Staking Out Your Territory — How To Survey And Set The Grade

One of the challenges that any builder has is to transfer what is on the plans to the physical reality of what you happen to be working on. If you’re building a birdhouse, then you have to take the written dimensions on the plan and transfer them to the wood. Remember to subtract the width of the saw kerf! (My woodworker friends will appreciate this bit of free advice.) If you’re building a structure on a piece of land, you have to transfer those dimensions to the land. This is not a trivial endeavor,  because land is not necessarily level, square, or plumb. That’s construction terminology for orthogonal axes in a cartesian coordinate system, depending on your point of reference. But I digress.

The bottom line is that you first have to establish reference points, relative to your plans, to measure and mark your material. With wood, this pretty easy because typically  the raw material has reasonably straight and square edges. With land, you are on your own. The first priority is to establish a reference point. In the world of land surveyors, this comes down from edicts issued from backroom deals made among the wealthy and powerful who claimed the land and established certain boundaries, which may or may not have had any bearing on the indigenous people who currently occupied the land. So, because the rich and famous had guns and cannons. they displaced the indigenous occupants who had no concept of land ownership, and established the boundaries that you and I obey.   Again, I digress. Maybe this is a sign of old age.

So, if you follow the legal thread, you own property, which is documented precisely in the county records. Your deed specifies the plat (the drawing) that is the official and legal record of the land that you own. That plat has specifications which detail the dimensions of your land, as well as the precise locations of the corners of your property. If you are adventurous, you can probably take the data from the  records, and locate the surveyor’s marks on your property. If you are a city dweller, then you may see them as little nails in the sidewalk.

The builder of the house will transfer the dimensions of the corners of the property to the footprint of the house. There, the builder will begin excavation, pour the foundation, and build the house. All per the plans submitted to the city (or “building official”) and approved. It is with this thread that I start my measurements. My assumption was that the house was situated correctly on the property, and since my objective was to obtain proper drainage via a proper grade away from the house, I would use the corners of the house as the reference points.

But the problem remained: how to accurately locate the level of the land when the raw material was dimensionally random. For this, I had to learn a little bit about surveying. The basic geometry is middle school math, but the application is a bit more nuanced. How do you measure a level over a long distance? How do you mark the reference and set the other marks precisely relative to this reference? Professional surveyors use high-tech tools like laser levels and differential GPS theodolites. The equipment costs thousands and rents for hundreds. Was there a DIY solution? Well, yes. There is ALWAYS a DIY solution!

The first step was to take inventory of what I had. I had a laser measuring “tape” (I bought it when I needed to take the dimensions of the “as built” house for my plans.), a tripod, and an iPad. I checked out the apps that were available for the iPad and. lo and behold, somebody had developed a theodolite app. A theodolite is an instrument which will tell you the precise azimuth, elevation, and level from a given reference point. (If you don’t understand this terminology and how to convert polar coordinates into cartesian coordinates, then maybe surveying isn’t your thing.) The theodolite app was the ticket. All I had to do was to build a “surveyor stick”.

To explain: Surveyors need to measure changes in elevation over long distances. To do this, they set their measuring device (transit, theodolite) over a designated reference point, and then focus on a “stick” that is held by an assistant at the point they want to measure. That stick is essentially a ruler, which if the transit/theodolite is level, will measure the vertical distance between the observer and the stick.  If you combine this information with the azimuth (i.e., the angle from true North), you will have an EXACT location of that point on the earth. So, I needed a surveyor stick that was self-supporting because I couldn’t assume that I would have an assistant. I designed one, and the plans are here.SURVEYOR’S STICK. Once I was able to measure the difference in elevation, all I needed to do was to establish the grade, i.e., the slope, to allow the proper drainage. The slope is 2% away from the house, and 1% from front to back. So using my handy-dandy laser rangefinder, I simply multiplied my measured distance by the % slope to get the final elevation at the measured point.

All I had to do now was to research a bit of jargon with respect to grading and how to actually mark the property. The first thing I learned was that surveyors will mark the land using squat little stakes called “hubs” which are pounded level into the ground where you’re making your measurement. The vertical distance of the hubs are then measured between the hub and the reference (theodolite). You then take that difference and compare that to the plan. If the measured vertical distance is greater than the required distance, you need to fill (raise) the level of the land at that point. If it is less, then you need to cut (lower) the level. If you do this at several points, you can establish the contour (grade) that the plans specify. So at each hub, I would put a grade stake, with a mark that indicated a cut “C” or a fill “F” of a given dimension. Professional surveyors use 1/100 of a ft., but since my measuring devices were calibrated in inches, I used that standard. Whatever works.

The cool thing about all of this was that after all of the staking, I began to see the real outline of the plan manifested on my actual property. It was, perhaps, a turning point in the project because it represented a change in direction from demolition to construction. In my mind’s eye, I now have a glimpse of how the finished product will look like.

Here are some pictures:

Grade Stakes. Don't you like the colors?

Grade Stakes. Don’t you like the colors?

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!


Demolition, Excavation, and Skid Steers

Now that I had the brush cleared and a dumpster to put my detritus, it was time to start demolition in earnest. The first step was to get rid of my retaining wall, sidewalks, and driveway apron made of cobblestones.

Basically any hardscape besides the driveway proper was going to go. In a blinding flash of naivete, I went ahead and rented a breaker (a.k.a jackhammer) and had the notion that I would be able to take care of this trifling demolition effort in a mere afternoon. 2 days later, I had barely made progress on that damned retaining wall, and it wasn’t looking good for the completion of the demo that weekend. I had to lift that heavy jackhammer and get it into all sorts of crazy positions in order to get proper purchase on the wall, and even then, it took forever to bust up the concrete — especially the foundation. So, I stopped the foolishness with the retaining wall and focused my remaining efforts in breaking up the sidewalk on the side of the house so I at least accomplished something during the weekend. I went back inside, cleaned up,  and nursed a beer while I licked my wounds and began plotting plan “B”.

The problem that I had was that I needed bigger tools and more power, preferably something that I didn’t have to lift and lug around. Fortunately, I rented a mini “skid steer” for use during the Columbus day holiday weekend, and I was initally planning to use the skid-steer to do excavation and grading. But these little beasties have all manner of attachments, and all I needed to do was to rent the companion breaker attachment. So, for a mere $700 extra (it was $800 for the skid-steer), I would be in business. Now, I just had to do some replanning and figure out how to operate the damned thing.

First, a little background on what a skid steer is. These are smaller versions of a standard power shovel, with a bucket on arms that can be used to scrape, scoop, push, pick up, and dump stuff. It has a small diesel engine that powers a hydraulic pump, and it has 4 wheels which are powered by hydraulic motors. These motors are controlled by handles on either side of the operator such that when you push both forward, the machine goes forward, and when you pull them both back, the machine goes back. And when you push one forward and the other back, the machine skids and spins around and does donuts. Hence “skid-steer”. The best thing about these little guys is, well, they’re little. Perhaps compact is a better work. They weigh about a ton and a half, but they’re only 36″ wide, which means they can fit into your living room through your front door. Not that you’d want to excavate your living room, but I’ve seen videos of folks driving them into garages and using them to bust up garage slabs. Which is where I got the idea to rent the breaker attachment to help me finish the demo work. Here are some pictures:

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The day came when the rental company delivered the skid steer and attachments (hydraulic breaker and two buckets). I had downloaded and printed a copy of the operator’s manual, studied it, and watched some videos on operating it. With my hard had and safety glasses, I nervously strapped myself in the seat, checked everything out, and fired it up. After a few tentative moves, I found that it was very intuitive to operate, so I set the bucket down and disconnected it from the arms so I could mount the breaker attachment. Bad move. I went over some uneven ground and got stuck. Turns out that you need the weight of the bucket , or attachment, to balance things out. So the lesson is that you put all of your attachments in one place next to each other on level ground and make your changeouts there. I put on the breaker attachment, and then went to town on the front sidewalk. Awesome! That thing broke apart fairly quickly, and using the machine to pull out deeply buried chunks of concrete with the breaker was a real labor saver.

One of the conundrums I had to overcome was getting the little guy in the back yard. There was not enough clearance on the sides of the house (yep, less than 3′), but fortunately there is a common walkway on one side of the property, and there are gaps in the masonry wall that borders that walkway, covered with wood fencing. So all I had to do was remove the chunk of fence and I was in business, right?  Well… not so fast! The walkway is about 20″ higher than the level of the ground in my back yard. So I had to build a ramp. The first version looked pretty sturdy, but literally broke apart after a few uses. I had to build another one, at a critical time while I was still paying for use of the skid steer (that $1500 clock was ticking), and it was better lasting a whole day, but in the end, it didn’t cut it either. Plus it was too steep, so I was on the edge of doing wheelies going up with 1.5 tons of machine and another half ton of load. Not cool. Especially when I slipped off once, had to back up, and ended up bashing a support column on my porch cover. Ahh… the joys of DIY! At least I had to replace that column for other reasons, so NBD. I’m trying a new scheme  for next time which involves railroad ties. I figure if it can support a locomotive, it can support a measly skid steer!

Here are some pics of the failed ramp(s) and the broken post:


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In the end, I moved 2 loads of concrete and rocks (about 25 yards) and loaded up another 15 yard dumpster with excess earth. I still have some grading to do, so there will be more earth removal. And my grading skills suck. But I relish the chance to improve for next time, and I’m carefully studying YouTube videos as part of my heavy equipment apprenticeship program. Nonetheless,  one typically learns by doing. Either that, or I’m going to have a really bumpy landscape!


More pics:

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Some Thoughts About Having A Truck

This past weekend I needed a 4×8 sheet of plywood, and because I have a Prius instead of a truck, I had to do the good old Home Depot truck rental. Not really a bad deal, but I paid $12.00 for the material and $20.00 to rent the truck. On the surface, that may seem like a waste of money to pay more for “shipping” than for the actual product, but in the long term, owning a truck costs a lot more. My wife and I discussed this early on because I figure with a remodeling project, it sure could be handy having a truck whenever you need it. Plus it seemed like it would be a nice toy. But the numbers prove otherwise. Here is the run-down:

$10,000 for a used truck in reasonable condition (i.e., I’m not going to buy a $6,000 truck and have to put $4,000 worth of repairs into it).

$1,000 for insurance and registration ($500 per year for the two years of the remodeling project).

$2,500 for gas (5000 miles per year / 15 miles per gallon x $4.00 per gallon times two years).

$500 for maintenance

Total: $14,000

-$8,000 when I sell the truck after two years

$6,000 total ownership cost.

For $6,000 I can rent the Home Depot truck 300 times! That’s like every other day. I figure the max I’ll ever use that rental truck will be once a month, so $20.00 x 24 months = $480. That means I save $5,500 if I just rent the darned truck. That’s my new A/C system right there! (Or at least a good down payment on it.)

That being said, there are always a few complications such as somebody else has the truck when you need it. However, this is easily overcome by some planning and shopping strategy. Most DIYs get their stuff on Saturdays and Sundays, so try to avoid those times, and if you do need the truck, get there when the place opens and reserve it right away. Then do your shopping and get in and out.

Hey, trucks are cool.  Nothing wrong with having a truck if that’s what you like to drive. But unless you’re going to a jobsite every day and really using it, it just isn’t economical for a DIYer, so don’t kid yourself that you’re saving any money. It’s much less expensive, and more convenient, to have the suppliers deliver to the jobsite and on those rare occasions when you need to, just rent a truck for the specific need. Even if it is only $12.00 worth of materials. (OK, just this one time.) Besides, my Prius can hold a lot when it comes down to it. Just not 4×8 sheets of plywood!