The Survey and the Digital Camera

Survey Photo of Weardale Farmhouse

Weardale Farmhouse – Photo taken during a survey by Clive Elsdon Building Design

The Survey Photo on Film

When I started surveying buildings back in the 1980’s, I was lucky to be able to take 36 photos of a whole building. Two films would have been the absolute maximum and considered extravagant… three was unheard of except on the largest of projects!

There was also always a bit of nervousness as I opened the envelope after waiting 48 hours or more to get the prints… would any turn out, be in focus etc?  If all was well, they would help me draw up the survey, if not then I may have to return to site to re-take the photos.

The Digital Age

The digital camera age has been a godsend for surveying work! Not only can you check the photos look OK as you take them, not only do you get them within minutes of returning to the office, but the cost of developing them is zero!  A second screen also allows us to view them without printing them while working on AutoCAD on the main screen, plus we can zoom in and out of the photo’s to see more detail, or a wider view at will!

Today, I have copied the 883 14meg digital photo’s we took during the survey of a Weardale Farm House & Barns only yesterday from the memory card and into the project directory on my computer. No waiting for development & printing, not even the hour or so that can be achieved in a modern photo processing lab today.

Being disciplined in the order that we take the photos, and using a numeric file name also ensures that we keep the photos in the correct order, so it’s obvious where each photo fits into the sequence.  Much better than dropping t

he pack on the floor then having to go through the negatives to check the order… or that coffee mug stain right where the detail you need is located…

Survey Equipment used by Clive Elsdon Building Design

Leica DISTO D2 Laser Measuring Device used by Clive Elsdon Building Design for Building Surveys

Leica DISTO D2 Laser Measuring Device used by Clive Elsdon Building Design for Building Surveys

Leica DISTO D2 – Laser Measuring Device

This is the Leica DISTO D2 laser measuring device we use when we are surveying buildings. It is very accurate and means that most surveys require only one person, saving the client money!  The fact that we don’t regularly use a tape measure strung across a room also means that there is less chance of accidental damage.

Traditional Measuring – Tape Measures

No matter how technical our other survey equipment may seem, there is still a place for the good old tape measure!  We tend to carry a 30m fabric tape and a 7.5m Metal Tape.  The metal tape is good for measuring short lengths, for example the

7.5 & 30m Tape Measures used by Clive Elsdon Building Design to measure buildings

7.5 & 30m Tape Measures used by Clive Elsdon Building Design to measure buildings

wall thickness at a door opening, or a very short (under 150mm) first measurement along a wall where the digital measuring device would perhaps not be as accurate. The fabric tape is normally reserved for external measurements around the building, or for diagonal internal check dimensions in buildings that are out of square.  We avoid using this type of tape inside as much as possible as the risk of damage to peoples possessions is greater than using the laser.  It also generally takes two people to measure with the 30m tape, therefore increasing the cost of the survey. Assessing how we will need to carry out a survey is one of the main reasons we prefer to view a project before submitting a fee quote.

Geolevel AL32 Automatic Level with 32x Magnification

Geolevel AL32 Automatic Level used by Clive Elsdon Building Design with 32x Magnification

 Geolevel AL32 & Staff – Level Survey

Some surveys require levels to be taken of the ground around a property.  If this is complex we will sub-contract the level survey to a specialist company who will use sophisticated computerised equipment, however, the majority of surveys we are involved with can be completed using a traditional automatic level.  This stands on a tripod which is firmly located so that it does not move.  The instrument is made perfectly level using the three screws on the base, which means that as you rotate it, it is always looking at the same height no matter how far away the target is.  Using a staff we can calculate how far a particular point is below the height of the instrument.
Staff used fwith the Automatic Level or level Surveys by Clive Elsdon Building Design

Staff used with the Automatic Level for level Surveys by Clive Elsdon Building Design

This is the staff that accompanies that level.  It is basically a giant ruler.  When you look through the level itself at the staff, the crosshairs will line through to a measurement on the staff, and the numbers can be read off.  As our level has a magnification of 32x this can be done over a long distance.  The measurements on the staff tell us how far below the height of the instrument the ground at that particular point is.  In turn this can be related back to a Bench Mark, either temporary or one who’s height is indicated on OS Maps!  In the latter case, we can determine how high above sea level each point of the ground we survey is!
Kodak Easyshare Sport 12MP Waterproof Camera

Kodak Easyshare Sport 12MP Waterproof Camera used by Clive Elsdon Building Design

Kodak Easyshare Sport 12MP Waterproof Camera – Getting the Picture?


When we carry out surveys, particularly of the outside of buildings, we make extensive use of a digital camera.  Our own camera was chosen for it’s rubustness. Being a “Sport” model it is quite tough and, an added advantage when surveying in the rain, waterproof!  Whilst it will never produce the image quality of a digital SLR camera, at 12mp it takes pictures of whole elevations which can be zoomed into in while still being able to read the detail.  This means that we can count brick and stone courses when we get back to the office (after taking some check measurements on site) saving us time during the site survey and therefore the client money.  Of course, the random stone walls we see in Weardale etc. still need accurate on-site measuring!

The Survey Board, Pencil, Pens and Method!

Survey Board Pens Pencil_used by Clive Elsdon Building Design

A3 Survey Board, Paper, Pencil & Pens used by Clive Elsdon Building Design

All the survey equipment in the world would be useless, if we did not have something to note it down on.  Here at Clive Elsdon Building Design we keep this very simple and basic by using an A3 sized clip board with sheets of A3 Paper attached!  The skill is to make sure that we can read the information we take on site back at the office!  The secret is to be methodical and have a system!  First we draw a rough plan (or elevation) showing the location of key items including windows, doors, walls etc.  We usually do this in pencil so it is easy to alter and also won’t “hide” the notes written over the top.  We then measure each wall using running dimensionsRunning dimensions mean that there is only one starting point and each dimension is taken from that point. It means that if one dimension is missed or noted down incorrectly it stands out like a sore thumb! The aim is not to miss anything though!  We write these dimensions in Pen (sometimes using alternative colours) so that they stand out and cannot easily be smudged.  Each dimension is written at right angles to the wall it relates to so that it uses up less paper space. It is always in millimetres. Centimetres, feet, inches and yards do not exist in survey terms in order to limit confusion.  Imperial measurments on Planning Drawings are a valid reason for non-validation!  Even Meters are used sparingly and usually only in terms of level surveys. We then measure heights. Door Heads and Window Sill heights are always shown in a rectangular box. Ceiling heights and beams over etc. are always shown in an oval. When we show steps or stairs, the direction of “Up” is noted, never “down” or “dn”.  Why?  Well, turn the letters “dn” upside down and we think you will agree it looks just like “up“! As we leave a room to begin the next, we take a measurment of the wall thickness. Other things are often noted on the survey, for example, on the drawing pictured we have noted the direction of the floor joists, which is at 90 degrees to the direction of the floor boards.

Contact Us

If you would like to talk to us about carrying out a survey for you, whether you are a property owner or another design consultant, please send an e-mail to as at design at cliveelsdon dot co dot uk or telephone us on 05602 722052 or 07801 255633.