Field Measuring Kit

Last week I got to leave the office for a bit and go “field measuring”. For those who don’t know, field measuring is what architects do when all or part of an existing building is going to be re-used for a project, such as an addition, a deck, or a bathroom remodel. Come to think of it, I don’t know why it’s not just called “measuring”, being as how “office measuring” would be pretty useless after the first time. Maybe it was because this was the first time I had been field measuring since my previous job (27 short months ago), and only my third time out of my office in that time, which was making me a little stir crazy. Or maybe it was nostalgia for the good old days when I did more field measuring. I did get to know my fiance on a field measuring trip, after all. Whatever my motivations, I was pretty enthusiastic. There is a certain finesse to field measuring that I hope to fill you in on today. It’s not as easy as just pulling a tape measure and writing things down. Architects hopefully know this already, so this post is mostly going to be directed at a Hypothetical Curious Homeowner (HCH) who speaks their hypothetical questions in italics, like this: “if you were a better writer, would you still need a gimmick to progress the narrative?” I already don’t like your attitude, HCH.

First, make sure you have the essentials:

Blank Paper
Pens (at least 2 colors)
Tape Measure

The first three essentials should be pretty obvious. You definitely want a camera, too, and take pictures of everything. Then take pictures of everything else. Then be prepared to kick yourself later for not having the one picture that you really need. The following are optional but recommended:

Original architectural plans

Clipboards are nice so you don’t have to hope for flat surfaces or write on the wall all the time. A laser that takes measurements is super convenient, and they aren’t that expensive anymore. However, it’s not a substitute for a tape measure. For example, you can’t measure the outside of a house with a laser alone unless you have a helper, because a laser needs to bounce off something and it can’t bounce off an outside corner. And finally, the original architectural plans are great because not only will they save you time in not having to draw out every room, but they provide valuable clues. For example, is that pier there so that the casework has something to die into? Or is it there to hide the plumbing coming down from the second floor? This is going to be a dealbreaker down the road, and the original plans should help you make your best guess without having to open up the wall.

“If I already have the architectural plans, then why would I waste time field measuring?” Fun fact: nothing has ever been built the way it was drawn. This is not exaggeration for a laugh, it is an absolute fact. This is also why I always use noncommittal language when describing existing conditions (such as “help you make your best guess”), because no matter how many years you’ve been an architect, you can always be surprised by the “creativity” of whoever built it before. You could also call it “novelty”, “stupidity”, “drunkenness”, and any number of more colorful phrases I can’t type because I email my mother with these fingers. Just kidding, I never email my mother.

“Why do I need to measure my own house when I live there, I can get whatever measurements I want whenever I want?” Well, HCH, picture this: you’re looking at a dresser you found on Craigslist. It’s 32″ wide and it needs to fit between the windows in your bedroom. Are your windows 36″ apart, or just 30″? Whatever you’re thinking, the correct answer is the opposite; you’re going to be kicking yourself for not buying your dream dresser, or re-craigslisting a dresser you can’t use.

Now you need to determine the area you need to measure. For big projects, get as much as you can and then plan for a follow-up visit to get whatever it is that you missed. This will keep you efficient while you’re there. For small projects (a bathroom remodel, for instance) get everything you think you need and more. It sucks to have to make another trip just because you forgot to get the height of a lightswitch the first time around. Also, try think of other things you might want to know. Does your exhaust fan go straight up, or out through the side of the house? How big is your water heater? Is there room on the electrical panel for another circuit in case you decide you want electric heat in the floor? This is all good information to have, even if you only use it to rule something out.

You’re going to need to sketch out the room if you don’t have the plans already. If you’re doing more than one room, don’t put too many on the same page. In fact, it may sound counter-intuitive, but your drawing should be small, taking up maybe half of the page. And don’t worry about drawing things to scale or showing accurate proportions. In fact, it’s probably best if your drawings are a little bit out of scale. This gives you the liberty to show small things as bigger than they actually are, which makes it easier to fit dimension lines and numbers in later. Now, take a look at my sketch before I started writing down measurements:


“That looks like a bunch of wasted space.” It does, but it isn’t. You’re going to be writing down a ton of numbers on this page, numbers that you’re going to have to decipher later when you want to read it. Just look at the after shot of the same drawing:


Drawing small allows you to “pull dimensions out” of the drawing, which means you don’t have to cross the dimension strings. You remember from Ghostbusters, crossing streams is bad news. This is also why you’re going to want a bunch of different colors of pens to work with. Not only will your drawing be prettier, but it allows you to code information by color. For instance, all your measurements to things overhead could be recorded in green, while all the information about changes in floor finishes can be in purple. You’re going to look at this later and wonder what some of the dimensions are actually dimensioning to, so this will help you keep things straight.

Congratulations, you now know more than you ever needed to about field measuring, a skill useful to nobody but architects. I went on longer than I wanted to, probably because I like field measuring so much. I think what I like best about it is that it’s like the practice of architecture in miniature. You need to create a drawing that communicates something to other people, that needs to be done efficiently and accurately, and in order to do it well you need to think far in advance. Also, it’s ultimately futile, because you’ll never think of everything and there will always be some surprise down the road that will ruin your plans. “You’re too young to be so cynical about your profession.” HCH, are you my mom? Are you bitter about the email thing?

Lastly, if for whatever perverse reason you want to learn more about measuring there is (coincidentally) a workshop at the Landmarks Preservation Resource Center on July 16th from 6:30-7:30. If you can’t make that workshop, you should check out their website anyway. They have a bunch of interesting workshops coming up. “Are all of them at least as useful and riveting as this blog post?” Yes!

6 thoughts on “Field Measuring Kit

    • I’ve seen this! I wanted to try it so bad, but I have an Android tablet and $0. I’ve been telling myself it probably sucks so I don’t get too sad.


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