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 University but now several years down the line and with a fair few surveys under my belt I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt with you. I know that people approach surveys in different ways, this is just the way that I do based on my experience over time. 

Tools and Equipment

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

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!

I use the Bosch which has always been good, but the Leica is another brand that is well known, but perhaps a little more pricey. Stretch to what you can afford.

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. A tape is useful for shorter dimensions over a laser which can be tricky for those tight spots. 

Clipboard

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.

Paper

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.

You can also use a hard back notepad with squared paper, this will mean you don’t have to use a clipboard and the squared paper helps with sketching our your plans. It comes down to personal preference.

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.

Camera or phone

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

Site Gear – Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Depending on the site, you may need your hard hat, high visibility jacket and site boots, make sure you check this prior to arriving on site. 

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, and understanding of the building.

Another great resource is the planning portal, the UK’s planning department system access. The planning portal gives you access to planning applications both current and completed, which in some cases include floor plans and various drawings such as site plans, elevations and so on. Any information you can find on the site relating to your building would be useful so it is worth taking a moment to do some investigations here.  

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? If you are needing to draw sections, do you know where the sections need to be taken? 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.

Health and Safety

Finally before attending site it is important to know if there is any health and safety requirement or risk assessment. It is unlikely for smaller projects but with more formal construction sites it could be a possibility. Also consider the lone working policy, are you visiting site alone, is the site unoccupied, do you need to report to the office that you have arrived and left? Make sure you check on these things before visiting the site. 

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The Survey

 

Arrival on site:

The first thing I do when I arrive on site to do a measured survey is have a look around the entire building, 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. 

Sketch out:

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.

Make sure you start by labelling your notebook or sheet of paper with the project name and either room name, section of building, floor number etc. It might seem obvious now but when you have pages of survey drawings sometimes it is difficult to figure out what is what. You may also find you are not going to be the person drawing up the survey, so making sure everything is well labelled and clearly noted will be really helpful. 

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 or prettiest 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 information (cill height, window 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.

Measure:

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, usually at about 1m high. 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.

Make a note of wall thicknesses, which will vary internally and externally.

Useful symbols:

Here are some ways of representing the survey information that I use, feel free to use and adapt to suit you. 

Measuring a room

When measuring a room, I would tend to get a couple of overall measurements of the longest walls, along with some diagonal dimensions in case the room is not square, then more detailed measurements of wall to window, window width etc. working your way around the room.

Where possible try to get an overall measurement between two rooms. Using your laser measure from one wall in one room, through the door to the wall in the adjoining room. This helps with linking the buildings rooms together.

Measuring heights

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. I usually use a different colour to show all heights, which helps when drawing up your survey back at the office. Make sure you take note of any ceiling height change, any beams or structural elements, picking up the underside height of the beams as you go. Try to note where the ceiling height changes wherever possible. 

Measuring doors and Windows

Measuring doors, I usually measure the door size, and the general outline frame details. Be mindful that the doors are likely to be the same throughout the building so you may not need to measure every door, but there can be variations. Remember to measure the height of the door and note up on the drawing.  For windows, I measure the structural opening rather than the frame. If there is something in front of a window that stops you measuring the cill height, some furniture or a kitchen worktop for example, you can measure the ceiling height and the cill to ceiling height to work out the cill height. 

How to measure stairs

Stairs need to be considered in both plan and section or height terms. In plan, we can easily measure the width of the stairs, and the tread or going of the steps. We can count the risers and make note of any landings in the stair. Depending on the complexity of the stair, sometimes it is worth sketching it out separately on a larger scale for clarity. 

Make sure you take as many measurements as possible to demonstrate the link between the two floors. When measuring the risers, ensure you take into account the nosings of the steps. Count the steps and mark on the drawing, especially when there are landings on the stair. 

For the stair height, if possible measure the height from the top of the stair to the bottom, the overall height. You can then divide the height by the number of risers which will give you the individual riser height. Additional dimensions such as ceiling heights from landings, any cill heights of windows on landings and any distinguishing features should all be noted where possible. 

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. Check weather the ground level varies around the building and find some constant that you can measure from. We sometimes use the dpc as a good constant to measure external heights from. 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 – make sure you have safe access and it is safe for you to enter the loft space. You can then get underside of ridge measurement from the top of the ceiling joists, and take measurements of the rafters etc. Treat this area in a similar way to any other room, get as many dimensions as you can safely, and take heights and dimensions of purlins and any other features worth noting. With this information you will be able to work out the approximate height of the roof, and consequently the angle.

Make sure you get some levels too, take a measurement from the finished floor level inside the loft down to the floor level below. 

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

Make sure you take photographs of the loft space too. 

How to measure for drawing up a section

You can draw up most of a section from the survey you have carried out to create floor plans. There are however, a couple of things to look out for when surveying for a section. If you know the part of the building you will be taking a section of, it is an idea to check all ceiling heights on that section line. Make sure you also have the room widths, window heights and any other measurements of elements that will be revealed in the section. 

How to measure for elevations

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. Take note of any steps, ramps, changes in level and anything that won’t have been picked up from the internal survey. Again, take loads more photographs.

Photos:

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! In some cases I would take a video of each room, which is quite useful as you can pause it to check any particular details. I sometimes find with photos, there is always one photo that you haven’t taken, and its always the one you need!

Take photos of the outside of the property from various angles and if necessary from down the street too. Depending on the reason for your survey, sometimes photos from a distance can be useful for planning, or perhaps for creating a street view visual of the proposed plans. 

Measuring Angles:

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

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.

I have also written another article about measuring angled walls – check it out here. 

Other notes:

If you come across an area that is technical or difficult to present on your drawing, I sometimes draw it at a large scale and cross reference it. This allows you to create a more detail sketch of the difficult area to refer back to.

Try to ensure your laser is as level as possible when taking measurements. If you need to take smaller measurements, it is often better to use a tape measure so make sure you have one to hand. 

Try not to rush the survey. I have been on surveys when the building is cold, dark and pretty spooky, and I wanted to get finished as quickly as possible. The problem is, by rushing it you will undoubtably miss crucial details and possibly have to return at a later date. 

Be particularly careful on site when you are working alone, especially if you are in old or unstable buildings, working in loft spaces etc. Use your judgement on what is safe to survey. 

When measuring external information, be sure to take note of site boundaries, and any neighbouring property information that might be useful. 

Checklist:

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
  • Wall thickness internally and externally
  • Chimneys
  • Window cill heights and window head heights
  • Boiler location
  • Electricity and Gas Meters
  • Rainwater pipes
  • Foul drainage pipes
  • Hazards on or near the site
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!

My favourite Tools and Resources

I have curated a list of some of the tools and resources I would strongly recommend for anyone studying or working in Architecture.