Plan of attack

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

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.



High stakes

Karns unloads field tools from his vehicle, including an expandable prism pole with a prism at the top, a total station robotic device, a hand-held data collector/computer, which communicates with the robot, and a notebook.

“All surveying is based on (one-mile) section corners that were determined years ago. We measure off that, which gives us a system to work off of our points,” Karns explains.

He carefully anchors the total station (robot) to a tripod at the edge of the worksite. Using line of sight, the robot will track the prism’s movement to measure distances and elevation from point to point. Operated by remote control, the robot also eliminates the need for a second surveyor on certain jobs.

Hoisting the prism pole over his shoulder, Karns treks into the field. Dodge follows, carrying a supply of wooden stakes. As they move, the robotic device moves left and right, eerily tracking their every move.

“We don’t like to shoot [i.e., take measurements] much more than 1,000 feet away from the robot because of the laser,” Karns explains. “Gravity will bend it with the curvature of the earth and affect the measurements.”

The hand-held data collector analyzes point placement and, together with the robot, leads Karns to a specific x-and-y coordinate from where he will continue surveying. The screen directs him to move left, eight-tenths (almost a foot) to locate a precise point. “I try to get within .010 or less,” he says, “because then you’re right on target.”

Dodge marks existing control points in the field with 12-inch wooden “hubs” she pounds into the ground. Karns places the tip of the prism pole on each hub and shoots back to the robot to record a precise measurement. Dodge then pounds a 3-foot-long wooden stake into the ground marking the hub’s position. The stake, or lath, is tied with a colored ribbon, which might be green to indicate a storm or sanitary sewer, or blue for water.

“Unfortunately, on a site like this we can’t guarantee that these stakes will remain where we put them,” Karns admits. “A bulldozer could knock them all down when I leave. They try not to do that because then we have to reset things, and we don’t do that for free.”

Because they are marking the placement of storm sewer pipe, the duo moves along a straight line, placing hubs and laths every 25 feet. “We’re telling them how deep the pipes need to be put in and at what direction they need to go, giving them elevation so the liquids inside the pipes flow the right way,” Karns explains. Meanwhile, Dodge handwrites details on each lath to communicate with others in the field. They will also measure and mark distances to and from structures, such as fire hydrants, ponds, or tree lines.

Measurements are noted in pencil in a field book Karns keeps with him at all times. Field books are like diaries, providing a written record of all points and notes, since surveyors are often called in as professional witnesses in legal disputes.

“By law, we cannot erase these books, so if you make an error, you have to draw a line through it and write your correction above or below it,” Karns says. Human errors do occur, and can result in all points being remarked. “That can make this book look really ugly, really fast,” he says.

The Autumn Ridge project has filled three field books already, and Karns is working on a fourth. He predicts it may take another six to 10 months before the project is “substantially complete” from his standpoint, meaning streets, sidewalks, and curb and gutters are installed and the project more closely resembles a subdivision.

Karns says survey processes are basically the same regardless of the size of a project, even if determining a residential fence or lot line. “People don’t understand all the research that goes into it. We might only be in the field for an hour or two, but there might be 12 or 15 hours of research and paperwork we have to do to make sure a point is where it should be.”

Go to to watch an exclusive video of the surveying process.

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