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Plan of attack

At Burse Surveying and Engineering, it’s all about making a point.

Brett Karns particularly enjoys property and boundary surveying. “Sometimes you have to trek a half-mile into the woods to get measurements.”

Brett Karns particularly enjoys property and boundary surveying. “Sometimes you have to trek a half-mile into the woods to get measurements.”

Photographs by Eric Tadsen

(page 1 of 2)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Autumn Ridge, a new 20-plus-acre subdivision being carved into the landscape on Elderberry Road in far west Madison, currently looks like a moonscape. In between mountains of dirt, bulldozers shift the terrain and move utility pipes into place. Most trees, if they existed, have been removed, hills have been both flattened and relocated to ensure proper water drainage, and fire hydrants have been placed where single-family homes will soon be built.

The dawn of a subdivision

It’s 8:30 a.m. and professional land surveyors Brett Karns and Stacy Dodge of Burse Surveying and Engineering arrive at the site. It’s already their second survey of the day, which is fairly typical for the seven-employee company that tackles about 130 projects each year.

In general, land surveyors help determine placement of roads, pipelines, structures (e.g., fire hydrants), fence lines, and property boundaries. Land surveying has existed since the 1800s and helps create maps of the Earth’s surface. Today, Karns and Dodge will be staking out Autumn Ridge’s underground storm sewers.

“We mark all of the points where there will be storm structures and piping so the construction crews don’t have to do a lot of figuring on their own. They can just go out there, dig to the depth we tell them to, and put the pipe in. It’s easier than having them figure it out,” Karns notes.

Despite its unfinished appearance, work has been progressing on this site for about two years. Surveyors typically get involved early, researching the location of section corners or other control points that have been marked in previous surveys (section corners could be an aluminum marker or rebar). Surveyors measure distances and angles relative to those previously measured points.

“We use those section corners to zone in on exactly where to locate the property, and we check to see if the property was ever surveyed,” Karns explains.

Earlier, they also created a topographic map of the land to determine the existing contour lines, and noting trees, waterways, or roads. The maps and measurements they create allow engineers to design and improve the development, with special attention given to water runoff.

Wooden stakes communicate specific information for construction crews on site. The project’s exterior boundaries and sanitary sewer have already been staked. Sanitary sewers are always buried the deepest, usually between six and 10 feet underground. Water pipes will follow and be buried about six feet under the surface, followed by the storm sewer. “On this project, the storm sewer is closer to the surface because the water will flow into retention ponds,” Karns says.

Survey bug

Surveying occurs year-round in any kind of weather, but lightning stops everything. Despite some hassles involved with chipping ice and snow away in winter, Karns, 43, says being outside is the best part of his job.

He was in high school when he first caught the surveying bug after assisting his land-surveyor father. He then studied construction management at UW–Stout, and spent a few years in that field before serving a year in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Reserves. Not long after returning from his tour of duty, the economy began to tank. He worked for Foth for a couple of years until the economy forced layoffs in 2008. After starting his own surveying company and working on some federal projects, he joined Burse last April.

Earning a professional surveyor’s license takes perseverance, Karns says. “It’s not like just going out and getting a driver’s license. I had field experience but still needed college credits, which I got at Madison College. Then I took about 12 hours of exams and needed three to four reference letters from licensed surveyors who knew me. Then, a board decides if you’re ready to be a surveyor or not.”

Using elements of algebra, calculus, geometry, and trigonometry, a surveyor’s precise calculations and measurements ensure that land, property lines, underlying utilities, and curb and gutter are properly located. Contractors and engineers rely on those measurements to plan and place everything above and below ground.

For that reason, continuing education is also an important element of survey work.


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