of certain areas.
      Hope that helps.
      Good luck!

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