field measuring :: but I never measured a field

Field Measuring (FM)
Measure ups
Existing Conditions Documents (ECD’s)
Surveys / Building Surveys
<insert your own>

One of the things architects must do on a regular basis is develop accurate drawings of existing buildings. I surmise most architects likely spend most of their time with existing buildings rather than new construction. I do. Therefore, this is a common and necessary occurrence at the beginning of every project.

Simply put, it means that architectural staff must visit the building in question, take hundreds of accurate measurements (and photographs…lots of photographs), and develop documents (and digital models) that reflect the existing conditions for both analysis and as a background to develop the design and documentation.

Why are you yawning?


My interest isn’t to give a how to, but to elucidate a few of the basics to expect, note why this service is important and describe what one learns in the process that can yield benefits beyond the limits of this task.

This is a critical skill to learn as a young professional and to learn to do well.

Despite the slick means some use with laser scanners and automated computer devices to do this, my focus is on the old, tried and true method with a clipboard, tape measure and writing instruments…oh and the most important tools – eyes, hands and brains.

Toughness – This isn’t a prerequisite officially, but I was inducted into this club during my first summer working for an architect. This process is often dirty, a bit dangerous and takes tenacity to complete all required dimensions. It occasionally requires stupidity to dangle out of windows or on top of roofs to capture that one measurement needed to complete a string of measurements. I never advocated taking risks – I’ll deny it.


Accuracy – Despite many methods of doing this today with technology, I believe there is a skill one must have in order to do this well – a knack or insistence for accuracy. Accuracy is important especially when there is a greater degree of renovations planned. Our documents get quite detailed and assumptions will be made based on the information “in the computer.” I generally work to 1/4” increments for most dimensions. That’s accurate enough for most things unless one is trying to land a ship on another planet.


Quick representation – Regardless of the size of the building one must either create a sketch from scratch or use of a reasonable drawing from the past in order to place dimensions on while working on site. Yes, some digital methods are available to do this directly, but with complex, old buildings like the ones in my practice, there is no easier way than to do things manually.
~Being adept at quickly representing anything is critical to architects.


Compare real with abstract – The first thing that I do is walk through the site and confirm that the plan drawing or diagram I have is accurate. I ask does it represent the building close enough to include clear measurements? When I sketch it, I am careful to sketch conditions proportionately accurate as well as include the correct walls, doors and windows. Drawings are abstractions – I call them illusions.
~We must be skilled at making comparisons between what is real and what is not. Drawings have to be communicative of real conditions.

Screenshot 2016-03-13 20.15.23

Establish order – The next thing I begin to do is establish the overall dimensions of the building. This ultimately depends on the size of the building for how one might do this. For a very large building it is unlikely one will get a tape measure on one corner and stretch it to the other. I do use a laser rule for interiors and find I can work quickly and accurately with it. Once I can confirm the overall dimensions, all of the incremental dimensions must work to fit within the overalls. When they don’t, adjustments are made to fit the overall dimensions. This takes discernment to decide where a measured component can be adjusted to fit.
~This type of decision making is crucial when there are so many decisions and bits of information to process when designing buildings.


Meticulous knowledge of existing conditions – I was taught and continued to teach others to “bring the building back” to the office with the data taken from being on site. Photographs are crucial to this. Nevertheless, it’s more than drawing an accurate floor plan, but a keen understanding of the building’s orientation, construction and any other feature that can inform the design. The scope of work that is needed or confirmed with the client is integrally connected to how observant we are while working through this process.
~Paying attention, forensic skills, and just being a good detective can’t be over-stressed as necessary elements to our profession.


  • Do you own an existing building with plans to renovate? Hire an architect who will perform these (pre-design) services to develop far more than a paper document, but a working knowledge of your building. Pay them well for it.
  • Are you still in school or a recent graduate in architecture? Learn to do this skill – and do it well. Appreciate it for what it is and why it’s important. These skills will serve you well when you’re back in the office.
  • Are you a sole-practitioner like me or part of a small firm? Suck it up, because there’s no one else to do this. Even when I hire contract help to establish the basics, it’s still up to me to spend time on site and “know” the existing conditions. Without that knowledge, we can’t even begin.

I just need to avoid situations like 2015 where I spent many days in July and many days in December measuring. I melted and I froze. The dangerous parts remain my secret.


field measuring :: but I never measured a field

15 thoughts on “field measuring :: but I never measured a field

  1. Rob says:

    You barely mentioned one of my most important tools: photos. I photograph everything. You can never have too many photos. You will always miss a few measurements, but you can usually figure it out by interpreting a module in a photo: brick, block, ceiling tile, door, etc.

    1. I made a few minor edits to add more emphasis to the photographs, but the point of the article is to explore the skills used for this portion of our job are actually quite necessary for other or all parts of our job.

  2. When I do my field measurements my tools include a clip board and graph paper, pencils with erasers, laser measuring device, a good old tape measure, a camera, a rolling wheel measuring device for long outdoor measuring, and a flashlight. Every important room is not well lit.

    1. Then I suppose a critical skill to learn is knowing what to bring because of past wisdom derived from being in dark spaces. This past summer I measured an entire 4,000 SF basement with ONLY a flashlight. After about an hour I was getting creeped out.

  3. ted rusnak says:

    Does it make me less of an Architect if I really enjoy doing the field measurements? Field tools? I carry two of the critical items.

  4. ted rusnak says:

    Query. How often have you found “secret” spaces? A wall that turns out to be 18inches deep, an actual, unknown to the family, room with children’s toys, antique tools, a false floor with enough Confederate equipment and clothing to put a full company in the field, love old barns. Doing a number of historic homes has been quite entertaining. ciao

    1. I’ve never found “secret” places as you describe. I’ve often found thicker walls than expected or conditions that were quite different upon initial observation. Working through the drawings unraveled relationships that we not initially apparent. It can be fun, but I’m often so busy that to stop and spend days doing field measuring gets old. It’s nice to have someone else do the bulk of it, but my intimacy with the building is so much greater when I do it.

  5. I think it is important for clients to know that, while this is necessary for renovation work, this is an additional service and the architect has to be compensated adequately for it. In some locales there are services which will field measure and produce as-built documents. I am wondering if anyone has used these? Or, more importantly, are they reliable?

  6. Ginger says:

    I am working on a large office building that currently has no plans so I see a lot of my time soon going to field measurements. How much time does it typically take for field measurements for a building that is 5500 sq ft for the main floor and 4000 sq ft on floors 2-5. I don’t have experience with this much field measurements. Thanks! Great article

  7. Joseph says:

    That’s a tough one to gauge. Take into account how many individual offices, utility rooms, toilets, etc., there are. Are you also needing to do existing reflective ceiling plans to use in your renovation drawings? If you haven’t done it before, you have to guess how long you may need to take. Half a day, a full day? Some times I even come back to confirm what I measured before and drew up. You could easily have some areas that don’t make sense. They only be cleared up with another visit, or two. What would you be comfortable with, time wise, is what you need to go with.

  8. Well put Lee. As painstaking as it is sometimes, you can never get to much data on existing buildings. In fact a couple of site visits work best for me just to double check.

Please leave a reply, and consider sharing this with a friend.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.